Talmudic Transgressions

Engaging the Work of Daniel Boyarin

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Charlotte E. Fonrobert, Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Aharon Shemesh, Moulie Vidas
  • Leiden: 
    , June
     584 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Talmudic Transgressions: Engaging the Work of Daniel Boyarin, edited by Charlotte E. Fonrobert, Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Aharon Shemesh, Moulie Vidas, and James Redfield, honors Daniel Boyarin, described in a tribute essay by Froma Zeitlin as an “improbably brilliant, fearless intellectual maverick, wildly erudite, insatiably curious and enviably prolific.” Born out of a 2014 conference dedicated to Boyarin’s work, Talmudic Transgressions is structured according to Boyarin’s chief areas of interest: midrash, problematic rabbinic texts and ideas, the body, and the boundaries between Judaism and Christianity, Athens and Jerusalem, homeland and diaspora.

On midrash, Azzan Yadin-Israel’s essay notes how Boyarin’s application of literary theory to rabbinic midrash changed the nature of midrash scholarship. Yadin-Israel then imitates the master, bringing together modern debates about authorial intent with midrashic sources. In “A Place of Torah,” Vidas notes that not only do the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds create a “diasporic subject” that is of both places and neither, but that such dislocations are present within the Palestinian Talmud itself, with different localities within the Land of Israel already possessing different “Torahs” defined by libraries, texts, and teachers. Sergey Dolgopolski injects Boyarin into the philosophical debate between skeptic/dogmatist that was given full modern form in Immanuel Kant: the skeptic rejects dogma, but the dogmatist points out that such skepticism is itself dogma. Dolgopolski—building on Boyarin—focuses on Talmudic and midrashic topics including irony, uncertainty, and memory. The result is an almost Rortian approach to Talmudic ethics and politics. 

On Talmud, Shemesh issues a Boyarinesque challenge to the widespread understanding that the Tannaim saw the Nazirite vow as a form of asceticism. Christine Hayes takes up the well-known utterance that “the Torah was not given to ministering angels,” and questions the prevalent understanding of it as meaning that the Torah is meant for imperfect people. Actually, Hayes shows that, in early Talmudic periods, human beings weremeant to aspire to be angels. Many texts—in Qumran literature, Philo, and Paul—see human beings as existing in a continuum with angels. “The Torah was not given to ministering angels” does not comfort those unable to live up to it; on the contrary, it castigates them. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer reads problematic texts about infertility through the lens of contemporary legal-academic thinking on the contrast between the law as object and the law as resulting from the actions of legal subjects. Similar to Hayes, Lena Salaymeh and Zvi Septimus begin with another well-known text (perhaps infamously so), this time examining the apparently jubilant cries of two rabbis seeking “wives” for a single night. Salaymeh and Septimus argue that its central preoccupation is, of all things, the prevention of masturbation. They pursue the development of this problematic text through subsequent Jewish textual history.

A cluster of essays under the heading “Carnal Israels” address different sites of contention around the human body. Galit Hasan-Rokem and Israel Jacob Yuval discuss miraculous birth, reading together a midrash in Leviticus Rabbi, the famous Platonic androgyne midrash in Genesis Rabba, Origen, and discussions of the Virgin Birth. Julia Watts Belser, jumping off from Boyarin’s presentation of rabbinic sinners in Socrates and the Fat Rabbis (University of Chicago Press, 2009), explores how Talmudic tricksters are often sexual/gender transgressors whose presence critiques both Roman and rabbinic patriarchies. Applying queer and feminist theoretical critiques to Boyarin’s thesis, Belser notices that female tricksters are viewed as dangerous, whereas male ones are seen as playful. Elliot Wolfson apotheosizes Boyarin’s neologism Jewissance—originally a rebuttal to Sigmund Freud—to describe, in Lacanian and post-Lacanian terms, the primordial self-pleasure of the Ein Sof prior to emanation, revisiting his longstanding critique of Kabbalistic phallocentrism. Shamma Boyarin, Daniel Boyarin’s son, revisits the scandalous Toldot Ben Sira, with its parodic virgin birth following the ejaculation of the prophet Jeremiah in a bathhouse—a playfully ironic choice, given that text’s rather unconventional depiction of patrimony!

Boyarin’s work on Paul and the Jewish-Christian (non-)divide is the focus of the third section of Talmudic Transgressions. Erich Gruen argues that Paul saw Jewishness as a moral-philosophical identity, not an ethnic one. Rosen-Zvi and Adi Ophir respond to some of Boyarin’s critics among Pauline scholars, who accused him of ascribing too much universalism to Paul. Jonathan Boyarin engages the “persistent anxiety” of Jewish genealogy, kinship, and geography as reflected in Talmudic text, while also ruminating about what a rabbinic anthropology might look like. Also, Eliyahu Stern brings to light an unpublished 19th century work of Jewish apologetics which depicted Paul, not quite as a “Radical Jew” but, in fact, as an almost conservative one.

In the book’s next section, Virginia Burrus builds on Boyarin’s analysis of Platonic and Talmudic dialogue, interjecting an obscure 5th century Christian hagiography written, in large part, as a dialogue. Simon Goldhill muses on whether Martin Luther would approve or disapprove of Boyarin’s Lucian-like humor and satire in the face of the Talmud’s nomos-building project. Zvi Septimus finds something new to say about Boyarin’s idee fixe, the “fat rabbis” story in BT Baba Metsia 84, which Septimus uses as a lens to refract multiple stages in Boyarin’s own career, and to apply rigorous textual analysis to, once again, the size of Rav Papa’s penis. 

On themes of homeland and diaspora, Elchanan Reiter discusses the importance of Hatsor in 5th century midrash, Biblical, and Hasmonean texts. Fonrobert engages with Boyarin’s wrestling with boundaries and borders, linking contemporary theorization of borders and public space with Eruvin’s demarcation of bounded public and private spaces. And Dina Stein engages with Boyarin’s recent work proposing a diaspora consciousness within the Babylonian Talmud, following, of all things, stories of wandering goats—if not the wandering goats themselves.

Most of the essays in Talmudic Transgressions, and of course James Alan Redfield’s concluding “Bio-Bibliography,”include warm personal descriptions and anecdotes of Boyarin. Perhaps the volume’s greatest success is that, in addition to his breadth, erudition, and daring, it has preserved some of Daniel’s unique charm as well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jay Michaelson is affiliated assistant professor of religious studies at Chicago Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Moulie Vidas is assistant professor of Religion at Princeton University. His publications include Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud (Princeton University Press, 2014). 

Ishay Rosen-Zvi is professor of Talmud at Tel-Aviv University. His publications include Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the problem of Evil in Late Antiquity (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).  

Aharon Shemesh is professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University. He has published widely on the development of Jewish law in antiquity, including the book Halakhah in the Making: The Development of Jewish Law from Qumran to the Rabbis (University of California Press, 2009).

Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert is associate professor of religious studies at Stanford University. Her publications include Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender (Stanford University Press, 2000).


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