- Positing a "Cultural Relationship" between Plato and the Babylonian Talmud
Daniel Boyarin. Socrates and the Fat Rabbis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. xiv + 388.
Daniel Boyarin's most recent book, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, focuses on the "Hellenism" of the Babylonian Talmud.1 Part of a growing body of work that compares rabbinic culture with other religious cultures of Sasanian Mesopotamia, the book argues that the Babylonian rabbis had some kind of contact with certain Greek sources.2 By reading Plato, Lucian, and the Talmud through the lens of Bakhtinian analysis, Boyarin seeks to elucidate the parallel presence in these authors of "seriocomic" tropes. These literary parallels interest Boyarin not only for purposes of structural comparison but for what he believes to be a likely historical relationship. He proposes that the Babylonian rabbis had access to the Platonic corpus and other Greek texts via the Syriac Christian community, even if by an oral or "folkloric" means of transmission. Although Boyarin employs no Syriac sources, he cites a variety of secondary literature in a manner that suggests that such evidence would support his argument. As a scholar familiar with these sources but also acquainted with rabbinics, my sense is that his treatment of this material is problematic.
The impetus for me to make the criticisms that I do here derives in part from the fact that Boyarin's originality has consistently helped to define the field and his syntheses often reflect it. His work enjoys a particular [End Page 255] influence outside rabbinics and is sometimes taken as representative of the field as a whole.3 However, to be frank, I have certain caveats in making the criticism I am going to make of Boyarin's book. I read much of Boyarin's work very closely when I was a graduate student and I am both indebted to it and consider myself to have a general affinity for his approach. I am not sure whether I would take up his playful self-identification as a "micro-historian of ideas," which he presents in the preface to the new book, but the same issues of scholarly identity—am I a historian or what?—that Boyarin discusses in the preface have also plagued me and I appreciate his attempt to address them. Because I have strong intellectual (and political) affinities with Boyarin's work I am therefore wary of my criticism being used by intellectually (and politically) conservative scholars to justify discounting what Boyarin is doing in this book and in his corpus as a whole. My response to those who would do this is a simple yet difficult challenge: Go and do better.
In this essay I will address primarily a short section of Boyarin's book, which covers the actual reception of Greek literature into the Babylonian rabbinic milieu (pp. 133–40). Although the material in these pages is not addressed elsewhere in the book and is distinct from the type of analysis it provides, this section acts as a linchpin: the possibility of his argument having any historical validity depends on these pages (as well as, for instance, his brief treatment of the possibility of Lucian's works being read in Sasanian Mesopotamia [p. 220]). This does not mean that the book would have no merits should my criticism be correct. If I am correct, it means only that Boyarin's historical claims must be abandoned (in the simplest sense of the term "historical"), and his argument recast as a typological parallel based on literary analysis.
Boyarin's central problematic concerns certain striking parallelisms between the Talmud and Greek texts (especially Plato and Lucian)—in particular, the trope of the "seriocomic." Many students of the Talmud and Plato have noted that both seem regularly to subvert their own high-minded and sublime earnestness with interludes of vulgarity and contradictory voices. "Both of these textual corpora present the same (or near enough to be worth thinking the same) conundrum" (p. 21). Boyarin sums up his larger goal and the cultural connections he sees when he states: [End Page 256...