Crisscross: Boyarin on Borders

By Zackary Sholem Berger

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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Intersections only exist once streets have been mapped, but they tell us where one street ends and the next begins. As a scholar not just of the Talmud, but also of the cultural foundations of early rabbinic Judaism and the rhetoric of writers of antiquity, Daniel Boyarin has engaged in tracing the intersection between Jewish and non-Jewish culture. In his new book, “Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity” (Penn Press), Boyarin, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, stops at the origin of Judaism and early Christianity in an attempt to find out just what the difference was between the two. His answer: There was none, at least in the beginning.

Boyarin has long crossed boundaries both political and religious. Though “Border Lines” presents the canonization of the founding myth of rabbinic Judaism as a means for “hegemony over the Jewish masses,” and criticizes the Talmud’s “disturbing focus on gender,” its author is a practicing Orthodox Jew. Furthermore, despite much of Orthodoxy’s insistence on the Levitical abomination of homosexuality, a considerable portion of Boyarin’s research (including “Queer Theory and the Jewish Question,” a 2003 collection from Columbia University Press) finds reciprocal influences between homosexuality and Judaism. His appreciation of Judeo-Christian dialogue is tempered by the fear that Jews and Christians “understand each other in our worst selves,” that some Orthodox Jews and Christians have a “common cause of bigotry.”

Boyarin’s most controversial position, one on which he bases his introduction to “Border Lines,” is anti-Zionism. He has been called a heretic by the Zionist majority among Jews in America, he writes, for transgressing the “unholy alliance of Jews and so many Christians” that brands both Palestinians and Osama bin Laden as “equally and demonically Islamic terrorists.” Much as some Christians said that their religion died at Auschwitz, he fears that “Judaism may be dying at Nablus.”

Like Boyarin the political gadfly, who claims Israel is a state artificially imposed on the natural terrain of Palestinians, Boyarin the historian, in “Border Lines,” concerns himself with the construction of entities by powerful elites — entities whose origins are not often considered today.

“The borders between Christianity and Judaism are as constructed and imposed, as artificial and political, as any of the borders on earth… imposed by stronger people on weaker people,” writes Boyarin. The Judeo-Christian division, rather than a natural process, was “an imposed partitioning of what was once a territory without border lines, much as India and Pakistan, and Israel and Palestine were artificially partitioned by colonial power.”

Even today, says the author, there are Christians who practice Judaism and Jews who practice Christianity. (For example, in an interview with the Forward, Boyarin argued that Jews for Jesus should not be legally suppressed by the Jewish community; if the group is honest about its aims, it should be allowed to attempt to persuade in an open society.)

Certainly, Boyarin told the Forward, there existed those who believed in the divinity of Jesus and those who didn’t. But the map drawers of antiquity constructed Christianity and Judaism over several centuries, separating the composition of the Gospels and the final redaction of the Mishnah. As Boyarin writes, “There seems to be no absolute point, theological or otherwise, at which we could say for this early period: It is this that marks the difference between Judaism and Christianity.”

The thesis of “Border Lines” depends, in part, on an understanding of the word “heresy.” Etymologically, the word first meant a school of thought, neutrally used to refer to practices common to both Jews and Christians. But as these “heresies” in the original sense — most notably, the identification of the “Word” as codivine with God — began to constitute the line dividing Judaism and Christianity, the word began to shift in meaning. What was first a particular variety of practice became a yardstick to identify practice that was correct or incorrect, depending on which side of the line was doing the identifying.

Much of the book’s supporting evidence thus concerns the ways in which the practice of Jews and Christians was artificially partitioned into Judaism and Christianity. So according to “Border Lines,” the well-known first paragraph of Pirkei Avot, or the Ethics of the Fathers, is parallel to Christian lists of apostolic succession; the prologue to the New Testament Book of John is, in essence, a Jewish midrash; and many early Jews believed in the Logos, or a divine representation of God’s Word. (Such early belief, hold Boyarin and other historians, still can be found in the siddur, fossilized in the text of early prayers such as “Aleinu.”)

The book’s final chapters round out a general conclusion: namely, that Christianity, in distancing itself from Judaism, invented religion. While the Latin word religio previously had been used to refer to a particular devotional act, the Christians invented “religion” as a new category of human activity — independent of ethnicity, politics and culture — designed to exclude Jewish practice. “Religion,” writes Boyarin, “is a Christian cultural product.” This is why it is confusing to speak of Judaism as only a religion, and why the word “Judaism” itself (a term that Boyarin thinks inappropriate to describe early Jewish practice) does not appear until the Enlightenment.

Boyarin expressed hope that his new book might “loosen things up a bit” in today’s inter-religious dialogue, helping Jews and Christians realize that the “theological walls were not always as firm as they are now.” He sees a certain commonality between the two religious communities. “People who are theists have a common language,” he said, “even through religious difference.”

Zackary Sholem Berger is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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