By Yitz Landes
Daniel Boyarin’s Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash is now out in Hebrew, after a long wait. On November 27, students, havrutot, friends, and admirers of Boyarin and Boyarenesque scholarship coalesced at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute to celebrate the appearance of Midrash Tannaim – the Hebrew title ofIntertextuality. The three speakers, introduced by Prof. Galit Hasan-Rokem, dealt with different parts of Boyarin’s Torah as it pertains to their own fields of expertise.
Professor Menahem Kahana, a scholar of Midrashic literature and the head of Hebrew University’s department of Talmud and Halakha (!), reminisced about the times when he and “Danny” (Hebrew- “Donny“) would engage in philological exploits into the depths of the Mekhilta. Such exploits engendered two very different scholarly tomes- Boyarin’sIntertextuality and Kahana’s Mekhiltot. Kahana, whose praises for Intertextuailty are listed in Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s afterword to Midrash Tannaim, chose to argue for more historical understandings than those presented by Boyarin in his early work. In his own words, “The multi-vocality of history is no less important than the multi-vocality of the text”. Of course, historically attuned readings are quite present in Boyarin’s later work, and the other speakers also struggled with critically engaging a book more than two decades after its initial publication, whose author no longer fully agrees with everything he wrote in it.
Dr. Dina Stein of the department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Haifa University also began with a personal story involving her and Boyarin. Years ago, she had purchased a copy of Todorov’s Symbolism and Interpretation from a used bookstore in Berkeley. She soon realized that the copy in her possession had originally belonged to Boyarin, who had referenced relevant rabbinic passages in the book’s margins, as can be seen in the picture to the right. Yet those passages, to the best of her knowledge, are surprisingly absent from Boyarin’s published work. Stein also pointed out that not only were those stories left out, but the book in which they were cited had left Boyarin’s library, first to a store that is no longer even open, and then, redemptively, to a fellow Rabbinics scholar. Indeed, those changes are perhaps symbolic of a deeper shift apparent in Boyarin’s scholarly output: A move from the semiotics of midrash, of understanding rabbinic hermeneutics to work in “an almost too perfect” way, to historicist readings of the rabbis. As Stein suggested, perhaps Intertextuaility is Boyarin’s Shir haShirim. In his response, Boyarin acknowledged that Socrates might be his Kohelet, but added that that is because the Bavli is the Kohelet of the Rabbis (“בעיניי, הבבלי הוא הקהלת של חז”ל”).
In his distinctly clear yet sharp style, Dr. Joshua Levinson of Hebrew University’s department of Hebrew Literature presented an overview of Intertextuality‘s continued influence on rabbinic studies. Instead of deciding what exegesis is and then asking whether rabbinic midrash fits the criteria, Boyarin took the text’s claim to be exegetical seriously and then asked what its hermeneutic methods are. Levinson then showed how such an outlook affected research into other genres of rabbinic literature, such as the exegetical narratives of Genesis Rabbah- Levinson’s own field of expertise in which he has pioneered new paths of understanding.
Although speakers came from as far away as Berkeley and Haifa, the evening’s overall atmosphere was characteristically Jerusalemite, and not just because of the rugelach from Marzipan or the classically South Jerusalem institution in which it was held. Rather, what created the special ambiance was the very presence of such scholars on the same stage, along with an audience of researchers and students of Talmud, Jewish thought, and literature in what seemed like a mixture that can only come into being in Jerusalem. Despite their differences, and regardless of which ‘Boyarin’ they prefer most, all in attendance seemed more than happy to gather in appreciation of their shared teacher.
Yitz Landes is a student in Hebrew University’s departments of Talmud and Halakha and Comparative Religion. This post was originally published on The Talmud Blog, which Yitz co-edits along with Shai Secunda.