Daniel Boyarin: Talmudist, feminist, anti-Zionist, only-in-Berkeley Orthodox Jew

Within ten minutes of his first encounter with the Talmud, Daniel Boyarin was hooked. “It was something like a shot of heroin,” he said. “That was it. I knew I wanted to be a scholar of Talmud.”

He was 20 and spending a year abroad at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University — years past the typical age a yeshiva bocher starts learning Talmud. But that didn’t dissuade him. Nothing much does.

Daniel Boyarin in his Berkeley office. photo/cathleen maclearie

“People start studying cuneiform and Sanskrit and nuclear physics and higher mathematics as adults,” he reasoned, explaining why he ignored those who told him he was too old. “I wasn’t buying that sort of mystification.”

Today Boyarin, 68, is a world-class authority in his field — one of the true giants, in this country as well as in Israel. But he’s far from the typical Talmud scholar. He has a kippah on his head, yes, and is shomer Shabbos, but he’s also a confirmed anti-Zionist, a serious collector of fine kosher wines, and has an abiding interest in feminism and queer theory.

Daniel Boyarin is, in short, quite the iconoclast, even in a city that prides itself on defying the mainstream.

Boyarin has been on the U.C. Berkeley faculty since 1990 and is the Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the departments of Near Eastern studies and rhetoric. He has written 12 books, ranging from rabbinic ideas about sexuality to the relationship between psychoanalysis and Judaism; he has another book in the works and two more in contract; and he has co-edited five others, including one with his brother Jonathan, a professor of Jewish studies at Cornell University.

His scholarship is so vast that practically every graduate student in his field encounters it at some point, and he is so well-known in academia that a discussion about his views on a particular talmudic point was a running joke in the 2011 Israeli film “Footnote.”

“It was flattering, and it felt accurate to me,” Boyarin said of the movie banter. “I would have been upset if it were flattering and it felt inaccurate, but in those 30 seconds, they got me right. For five minutes I was the most famous talmudist in the world, and for 10 minutes, being a Talmud scholar was something sexy.”

For an Orthodox Jew, he is unorthodox in his scholarly interests. A feminist and gay rights advocate, he has written widely about looking at the Talmud through the lenses of gender and queerness. His awards range from the Rosenthal Prize for Talmudic Studies from Hebrew University to best essay in gay and lesbian studies from the Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the Modern Language Association.

“He has defined the field of rabbinics for over two decades,” said Deena Aranoff, assistant professor of medieval Jewish studies at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. “The questions that he raises, and the way he frames the material, have become the questions and the framing for the field.”

And he has a particular interest in early Christianity, writing works about the apostle Paul and the Jewish aspects of Jesus.

Daniel Boyarin in his office at U.C. Berkeley photos/cathleen maclearie

“His genius is breathtaking,” said his colleague, Burton L. Visotzky, the Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “He has vision, insight and all of the tools that you want a critic to have. He’s an astonishing scholar.”

But he’s not a scholar 24/7. He relaxes by spending time in the kitchen and is an accomplished cook. “It’s the one thing I do that’s physical, and with my hands,” he said.

He’s also a dedicated oenophile; he keeps a collection of several hundred bottles of French kosher wine in a storage facility in Oakland, and says he plans on drinking them after he retires. “I think of them as an investment in my retirement,” he said. “I have a pension from the university, and have my collection of wine.”

Despite his fame in the academic world, there’s a reason he is relatively unknown in the local Jewish community beyond Congregation Beth Israel, the Modern Orthodox synagogue in Berkeley he belonged to for many years: his politics on Israel. A supporter of Jewish Voice for Peace and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, Daniel Boyarin isn’t afraid to call himself an anti-Zionist.

“It took years before I could utter the words anti-Zionist,” he said. “It was like my tongue would stick to the roof of my mouth. But now, of course, it just trips off my tongue.”

Boyarin sat for an interview in his book-lined office on the Cal campus, where an “End U.S. Aid to Israel” sticker is affixed to his office door. With his beard, kippah and thick-rimmed glasses, he looks very much like the rabbi he is not; on the day of his J. interview, he wore suspenders with a jazz motif, one of at least 15 pairs he owns.

Boyarin was raised in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and yes, he knew Bruce Springsteen, who was a few years behind him at Freehold High School. Both of their photos are displayed in the school hallway, among those of other graduates who made good.

The son of chicken farmers, Boyarin grew up in a strongly Jewish home — Litvaks from historical Lithuania on all four sides, he notes. As a child, he was active in the Labor Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror and attended its summer camp. His family was not strictly observant as he was growing up, but he was exposed to religious life when his Orthodox grandfather, who had been a brilliant yeshiva student, would visit. They’d go on long walks on Shabbos afternoon, leaving an impression on the young Boyarin.

Boyarin went on to attend Goddard College in Vermont, where he was attracted to the theater department. “I did very well as a high school actor, and I was good,” Boyarin said. But a college internship at a D. C. theater dissuaded him  after he observed the prevalent culture of drinking and carousing.

Meanwhile, it was the 1960s, and gurus and mysticism were in fashion. During his sophomore year he heard about the Zohar, the seminal text of Jewish mysticism, and made plans to spend his junior year in Jerusalem to study it. While at Hebrew University, he met his wife, Chava, now a lecturer in Hebrew at Cal. They were in a class together, and he offered to cook for her in exchange for help with his Hebrew. They married a year later and came back to the U.S. together. They’ve been together 48 years and have two sons and four grandchildren, with a fifth on the way.

Daniel Boyarin

By the end of his college year in Israel, Boyarin knew he wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in Talmud. He began leading a Jewishly observant life during his last year at Goddard, and after graduating he entered the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school, though he never considered becoming a rabbi. “I knew that dealing with a congregation and all of that was not for me.”

In fact, he said, JTS accepted him on the condition he promise not to pursue a career in the rabbinate. “I had hair down to my shoulders, I was talking about mysticism and the Messiah, and Vietnam being an apocalyptic moment,” he said with a laugh.

Boyarin was a professor of Talmud at JTS until the early ’80s, when he and Chava moved back to Israel. He joined the faculty of Ben-Gurion University and then Bar-Ilan University, and thought he and Chava would raise their sons and spend the rest of their years in the Jewish state.

But then, in December 1987, the first intifada started.

“When I heard [then Minister of Defense] Yitzhak Rabin say ‘break their arms and legs’ [speaking about Palestinian demonstrators], I thought ‘There’s something wrong here.’ And when I talked to people about it, who told me it’s necessary to break the arms and legs of young teenage boys to support this project, then I felt that this project is rotten.”

That was the beginning of his disillusionment with Zionism. “The more I studied and looked at the discourse, the more I really came to believe it was not a question of right-wing Zionist versus left-wing Zionist. I realized that there is a fundamental flaw at the heart of the enterprise.”

Boyarin became active with the anti-Zionist socialist organization Matzpen and the Alternative Information Center, a joint Israeli-Palestinian NGO founded to disseminate information about the conflict.

In 1990, he decided to come back to the U.S., settling in Berkeley and joining Congregation Beth Israel. Chava stayed behind while their sons finished their Israeli army service. For the next several years the family lived apart, reuniting for holidays in either Berkeley or Israel.

As the years passed, and the Mideast conflict dragged on, his views continued to harden. Boyarin returned to Israel from 1996 to 1998 as director of the University of California’s Israel program abroad, during which he regularly attended demonstrations protesting Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

Even though his sons had finished their army service by then, “one of the nightmares I had was that I would be at a demonstration somewhere on the West Bank and the cavalry would come and one of them would be one of my sons,” he said.

In an essay that appeared in the 2003 anthology “Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” he wrote: “It has been said by many Christians that Christianity died at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor. I fear — G-d forbid — that my Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Daheishe, Beteen (Beth El) and al-Khalil (Hebron).”

While Beth Israel had been Boyarin’s spiritual home in Berkeley, he quit several years ago. The details of what happened are hazy in his mind, but he said it had to do with the synagogue’s support of Israel.

Stickers on his office door

“I didn’t have any problems hanging out with people I disagree with, but I felt that positions were being adopted as if all Jews, all faithful Jews, automatically held them without sufficient allowance for honest dissent and disagreement about what was best for Jews to do,” he said. “I loved Beth Israel, and now I love it from afar.”

Today Boyarin prays with Chabad on major holidays but otherwise keeps Shabbat with his family. His voice got quiet as he shrugged and said wistfully, “People have suffered a lot greater losses for their ideals.”

Despite his break with the congregation, Boyarin and Rabbi Yonatan Cohen, spiritual leader of Beth Israel, have great respect and even affection for each other.

“Daniel has maintained a close relationship with the CBI family, and in the spirit of family, our model for community, we still join together in times of mourning and celebration,” Cohen said.

While Boyarin’s views on Israel have not softened, these days he says he puts all his energy toward his scholarship, and his politics do not enter the classroom. “There’s a power relationship,” he explained. “I know what it felt like to be in shul as a congregant and hear things from the pulpit that made my blood boil and felt I couldn’t respond. I don’t think it’s necessary or productive to make my students uncomfortable to be directly confronted by that.”

However, he does occasionally enter the fray on campus as he did in 2010, when a divestment bill came before the student senate. A statement he wrote in favor of the bill read, in part, “The self-appointed, so-called ‘Jewish Community,’ that most political of imaginary entities, does not speak for us, and ethical, political judgments are not ever to be construed as anti-Semitism. … if there is any marginalization that is going on and de-legitimization, it is precisely the attempt at excluding dissenters from the Jewish community itself.”

Boyarin said local Jewish organizations and programs rarely ask him to teach or lecture, although he does teach a public Talmud class on Sundays when he’s not traveling (email boyarin@berkeley.edu for location). He describes himself as quite marginal in the larger Jewish community, “persona non grata,” even — a characterization others do not dispute.

“If Daniel is anything, he loves to be cutting edge, and sometimes that means he’s really out there on the edge and people may not follow him,” said Visotzky, the JTS rabbi. “Virtually everything he’s written has attracted attention, though not necessarily agreement. If he writes a new book, people will read it because they want to know what he’s saying. Gentiles who are interested in Jewish literature and Christian historians and theologians always pay attention to him. In doing comparative work, he’s proven himself to be a darling of the literary set, even as sometimes he is leaving the Jewish world running to catch up with him, or running away from him.”

Boyarin’s anti-Zionism isn’t the only thing that sets him apart. His encounter with a feminist theory reading group at an academic conference in the early ’90s turned him on to feminism.

As he describes it, “It was a transformative experience, in that I had been living and working in Israel up to that point, and was very much in a world of male talmudists and not challenged to think beyond that.”

What grew out of that was his 1995 book “Carnal Israel,” about the different beliefs that rabbinic Judaism and Christianity held about the human body.

And then there’s his work on what he calls “the Jewish sect formerly known as Christianity.” He said 600 people showed up to hear him gave his paper on Paul at the Society of Biblical Literature conference in the early ’90s. He began the talk by saying, “You’re probably wondering what a Talmud scholar is doing lecturing on Paul. Last year, here, I lectured on the Talmud —12 people came, and six of them left.”

“He’s the most idiosyncratic person I’ve ever met,” said Yosef Rosen, a graduate student who came to U.C. Berkeley specifically to study with Boyarin. Rosen grew up in an Orthodox home in Passaic, N.J., attending ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, but does not identify that way anymore. He noted that many grad students who study with Boyarin come from similar backgrounds.

“His ability to collage so many different perspectives and projects and interests is a value that I respect and try to imitate as a model,” said Rosen. “His passions don’t cohere into a typical identity that you can imagine.”

According to Visotzky, a large part of Boyarin’s genius is that “he is incredibly quick at assimilating what’s new.” He gave as an example that when “intertexuality” — the shaping of a text’s meaning by another text — was the talk of the Modern Language Association in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Boyarin wrote “Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash,” his first book in English. (His first book, “Sephardic Speculation,” was written in Hebrew.)

“What he accomplished by doing that is he moved the ways in which we interpret rabbinic literature into the postmodern world,” said Visotzky.

Boyarin’s approach has gained him wide recognition in the non-Jewish scholarly world.

“He’s one of, if not the only, scholar of Jewish studies that people in literature and gender studies departments have heard of,” Rosen added. “He was an early model of what interdisciplinary Jewish studies can be.”

At 68, Boyarin is thinking about retirement, even though he has much more he wants to accomplish.

“I want to write more,” he said. “I’ve loved my sabbaticals, but I also love my teaching. On the other hand, I’m getting the message from Berkeley and ultimately from the universe that I’ve had my day.”

And therein lies the paradox of Daniel Boyarin, a scholar of world renown who is hardly known in the place he’s called home for the past 25 years.

“I’m very marginal in terms of Jewish communal life,” he said. “In one way it doesn’t bother me because I chose it, but in another way it’s not easy to be as committed to the Jews and Jewish life and what’s called Judaism, and be as unconnected with community as I am.”

Headshot of Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."