Socrates and the Fat Rabbis by Daniel Boyarin

The unresolved, multiple-voiced argument in the Talmud reflects a philosophical approach that sees knowledge as inherently composed of multiple perspectives, according to contemporary scholars including David Kraemer and David Frank. In a new book, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin also juxtaposes the language of the Talmud with modern theory, but comes to different conclusions. This is the latest post in a series on connections between rabbinic and contemporary thought.

In Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, Boyarin reads the Babylonian Talmud alongside works of Plato. Both ancient works use dialogic forms. Drawing on mid-20th century Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, Boyarin argues that the dialog in both sets of writings is more about the unifying hand of the writer/editor than about any of the different voices represented in the text. Like a good contemporary thinker, Boyarin finds heterogeneity. Rather than in dialog, Boyarin finds heterogeneity in comedy.

In many sections of the Babylonian Talmud, and in Plato’s Symposium in particular, there are parts where the serious heroes are portrayed comically as fat and lustful. It’s this embedded comic voice, says Boyarin, that creates built-in tension. Boyarin draws his argument from Bakhtin’s analysis of Roman Menippean comedy, a genre that satirized serious philosophy and literature with crude, carnivalesque mockery.

The argument that Plato’s dialogs represent a single editorial voice is stronger than the same argument about the Talmud. In Plato’s dialogs, the interlocutors of Socrates are mere victims, on the scene to be demolished by the hero. With many precedents and citations in modern studies of Plato, Boyarin shows how Socrates’ arguments are fallacious, in bad faith, or both. The interlocutors are present as foils to build the argument in favor of the superiority of Plato’s philosophy to his opponents. The dialogs of Plato are building to a single inevitable, coherent set of conclusions.

It is harder and more problematic, I think, to make the same case about the Talmud. The Talmudic dialog form presents its discussions among many generations of arguing pairs of sages and their disciples – Hillel and Shammai, Rav and Samuel, Rava and Abbaye. The polarities between teachers and schools can often be identified and characterized. And what’s most important, even when a decision is made, the losing voices in the argument are preserved respectfully, and different perspectives are seen to have merit. The dialog is different from Platonic debate, where the loser’s argument is made to appear weak and the loser is humiliated.

Where the Rabbis considered it possible, they sought to preserve multiple options. The Passover seder, as it is observed even today, incorporates the result of a debate between Rabbis who argued that it should focus on telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and those who argued that it should focus on symbols (matzah, bitter herbs, etc). Both were included in the seder. (The insight about the structure of the seder comes from a podcast of a class by Reuven Cohen, recorded by Dan Bricklin).

Boyarin is right that the open-endedness of Talmudic argument is bounded. The Talmud is itself a long argument in favor of the superiority of a Judaism focused on Rabbinic law and practice, and against other alternatives at the time. In debates among Rabbinic scholars, alternatives are preserved in theory and where possible in practice, but the opinions and the persons of heretics are treated with contempt, as Boyarin cites. The pluralism of the Talmudic Rabbis holds only within the bounds of that community.

But Boyarin is wrong, in my opinion, to dismiss the intra-communal pluralism, because of the extra-communal intolerance. In fact, in his reading of Plato’s dialogs, he acts more like the editor of the Talmud, by recovering the arguments and interests of Socrates’ opponents, and giving their case a fair hearing.

In Plato’s dialogs, the Sophists are portrayed as charlatans who will say anything in public forums that wins them acclaim and fortune. With many footnotes from modern classical scholars, Boyarin recovers the historical context of the debate. Plato was firmly opposed to the ideology and process of Athenian democracy, where decisions were made by the people, responding to the case put forward by articulate leaders. Plato’s opponents included Pericles the democratic leader and Thucydides the historian who sympathized with Pericles.

With this background, Boyarin gives a more sympathetic portrayal of the points of view of Gorgias and Protagoras. For Protagoras, “man is the measure of all things”, because there may be multiple justifiable opinions reflecting multiple perspectives, and because public persuasion is important and valid test of ideas in public decision-making. Plato opposes this vehemently – for Plato, truth must be approached without reference to speakers, hearers, or situations. Society should be ruled by a philosopher-king who finds truth and comes to just conclusions by contemplation of universal principles external to the fray of public debate.

Boyarin’s reading recovers a Talmud-style debate where more than one voice has merit (this is my description of what Boyarin is doing, not Boyarin’s) Even as he dismisses the editorial mechanism which assembles multiple voices with different points of view, he uses the mechanism himself! I would argue that the distinction between Plato’s dialogs, where Socrates’ opponents are mere caricatures, and Talmudic dialog, where different voices carry multiple parts of the truth even when one side wins, is an important distinction, even though Rabbinic pluralism is bounded.

So, I don’t really buy Boyarin’s point that Plato and the Talmud’s dialogs are fundamentally the same because of the hand of the editor. I also don’t quite buy Boyarin’s argument that the “wild aggada” in the Babylonian Talmud carries built-in subversion to the normative language of both halacha and ordinary aggada. In a previous post in this series, Susan Handelman strongly critiqued the academic scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, drawing on Moshe Idel and others, arguing that Scholem’s characterization of the Kabbala as antinomian subversion to the stodgy normativity of Jewish law is mostly wishful thinking. The kabbalists themselves were halachically observant, and kabbalistic practice had important elements of theurgy that Scholem ignores. Similarly, I think that Boyarin’s perception of the anarchic nature of aggada is exaggerated, somewhat misinterpreted, and reflects some wishful thinking.

The Babylonian Talmud is a strange and distinctive melange of legal argument, scriptural interpretation, historical narrative, and fantastical material. In Rabbinic terminology, legal discourse is “halacha”, and interpretive/narrative discourse is “aggada.” Boyarin highlights some of the weirder aggadic material. The Talmudic passage that Boyarin refers to in the book’s title describes the extreme fatness of some of the Talmud’s most prominent Rabbis, including describing the dimensions of their genitalia in units of wineskins.

Boyarin attributes the comic portrayal of the fat rabbis, and mixed-up stew of styles found in the Babylonian Talmud, to the Roman genre of Menippean satire, which originated eight hundred years earlier than the Talmud was edited. I think the parallels are interesting and may have merit, but are too narrow a reading of the spectrum of Rabbinic moods.

Boyarin recounts one wild aggadic adventure story in which the sage Rabbi Meir, fleeing Roman authorities, runs into a brothel. He is rescued when Elijah the prophet shows up in the guise of a whore and embraces him, just in time for the gendarmes to appear. The police, sure that the character in the arms of a prostitute isn’t the holy man they’re looking for, turn around and go home.

Boyarin finds Roman comic stories with nice parallels to this misadventure. And he finds the situation in which R. Meir is seen in the arms of a prostitute (albeit a phantom) an echo of Menipean tropes showing heroes and sages in ridiculous, compromised poses. But the Jewish tradition going back to the Bible has plenty of instances of flawed heroes caught in flagrante – Yehuda and Tamar, David and Batsheva – and situations where a prostitute or sexual transaction is the agent of rescue – Rahab in Jericho, Esther’s submission to Ahasuerus’ contest. One doesn’t need to use Menippean satire to explain deeply flawed heroes in sexually compromising positions.

The Talmud is not unique in Jewish canon in its use of sexual humor. Long before the redaction of the Talmud (500CE), the Jewish canon included the book of Esther (3rd/4th century BCE), a story full of sexually coarse and darkly comic humor, a parody of biblical tropes of danger and rescue. The Biblical story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house (which some scholars date to fairly late in the editing of the bible, but earlier than Esther) also has sex and comedy. Surely there are a great many of parallels between genres in the Jewish canon and many other literatures in the ancient world. But it seems to me that attributing sexual humor in the Talmud specifically to Menippean satire is overkill.

Boyarin wants to call out the ribald, sexual aspects of Rabbinic humor as a distinctive element in the Talmudic stew which particularly reveals gaps in the Rabbis’ worldview. But Aggadic material in the Talmud is diverse, with fantastic tales of angels and demons, psychologically complex stories of political tensions in the Talmudic academies, shaggy dog narratives, and much more. I suspect that seeing the sexual elements as discontinuous has more to do with standards of propriety outside the Talmud than inside the Talmud itself. Also, there are plenty of places where the close reading of halachic material, or aggadic material that is less wild on the surface also reveals surprising and self-questioning ideas (as an arbitrary example off the top of my head, the material that Susan Handelman quotes in her section on Levinas about the nature of the Messiah).

To my ears, Boyarin also doesn’t quite catch the tone and gist of the Rabbis’ humor (of course this is a subjective opinion!) The misreading can be seen in the midrash in which God sends Moses to listen at the study hall of the Talmud’s Rabbi Akiva. Moses doesn’t understand a word, but is gratified when Akiba acknowledges that he is teaching the Torah that Moses brought from Sinai. (234) Boyarin argues that Moses’ incomprehension of the later sage’s discourse is used to undermine and discredit knowledge itself, since Moses’ truth has been distorted beyond all recognition. Instead, I agree with the reading of this story brought by Ouaknin, that the result is a sincere illustration of the continuity of an evolving tradition. Yes, the Rabbis are poking fun at their own enterprise, which has changed greatly from earlier generations. But the continuity of tradition is not in its replication, but in continuing reinterpretation and evolution that diverges from its original form, but it’s the chain of transmission and intent of continuity that maintains the tradition.

The midrash continues in a darker vein, where God shows Moses a vision of Akiba being flayed alive by the Romans (240). Boyarin argues that this illustrates a failure of the Rabbinic project of rational legalism. But the talmud’s Rabbis weren’t rationalist in that way; Akiba wasn’t Maimonides. I’d put this into a different context – into the problem of theodicy shown strongly in the book of Job, and (according to recent scholarship) highlighted in the Babylonian talmud, influenced by Sasanian/Zoroastrian thinking on theodicy.

Boyarin also uses Bahktin’s analysis of Menippean satire to interpret Alcibiades’ caustic portrayal of Socrates in the Symposium. Stumbling late to the party, a drunk Alcibiades portrays Socrates as a fat, ugly, Satyr-like figure who was a sexual tease who rejected Alcibiades’ advances after taking the younger man to bed. In the narrative framework of the Symposium, the plainest reading of this section seems to be making fun of Alcibiades, not Socrates. But Boyarin asks us to read the caricature straight – as showing the flaws in Plato’s hero. Now, this is good deconstructive, reader-centric interpretation. Maybe Plato didn’t intend for us to see Alcibiades’ caricature straight, but as readers we can and do, and the contradiction was always embedded in the text.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s quite right to equate Alcibiades’ caricature of Socrates with the Aggadic comic portraits of obese rabbis. The caricature of Socrates is put into the mouth of Socrates’ enemy. The caricatures of Rabbi Meir and others are told in the anonymous narrative voice of the Talmud. The comic and self-parodying elements in the Talmud are woven into the fabric of the text; it incorporates its own irreverence in a different way than Plato does.

To summarize, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis provides a different reading of the discourse of the Babylonian Talmud than other scholars who read the Talmud and other Rabbinic sources in the context of postmodern thinking, including Kraemer, Ouaknin, and Frank. Boyarin sees the Talmud as containing contradictions in dialog with each other. But he sees the Talmud’s style of represented argument as fundamentally monologic. Instead he hears the built-in dialog within the conflicts among heterogenous styles in the text, particularly the elements of ribald humor. I don’t really buy the argument, but I think it’s an interesting and thought-provoking reading, so I enjoyed the book.

One of the themes in the other books is to look at how concepts in Rabbinic thinking have influenced modern thought. One might connect elements of the spiral by looking at the way that Bakhtin assimilated the thought of Hermann Cohen, who “insiste[d] that conceptualization of the world is a never-ending process with no final conclusion.” Boyarin doesn’t do this, and there’s no particular reason that he should. Instead, Boyarin focuses on reading the Talmud and Plato’s works as literature, using tools of literary analysis, which is interesting on its own. And it would be interesting to take these themes further than Boyarin does.

I think the weakest part of the book is Boyarin’s attempt to historically justify reading the Menippean comic genre itself into the Babylonian Talmud, by assuming general cultural influences in the ancient world. Surely there are a great many parallels between the genres and stories expressed in Jewish canon and other literatures and cultures in the ancient world. And I look forward to reading other works on the Talmud that trace these strands with more depth and detail. But Boyarin doesn’t look broadly for the rich cultural history that is surely there. Instead, he picks Menippean satire and traces those resemblances specifically, through Bakhtin’s interpretive framework. I don’t think this is necessarily wrong, but I strongly suspect it’s too limited. I also suspect that it is reductive to attribute the Babylonian Talmud’s wildly diverse mixture of genres to Menippean satire. Why did the editors of the Talmud so strongly resist genre separation? Good question, I don’t think answered by the Menippean analogy. Fortunately, not all questions are answered yet.

5 thoughts on “Socrates and the Fat Rabbis by Daniel Boyarin”

  1. Adina,
    Great review of this book as well as the other literature on this topic. In case your interested, an article I wrote related to this just came out in AJS review.

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