Commentary Magazine


A Radical Jew, by Daniel Boyarin

The Circumcised Heart

A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity.
by Daniel Boyarin.
University of California Press. 366 pp. $35.00.

A Radical Jew is billed as an encounter, on the part of “a practicing Jew, Talmudist, [and] cultural critic,” with “some of the most remarkable texts of Western literature, the Letters of Paul.” Daniel Boyarin, a professor at Berkeley, here attempts not only to explain the conversion of the leading apostle of the early Christian community but to show how the struggles of this erstwhile Jew of the 1st century have much to teach us about our own contemporary quandaries.

The key to Paul’s thought, Boyarin writes, is to be found in an early baptismal formula cited in his Letter to the Galatians (3:28). It reads: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

From this citation, Boyarin concludes that Paul was deeply troubled by the fact that in the Jewish world as he knew it, all such distinctions, particularly the first, were of paramount significance. Paul’s conversion to Christianity, in this reading, was an expression of distress at the “exclusivist” and “ethnocentric” tendencies of 1st-century Judaism. How can it be, Paul asked himself, that a God who created the entire world could make ethnic distinctions, and show greater concern for one people than for others?

According to Boyarin, this dissatisfaction with Jewish ethnocentrism led Paul to adopt certain strategies to allegorize Israel and the laws that made Israel distinctive. Thus, for the new Paul, God’s love would not be directed to Israel “in the flesh” but to “Israel of the spirit”; the demands made of humanity would include circumcision not of the penis but of the heart; and so on. In this way, Paul could retain his allegiance to the word of God as it was revealed in Scripture and still develop a philosophy in keeping with Hellenistic thought, with its emphasis on universals.

Boyarin next proceeds to show how (some of) the rest of the corpus of letters written by Paul can be illuminated by his insight. In particular, he credits Paul, again on the basis of the formula cited above, with a concern for equality between the sexes. Although there are many famous texts in Paul that would appear to challenge this reading, Boyarin says they only represent a concession to the realities of the time.

Throughout, Boyarin makes clear that his is not an exercise in antiquarianism, but rather one that has important repercussions today, and specifically for Jews. In his closing chapter he takes Paul’s critique to heart and attempts to develop an ethics of Jewish identity that will preserve the Jews’ “genealogical” and cultural distinctiveness but will not descend into racist ethnocentrism (read: Zionism). An identity tied to “hegemonic” political power must result, he asserts, in a “moral monstrosity”; if Jews mean “to preserve the positive ethical, political value of Jewish genealogy,” they must divest themselves of the quest for power and self-determination, and instead strive to “preserve their subaltern status”—that is, be dominated by others.

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This book abounds with interesting insights into the letters of Paul, as well as with forthright challenges to interpretations of Paul and Judaism that remain mired in anti-Jewish attitudes. But it also embodies much that is wrong with contemporary academic scholarship, not to mention contemporary intellectual life in general.

Boyarin is a devotee of what has come to be known as postmodern theory. This allows him to present, in his own words, a “constructed” Paul: a “highly politicized intervention in biblical interpretation and, I hope, more than that as well.” And this “cultural reading” is designed “not to judge Paul but to see in what way his cultural theory can be useful to us” (emphasis added).

One can appreciate Boyarin’s honesty here; unfortunately, his approach undermines the honesty of everything that comes after. Virtually every judgment in this book is guided by the criterion of what is “useful” to “us.” Take the following instructive passage:

There is . . . one element in Paul’s thought on sexuality that divides him sharply from the later rabbinic tradition and connects him rather with other trends in contemporary Judaism, and that is the question of celibacy, which, I argue, is crucial to solving the problem that I am about in this chapter. [Emphasis added]

In short, this is a book less about Paul than about Daniel Boyarin, a rather less interesting subject. To see how this works in practice we should go back to Boyarin’s starting point, the baptismal formula cited in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians; these verses provide the “hermeneutic key” through which he reads his carefully selected portion of the Pauline corpus. Many Paul scholars, however, would regard this text as marginal or peripheral. In good postmodern fashion, Boyarin counters by saying that a “reading” of Paul must begin somewhere, and in any event he can see no basis for declaring one text marginal and another central.

But does the fact that a reading of Paul’s diffuse corpus must “begin somewhere” mean that it can or should begin anywhere a “cultural critic” wants it to? Anyway, Boyarin is being disingenuous in disclaiming judgments of centrality, for he has quite improbably made this verse the central text in the Pauline corpus.

And who is the Paul we see through its lens? It turns out that, just like Daniel Boyarin, he was a Jewish “cultural critic”; just like Daniel Boyarin, he was deeply dissatisfied with Jewish ethnocentrism; and just like Daniel Boyarin, he was moved to create a vision in which all humanity would be united and racism and sexism would be overcome. One almost expects to be told that Paul was a professor at Berkeley.

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But there are worse offenses here than solipsism. By the time Boyarin is done with all his reinterpreting, what we are left with is the ancient and tired image of Paul the self-conscious universalist, counter-posed to Jewish particularism and ethnocentrism. This image has a long, ugly, and destructive history, to which Boyarin is admittedly sensitive—but not so sensitive as to question its validity.

And this raises a harder question: is Boyarin, following a host of others, justified in seeing Paul as a self-conscious universalist and the Jews as uniquely exclusivist? In what is perhaps the most egregious lapse in this book, Boyarin chooses to ignore or to elide the final words of the text he himself has selected for his extended homily: namely, “ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” True, Boyarin acknowledges the imperialism of this statement, its demand for sameness. But there is much more in it that he does not acknowledge.

First-century depictions of the Jews all agree that they were distinguished from others primarily by circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath observance; as Boyarin notes, these practices “mark[ed] off the covenant community exclusively.” And this was a problem, since “justification or salvation was dependent on being a member of that very community.”

Of course, as Boyarin knows full well, the Jewish covenant community was not closed to people of different ethnic origins, for the option of conversion was very real. But, while the “doors were opened,” one

was saved by becoming Jewish. This is not, then, exclusiveness in the sense that it excludes in principle anyone, but neither does it conform to any Greek sense of the universal, of the One. It remains, after all, a valorization of difference.

In other words, to become Jewish was to mark oneself off as “different” from some general norm called humanity.

Yet did Paul’s insistence on justification only in Christ Jesus substantially diverge from this? Paul claimed to have discovered the right path to salvation—faith in Jesus—which displaced the wrong path, the law. So the doors were opened, not closed; nevertheless, one was saved by becoming Christian. The “old Israel” had been lopped off at its roots, and replaced by the “new Israel.”

One might be inclined to argue that in Paul’s view the Jews somehow deserved this fate, as punishment for their own exclusivism. But Paul excluded “pagans” as well, unless they totally redirected their minds to faith in Jesus. Believers married to unbelievers might remain in their current state (divorce being unacceptable), but those who were not married, such as widows, were only to marry other believers.

Was this not the mark of someone, much less naive than Daniel Boyarin, who recognized the partisan nature of his message; who knew that there was an “in” group and an “out” group; and who also knew that his message would tear families and communities apart? That Paul’s exclusivism was more “ecclesiocentric” than “ethnocentric” primarily means that, as the historian Edward Gibbon noted long ago, it was socially less narrow than some forms of Jewish exclusivism; but that is a difference in degree, not in kind.

True, Paul believed that in the end of days the old Israel would once again find its place. Boyarin sees this as somehow mitigating Paul’s exclusiveness, but in fact it hardly differed from standard prophetic notions of the reconciliation of all mankind in messianic times. A much more substantial difference was this: Paul hoped that all would join him now, whereas other contemporary Jews saw the promised unification of humanity as something postponed to the redeemed future. This variation in reading the redemptive timetable turned out to have enormous social and historical implications; but it too was not grounded in a universalist opposition to particularism. In the end, for Paul, as for Zechariah and the other Hebrew prophets, the unification of humanity would take place on exclusivist terms. Those with the right theology would be in; those with the wrong, out.

Where, then, did Paul’s alleged sense of the universal come from? Boyarin appeals throughout to Hellenism and the philosophical school that historians call Middle Platonism, and he wrongly treats them as synonyms, ultimately reducing them to a cliché: the search for unity, “univocity,” the “One.” But even on his own terms the universalism that he claims for Paul was not quite the same as that of the Platonists, precisely because it aspired (according to Boyarin) to be socially concrete: that is, to challenge and eliminate hierarchy, racism, and sexism in the here and now. (Again, Boyarin ignores or weakly explains away the many texts that make clear that Paul aspired to no such thing.)

Unfortunately, such a concrete vision does not readily flow out of Middle Platonic thought. Where one does find a view of a redemptive intervention in history that will unify all (deserving) humanity around a shared theological principle is, again, in a body of literature with which Paul was intimately familiar, namely, the Hebrew Bible. Yet to see Paul’s thought as deriving from the biblical corpus, and corresponding to important elements in the rabbinic tradition, would make him less “useful,” for then Boyarin would have to acknowledge that concern for the ultimate destiny of others occupies an important, and under-emphasized, place in sacred Jewish literature.

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As I have said, the real purpose of this book is to develop, on the basis of a “reading” of Paul, the case for a radicalized Jewish identity—one that will continue to maintain its “difference” but will divest itself of all vestiges of ethnocentrism and nationalism. Here, Boyarin’s intellectual solipsism passes beyond the silly and the wrong-headed to the dangerous.

In his final chapter, Boyarin zeroes in on the alleged defects of contemporary Jewish particularism, or “difference”:

We must be prepared to recognize that Jewish difference with its concomitant nearly exclusive emphasis on caring for other Jews . . . can become an ugly lack of caring for the fate of others and thus another form of racism. . . .

To overcome this fault, Boyarin urges modern Jews to adapt the “rabbinic strategy of self-deterritorialization” (emphasis added).

Here we come to the heart of the matter. In Boyarin’s judgment, after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, the ancient rabbis actually sought to

enable the loss of the Land. It was political possession of the Land which most threatened the possibility of continued Jewish cultural practice and difference. Given the choice between an ethnocentricity which would not seek domination over others or a seeking of political domination that would necessarily have led either to a dilution of distinctiveness, tribal warfare, or fascism, the rabbis de facto chose the former. [Emphasis added]

This is ahistorical nonsense of an extraordinary audacity. That the ancient rabbis developed strategies to deal with the loss of Jewish political sovereignty is beyond question. That these strategies facilitated the survival of (one kind of) Jewish culture seems reasonable enough. But where do the rabbis give voice to the notion that it was political possession of the land that “most threatened the possibility of continued Jewish cultural practice and difference”? Boyarin provides no evidence of any kind, for there is none.

To what end this fantasy? Again, the aim is a narrowly contemporary one: to propose the inauthenticity of Zionism, and correlatively the authenticity of the Diaspora; to argue against “European, Western cultural-political formation”—i.e., Jewish nationalism—and “for a traditional Jewish [formation] that has been based on a sharing—at best—of political power with others.” This is quite as if Diaspora life were not in part the consequence of horrific violence against the Jews and Jewish sovereignty but instead the welcome result of ancient sages soberly contemplating the wealth of choices open to the Jews, and settling happily on “sharing.”

Now, perhaps the single most continuous thread in modern Jewish political history has been the effort to create a viable Diaspora identity. Indeed, Zionism itself emerged as the judgment of a small minority of Jews that the conditions for such an identity did not and could not exist in the West. But one thing that can be said indisputably about that small group of Jews is that they did not wish to dominate others; they simply wished to cease being dominated and/or pressured into assimilation.

The vast majority of European Jewry, however, resisted the Zionist conclusion, insisting instead on the viability of the Diaspora—despite the anti-Semites, despite the Dreyfus Affair, despite ever-mounting evidence that European nationalism would not tolerate the presence of Jews and/or that Jews could not maintain their cultural distinctiveness under modern European conditions. It took, in our own century, extraordinary genocidal violence to impel large numbers of Jews to question this cherished mode of existence.

Yet in Boyarin’s fantasy of history, the modern Diaspora has been free of anti-Jewish violence, as free, presumably, as was the ancient world. He can thus construct a modern Jewish identity in which Jews will be at one and the same time Jewish and anything else they wish to be: “In the morning I may go to the synagogue, and in the evening to hear Emmylou Harris.” The only thing standing in the way of this lovely idyll is Zionism, the aggressive, racist, hegemonic “discourse” that is so at odds with the benign, nonhegemonic “discourse” of the rabbis.

If the problem, then, is “territorialization,” the solution is “self-deterritorialization.” For “that which would be racism in the hands of a dominating group is resistance in the hands of a subaltern collective.” True to his brand of universalism, Boyarin assures us that ideally he would like all humanity to share this subaltern status—whatever that might mean. (“What I wish to struggle for theoretically is a notion of identity in which there are only slaves but no masters . . .”) But as a practical matter, he seems to think the obligation falls only on the Jews; they alone are commanded to seek a return to the condition of which Zionism and the state of Israel have robbed them. And, since the world will no doubt continue to house not just the dominated of the earth but the dominating as well, presumably they alone will also be expected to suffer the consequences.

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I indicated earlier that Boyarin’s thought is rooted in, and has thoroughly internalized, certain self-serving, anti-Jewish strains in early Christian discourse concerning the Jews—yet another demonstration of the uncanny affinity between postmodernism and premodernism (but that is another story). In this mindset, Jewish exclusivism is racist and ethnocentric while the exclusivisms of others go unrecognized, legitimized, or celebrated for their “universalism.” As for Boyarin’s supposedly vanguard notion that Jews must be “subaltern,” this again resembles nothing so much as Augustine’s prescription for Jewish subordination. Finally, in putting his demand for abstract moral purity above the concrete needs of real Jews, Boyarin edges close to the mentality of those who, in other days, would burn bodies to save souls.

Horribly misguided though such people were, however, at least we can say of them that they were trying to save those souls. Boyarin has improved on the old model, being prepared to dispose of the bodies of his fellow Jews in order to save his own soul. In this, too, he is thoroughly postmodern.

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