Genealogy of the Jewish Notion [transcript]

Genealogy of the Jewish Notion

Podcast with Daniel Boyarin (6 December 2021).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Andie Alexander

Audio and transcript available at:


Judaism, Talmud, World Religions Paradigm, Identity, Genealogy, Classification

Breann Fallon (BF)  00:00

Thank you very much for joining us on this episode, Daniel. I’d like to start with the first question, but before we delve into the monograph, I’d like to just give a bit of a sense of the book is set to really revolutionise the study of Judaism. And before we delve into that, I’d like to ask [how] for you, can you give us a sort of overview of how Judaism is commonly defined in religious studies, and what are the potential problems with those definitions?

Daniel Boyarin (DB)  00:29

Obviously in religious studies, Judaism is commonly defined as a religion. And that is the source of immense difficulties. Part of some of those difficulties were actually the stimulus for my thinking and my writing of this book. So, let me just say, what are some of the problems? I’ll be sketchy now, and I imagine more details will come out later on the conversation. The fundamental problem is that the way we imagine religion is inevitably modelled on one particular religion—not to put too fine a point on it, Christianity—and even more focused, one could say, Protestantism, or certain versions of Protestantism.

DB  01:36

Now, the point is that there’s nothing wrong with Christianity, and I’m not ascribing any fault or defect to Christianity, nor to Protestantism. But I am arguing that the fit between the notion of faith as being at the centre of a cultural formation, collective of humans doesn’t fit many, if not most, of the cultures of the world. I find it amusing that Jews are asked, frequently, to identify themselves as members of the Jewish faith. Now, as most of us know, if we think about it for more than five minutes, people can be very, very engagedly, passionately, strongly identified with being Jewish without a shred of faith. Right?

DB  02:57

Now, I’m not denying, of course, that there are a set of beliefs that are typical of the Jewish imagination of the world; what I’m denying is that they are what constitutes Jewishness. Whereas sets of practices of different kinds are what bind Jews together. practices such as the study of Torah and particularly, the study of the Talmud in many different forms, practices such as having special languages—not just one special language, but several special languages—practices, such as, of course, the holidays, which are practiced by many Jews who would say that they are atheists.

DB  04:08

But airing the shofar for Rosh Hashanah, even fasting on Yom Kippur, making a seder for pesach and getting the family together, building a sukkah—in different parts of the world, in different places, more practice, less practice—but these practices constitute the practice, the ‘doings’ as anthropologists call it. I love that term. Not law, not rituals, but doings. Things that we do, including some that we might call ritual, some that we might call law, but not all of them. But the doings are what pull us together as a nation. I do use and emphasise the term ‘nation’.

BF  05:16

Before we jump into the idea of the term nation, I’m just thinking about our listeners, and many of them may have heard of Judaism referred to not as a faith but as a ‘culture’, rather; and I’m wondering if you could just unpack that in the same way as you did faith just now?

DB  05:34

Yeah, I think culture is not bad. I mean, as long as we use it in the absolute broadest sense—mainly, all that a given collective says and does communally. What mark the practice[s], the doings of a given group of people? In that sense, it’s actually very similar to my term doings, because I’m understanding doings in the broadest sense. Also, language patterns—things we say, things we don’t say. [Ludwig] Wittgenstein, when he writes in German, he writes ‘Lebensform’, forms of life; when he writes in English, he writes ‘culture’. Right? So, I think that sense of Lebensform, a way of life, is perhaps the most adequate.

BF  06:42

That’s quite poetic. I like that, the ‘forms of life’, and they can be religious or irreligious and everything in between. I think there’s something very broad, as you say about that, that encapsulates many forms of Jewish life beyond what a Christian demarcation would put around it, or of what we would expect. I would like to throw a question at you just completely out of left field—one that we haven’t even talked about via email—which is, there’s a survey that’s done in Australia that tries to understand the form of life of Judaism in Australia, and it asks Jewish people what they identify most in terms of their Jewishness. And the number one thing is actually not necessarily one we might think would come up, and that is actually [the] commemoration of the Holocaust. And I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts on that?

DB  07:41

Well, Jewish memory, and memory of the dead, and memorialisation of the dead, and particularly of the dead that we might in some way called Jewish martyrs, right—the term is not entirely satisfactory, but it comes close, or the more native term is Jews who died for the sanctification of God—has deep, deep roots in Jewish practice. The annual fast of Tisha B’Av commemorates several historical instances of both destruction of the temple—first Temple, second temple—as well as massacres of one sort or another. So, memorialising is very old. I don’t use the term Holocaust, because it is again, a kind of particular theological description, but I like the Yiddish term khurbn (or churban) for destruction, or the Hebrew shoah.

BF  09:22

I think that’s a good segue beside your definitions and terms, shoah—the other one I’ve not heard of before. Could you repeat that one?

DB  09:31

Churban, it’s a Yiddish word derived from Hebrew, and it means destruction. So the destruction of the temple is ‘churban habayit’, right, the destruction of the bayit, of the house, of the temple. And the Yiddish term that developed for the destruction of European Jewry—and not only European I would add—is ‘churban’, the destruction. And I think it’s very much to the point because it is a continuation of the memorialisation of the other catastrophes and disasters and massacres and destructions in Jewish history.

DB  10:28

And it’s obvious why it would be central because A) while not unique, it’s certainly the most massive of massacres in Jewish history. And secondly, it’s the most recent still; there are still people alive who remember it, a whole generation of the children of people who went through it. It’s still very… So that quite… That’s not surprising. I’ll tell you something else that you may or may not know. I believe I read or heard that after Israel, the greatest number of survivors of the churban live in Australia.

BF  11:28

Yes, I’ve heard that as well.

DB  11:30

Yeah. So, that also makes it natural that there would be a focus on that within the Australian Jewish community [for] both those who are in that group, and those who are not but are in close contact with survivors.

BF  11:49

It raises an interesting point, though, that would perhaps change the formation of Jewish identity as opposed to other places, that concentration of survivors—perhaps for another time. Let’s turn to your book now, Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion, and talk about what this book is trying to achieve. Let’s start off with the idea of how Christianity is really kind of hampering what Judaism can be understood as.

DB  12:25

It’s not Christianity that’s hampering, although sometimes it could be, but it’s more the kind of self-image that Jews and Jewish institutions have created for ourselves in our reflection back via the dominant ideas of the societies we’re in, which are Christian for the most part. Jews of Islam are a very important topic that I’m actually shamefully less familiar with, not totally ignorant of, but less familiar. I’m gonna give you a very stark example.

DB  13:15

I recently heard a couple of young men, I’d say, very late teens or early twenties—19, 20, 21. And the two we were talking, and they agreed that they’re not Jewish. Now, the only reason somebody would say they’re not Jewish is, of course, if they are. Right? So, what was the explanation? I listened a little bit more. And it was: “We don’t believe in God, and therefore, we’re not Jewish.” Now that is a shocking shift, and I’ve shopped this around among friends, colleagues, family, and they say it’s not uncommon to hear young Jews say that they’re not Jewish because they’re not religious. Now, I think it has, until very recently, been the case that the sentence, “My parents are Jewish, but I’m not,” was a shocker. It almost didn’t make sense, and now it’s starting to make sense.

DB  14:35

And that is a fundamental shift in Jewish self-identification. [Sigmund] Freud, 115 years ago, called himself a ‘godless Jew’. But he said, “But very much a Jew,” even if he couldn’t quite explain it. And now were acceding to a notion that to be godless is to be not Jewish. Now, when I say ‘we’re acceding’, I don’t mean that that’s the way that Orthodox Jews see the world, or other Jews; I mean that is the image that is beginning to infiltrate into the Jewish world, and particularly the younger generation.

DB  15:33

So, we could end up with signs saying, ‘First Jewish Church of Adelaide’ (laughs) or something of that sort—I’m just showing off I know the names of several towns in Australia [and] that’s why I didn’t say Sydney. (laughs) But that’s one example. An example of a very different type would be people who think that being Jewish is some kind of a political act of support for the State of Israel and virtually nothing else. And this leads to other difficulties and complexities, including when our esteemed ex-President Trump referred to Jews who are critical of Israel, American Jews who are critical of Israel, as disloyal.

DB  16:49

You never identified exactly what he meant by disloyal, but it’s clear that he considered that our country is not the United States even though we’re citizens of the United States and have lived here for centuries, but our ‘real’ country is Israel. So, any kind of chopping up, chopping off of Jewish identity and identifying it with one contemporary social notion or definition of collectives, is inevitably going to be distorting—some more, some less, some totally destructive.

BF  17:38

So, in order to combat this potentially destructive notion, what terminology would you favour to refer to as the Jewish community?

DB  17:57

Well, I refer to the Jews as a diaspora nation. Let’s leave community out of here for a moment because it’s a very loose term, which is—we [could] talk about the ‘stock trading community’ or (laughs) the ‘bus riding community’, so community has really, at least in the United States, become virtually devoid of meaning. And Jewish community, particularly, has come to refer to the opinions of the machers, of the wealthy and powerful. So, we’ll stay away from community.

DB  18:43

I like the term ‘Jewish collective’, by the way. It’s an anthropological term, but it’s sufficiently broad and undefined and it works well. In my next book, which is in press right now with Yale University Press, I argue that—I suggest, I don’t know if I argue—but I suggest, passionately, that the strongest and most positive way of continuing the Jewish collective is by focusing on [the] teaching of Jewish texts. Not religifying them, certainly not holding them as the property only of we, Orthodox Jews, but extending the teaching, particularly of the Talmud. Those who have never studied Talmud, it’s like people who’ve never been to Rome. You know, they’ve heard about it a lot, they imagine it, but then they haven’t really experienced the beauty of the eternal city until they’ve been there.

DB  20:15

And I think the Talmud is something like that; it’s just so varied, so funny, so grotesque, so surprising. And then through pages and pages, boring, but boring in a way that becomes interesting also. If somebody gave me a quarter of a billion dollars and said— not for me, but for me to use to save the Jews—I would look for the 1000 best Talmud teachers in the world—Orthodox, not Orthodox, gay, straight, transgender, black, white—and start a kind of an institution in which these great teachers will be able to go out to different places in the world. Something like a [inaudible] Talmud, you know, Talmud institution. In other words, not competing—we don’t need to compete. But focus, particularly, maybe a quarter billion would be enough, but whatever it takes—it’s a utopian dream, obviously, it’s not something that’s ever going to happen. But it does express, I think, metaphorically, at least, what I really value, treasure, and believe what would make the Jewish nation continue to thrive.

BF  20:51

I think that that’s a really—I mean, in Australia, we would say, ‘airy fairy’—but that image of working together with all of these different people from different backgrounds, as you said, whether they’re gay, straight, Orthodox, black, Australian, American, and actually sitting down to think about the passing down from one generation to the next, and having conversation, and thinking about actually sitting down with Talmud and thinking about it, and not just leaving it as though it’s just something that is stagnant, I think is a really amazing thing to think about.

DB  23:01

Yeah. On a very small scale—I’ve done very small pilot projects—but I have discovered frequently enough that even people who have never had experience of the Talmud, that once one starts teaching, and then eyes open up, the ears perk up. One of my favourite early students—but I won’t mention her name because they don’t have her permission—came to California to study Martin Buber’s philosophy, so she took a required course in Talmud and today is a very distinguished professor of Talmud. So, she made her life a life of Talmud. It’s like, for me, myself, because I didn’t grow up in religious home; I grew up in a home in which there was a lot of tradition and Yiddish spoken by my parents and grandparents. For me, the first time I began to study Talmud—almost the first day I compare it to somebody just you know, giving me a sugar pill with some strange and identified drug on it that then addicted me for the rest of my life.

BF  24:53

We have to wrap up soon. There’s one thing I would like to ask you before we wrap up, which is, I have some colleagues who are very fond of the Talmud, and as you said, there are some parts of the Talmud that are quite funny, which might be a nice place to finish. So, would you share with us perhaps one of your favourite more comical moments in the Talmud?

DB  25:19

(laughs) I’ll tell you a little story. A decade ago, I was invited to give the annual faculty research lecture at Berkeley—there’s one in the humanities and one the sciences every year—so I was invited to give the woman humanities. I began my lecture by saying, “The thesis of this lecture is that the Talmud is a funny book.” Five minutes later—I look at very sceptical faces because people do not think the Talmud funny—five minutes later, everybody burst into laughter, and I said, “I can sit down now.” So, the particular story that I told, or worked into my lecture on that occasion, was of two rabbis who are so fat. that a team of—if they met each other and their bellies were touching each other—a team of oxen could walk under the arch, created by their bellies, without touching them.

DB  26:37

So, we’re in [François] Rabelais territory here, right? This is, you know, Pantagruel with the Talmud retaining its very sober spaces. That means their children weren’t there because they couldn’t imagine how they could possibly have intercourse with their wives. At which point somebody says their wives were as fat as they were, and somebody else interjects and says, “But that makes it worse, not better.” And the Talmud answers, love compresses the flesh. For if you want, a different resolution of this terrible contradiction it is that the sizes of their organs matched the sizes of their bellies, right. As I say, it’s Rabelaition. It’s the Talmud being unbuttoned, why it’s there and what it means—that’s work for scholars. But this and many other stories like that, that we find are simply instances of humour strewn all through the Talmud. And that’s enough. I think we’re running out of time.

BF  28:13

I think that’s a nice place for us to finish. And thank you so much for joining us for The Religious Studies Project. And I hope that people are inspired to look at the Talmud more and think about it in a way that is going to, as I said, inspire people to think about it in perhaps a bit of a different way. Thank you so much for joining us.

DB  28:34

Thank you. Thank you for staying up late to have me.

Citation Info:

Boyarin, Daniel and Breann Fallon. 2021. “Genealogy of the Jewish Notion”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 6 December 2021. Transcribed by Andie Alexander. Version 1.0, 6 December 2021. Available at:

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