Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, June 16, 2005
So a friend from synagogue lent me Daniel Boyarin's book, A Radical Jew. Difficult as I find it to get into a book that makes frequent resort to ideologically-driven neologisms like phallogocentrism, I completed the slog, and I can say it was worth it. I wish I knew more about St. Paul, the subject of the book, so I could react more intelligently.

The thesis is relatively simple. Boyarin is going to battle with the traditional Lutheran reading of Paul, a reading that takes the view that the Law (i.e., Judaism) actually increased sin (because it gave more commandments to violate and because it engendered the sin of pride when one did not violate the commandments), and that this was indeed part of its purpose, in order that God's gift of grace through Christ be more manifest. Boyarin argues that Paul, as a normative Jew, could not have argued that Judaism was actually evil. Christ came not to overthrow the Law but to fulfill it; this means that, Christ having come, the Law must mean something different than it did. The Law is, in fact, an allegory of Christ, and because that is what it is it cannot conflict with what Christ is, namely the unity and salvation of all through faith and love. The letter of the Law must be abrogated because the Law divides people into Jew and gentile, and because the letter itself is on a lower plane than the spirit, the former analogous to Christ before and the latter to Christ after the Resurrection.

Nothing in this sounded wildly off to me, but some of the emphases struck me as odd. Boyarin confuses matters by referring to Paul's body/spirit dichotomy as "dualism" but then contrasting his dualism with Platonic dualism that values the body negatively. Paul, he argues, valued the body positively, but subordinate to the soul. Boyarin thinks this is also different from rabbinic Judaism, which he describes as "carnal", but that sounds wrong to me; the rabbinic Judaism I'm familiar with similarly positively values the body (hence the positive valuation of sex, at least in marriage; hence circumcision, tefillin, and many other mitzvot performed with the body; hence the belief in bodily resurrection) but subordinates it to the soul.

Boyarin also never explains what the positive value of the letter of the Law is for Paul; presumably it has one if Boyarin is right that Paul positively values the revelation to Moses, and makes the letter analogous to the body as the spirit of the Law is to the human soul. Boyarin centers his argument on Galatians, where Paul argues that observing Jewish law after having accepted Christ is positively wrong; he argues that Paul's reason rests on the conviction that the Law is predicated on separating Jew from gentile, but that in Christ there is no such separation because Christ came to redeem everybody, hence the Law must go. But it seems to me that an argument he makes, but makes much less central, is actually at the core of the matter: if Christ is the real meaning of the revelation to Moses, then to follow the old hermeneutic is to "hedge one's bets" and, hence, testifies to a lack of faith. That's a much more powerful, and less pragmatic, reason for Paul to take the stance he does.

And Boyarin runs into trouble explaining why Paul accepts marriage and traditional sexual morality as the second-best way to live (after celibacy). He wants to argue that Paul is not merely "reverting" to Jewish "prejudices" but his argument boils down to saying exactly that: Paul knows not everyone can be celibate, and therefore concedes that the Jewish understanding of sexual morality still obtains for people who can't make the leap to celibacy. How exactly is this different from what he's arguing against, apart from the value signs? (Boyarin clearly seeing traditional sexual morality, if emphatically not traditional sex roles, as basically good, where radical Christian critics of Paul on this subject see it as bad, and hence refer to Jewish "prejudice".)

The last chapter of the book is dreadful, an irrelevant and manifestly unconvincing defense of Jewish quietism in postmodern terms. The Jewish gift to the world, apparently, is the powerlessness of Diaspora conditions; if only, Boyarin wishes, everyone could be a slave, and nobody a master. Pardon me while I reach for my gun. I have respect for a serious, thoroughgoing quietism or pacifism, of the kind represented by the Satmar Hasidim or the Amish, even though I disagree with it. I have no respect for this warmed-over Edward Said.

But the book as a whole had its virtues, and certainly made me think harder about Paul's relation to Jewish tradition. (Boyarin's explication of the midrashic nature of some of Paul's scriptural proofs was well done.) I thought Peter Brown's The Body and Society was a more thorough and impressive treatment of many of the same themes, but Boyarin's book had some new things of its own to say.

Anyone more informed about Pauline scholarship and related matters care to weigh in? I freely confess my ignorance, so don't feel shy about correcting me (or Boyarin).

Now I'm simultaneously reading Ovid's Metamorphoses and The United States and the Pacific, by Jean Heffer. I'm increasingly interested in the origins of the US-Japanese war (the Pacific Theater of WWII), and wanted to get some background. Other recommendations on that topic very welcome as well.