Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Answering the Mail by Daniel Boyarin

Throughout this book I have been arguing that Paul’s writing poses a significant challenge to the Jewish notion of identity. I have suggested that Paul was impelled by a vision of human unity that was born of two parents: Hebrew monotheism and Greek longing for universals. As I have argued, however, and will pursue further, Paul’s universalism seems to conduce to coercive politico-cultural systems that engage in more or less violent of absorption of cultural specificities into the dominant one. Yet Jews cannot ignore the force of Paul’s critique just because of its negative effects, for the uncritical devotion to ethnic particularity has equally negative effects. Thus, while Jewish discourse both limits its claims of hegemony to what is, after all, a tiny piece of land (in contrast to the whole world staked out by “Christendom”) and, moreover, does not consider conversion of others a desideratum or a requirement for their “salvation”, modern Jewish statist nationalism has nevertheless been very violent and exclusionary in its practices vis-a-vis its others, and traditional Judaism was often offensively contemptuous towards them.

On the political or ethical level, then. Paul presented (and presents) Jews with a set of powerful questions that cannot be ignored. Echoing Alan F. Segal*, I claim that Paul’s letters are addressed to us – to me, as a (post) modern Jew. I conclude this book, then, with a highly personal and engaged, perhaps not always completely satisfactory, attempt to answer Paul’s letter to me. How can I ethically construct a particular identity which is extremely precious to me without falling into ethnocentricity or racism of one kind or the other? This is particularly poignant since, the latter are protean and can disguise themselves in many forms. In this chapter, this book will significantly change its tone and its focus. The effort of this final chapter is to articulate one individual notion of Jewishness – and by analogy, other forms of particular identity – that will attempt to answer the challenge of Paul’s letters to enroll in a commit to a universal solidarity as well . . .


The Diaspora can teach us that it is possible for a people to maintain its distinctive culture, its difference, without controlling land, a fortiori without controlling other people or developing a need to dispossess them of their lands. Thus the response of Rabbinic Judaism to the challenge of universalism, which Paul, among others, raised against what was becoming at the end of the millennium and the beginning of the next, an increasingly inappropriate doctrine of specialness in an already interdependent world, may provide some, by no means all, of the pieces to the solution to the puzzle of how humanity might continue to survive. Renunciation of sovereignty, autochthony, indigeneity (as embodied politically in the notion of self-determination), on the one hand, combined with a fierce tenacity in holding onto identity, on the other, might yet have something to offer. For we live in a world in which the combination of these two kills thousands daily, yet where the renunciation of difference seems both an impoverishment of human life and an inevitable harbinger of oppression.

For those of us who are equally committed to social justice and collective Jewish existence some other formation must be constituted. I suggest than an Israel which rimports diasporic consciousness, a consciousness of a Jewish collective as one sharing space with others, devoid of exclusivist and dominating power, is the only Israel which could answer Paul’s and Lyotard and Nancy’s call for species-wide care, without eradicating cultural difference. I would propose an Israel in which individual and collective cultural rights would become an essential part of its structure, no longer coded as a Jewish State but as a bi-national, secular, and multicultural one. For historical models, one might look to the millet system of the Ottoman Empire, on the one hand, and to that multiculturalism now struggling to be born in the United States on the other. The point would be precisely to avoid the coercive universalism of France, the Pauline option, on the other hand, and the violence of a joining of ethnic particularism and state power, contemporary Israel, on the other.

Reversing A.B. Yehoshua’s famous pronouncement that only in a condition of political hegemony is moral responsibility mobilized, I would argue that the only moral path would be the renunciation of near exclusive Jewish hegemony. This would involve, first of all, complete separation of religion from the state, but even more than that the revocation of the Law of Return and such cultural, discursive practices that code the state as a Jewish State and not a multinational and multicultural one. The dream of a place that is ours founders on the rock of realization that there are Others there, just as ther are  Others in Poland, Morocco, and Ethiopia. Any notion, then, of Redemption through Land must be infinitely deferred or become a moral monster. Either Israel must entirely divest itself of the language of race and become truly a state which is equally for all of its citizens and collectives, or the Jews must divest themselves of their claim to space. Race and space, or genealogy and territorialism, have been the problematic and necessary (if not essential) terms around which Jewish identity has revolved. In Jewish history, however, these terms are more obviously in dissonance with each other than synergy. This allows a formulation of Jewish identity not as a proud resting place, indeed not as a “boast”, but as a perpetual, creative, diasporic tension.

* Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee,  Yale Univ. Press, 1991
Universalism in Judaism and Christianity”. Unpublished paper, 1992.


  1. e.g.
    In fact, the internal politics of the Jewish Diaspora, through which the people as a whole sustained itself, in scattered communities, without coercive power, for many centuries, is one of the most remarkable stories in the political history of humankind. Exilic politics was in its decadence when the Zionists arrived on the scene, and it had never been valued within the tradition itself. Committed to deference and deferment, dreaming of a distant triumph, the rabbis had little to say about the success of the semi-autonomous communities of the Diaspora, and they took no interest in the political lessons that might be drawn from it. This history could have provided an opening for Zionist writers, but they found the decadence of Jewish communal life a more useful subject and made no effort to overcome their ignorance of better days. For some of them, ignorance of exilic history, since it wasn’t a “real” national history, was a matter of principle.

    Ahad Ha’am* at least acknowledged the better days. The sages, he wrote, “succeeded in creating a national body which hung in mid-air, without any foundation on solid earth, and in this body the Hebrew national spirit had its abode and lived its life for two thousand years.” But the true achievement of exilic Jewry – “marvelous and unique,” Ahad Ha’am said – was to lose the singularity of “this body” and still survive in scattered fragments, “all living one form of life, and all united despite their local separateness.” These fine words were apparently not inspirational; I have not found in the literature of Zionism any discovery of the old Jewish communities, any extended effort to understand of exilic politics worked, or to honor the people who made it work, or to value the achievement. The laws, customs, practices ,and implicit understandings that made communal life of the exile possible – surely this is material for “in-gathering”, and then for appreciation and critique, by a movement aiming at a new birth of communal life. Indeed, the experience of exile and then of emancipation-in-exile might well teach contemporary Israelis something of great importance: how different Jewish communities could coexist within the framework of a secular state, alongside other forms of difference, other (non-Jewish) religious communities. The new Israeli majority might learn a lot from the experience of the old Jewish minorities. . .