“Carnal Israel” by Daniel Boyarin— Focusing on the Body

Boyarin, Daniel. “Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture”, University of California Press, 1993.

Focusing on the Body

Amos Lassen

Daniel Boyarin begins his study of a different kind of Judaism by endorsing the; relating it to the early Christian theologians (the patristics) who saw Judaism as a “carnal” religion. This is  in contrast to the spiritual vision of the Church. It is Boyarin’s view that rabbinic Judaism was based on a set of assumptions about the human body that were profoundly different from those of Christianity. The body could not be renounced, for the Rabbis believed as a religious principle in the generation of offspring and hence in intercourse sanctioned by marriage.

This belief bound men and women together and thus made ithe various modes of gender separation practiced by early Christians impossible. There was a commitment to coupling that did not imply a resolution of the unequal distribution of power that characterized relations between the sexes in all late societies.  Boyarin shows that male construction and treatment of women in rabbinic Judaism was not based` on a loathing of the female body. Talmudic texts include currents of sexual domination and Boyarin strongly maintains that that the rabbinic account of human sexuality is different from that of Hellenistic Judaism and Pauline Christianity and is important and empowering.  

Boyarin brings together Talmudic scholarship and postmodern literary theory in presenting his beliefs are arguing that they are recognized. We look at and examine rabbinic constructions of the body, gender, and sexuality and get “programmatically feminist readings of ancient rabbinic culture that, at the same time, is deeply learned in the sources and existentially committed to the traditions grounded in them.”

Boyarin has a deep understanding of cultural theory and argues for a number of exceptionally striking theses regarding the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem or Land of Israel Talmud) relationships to sexuality, gender, and embodiment.

This books openly approaches the issue of sex in the Talmud. We also explore one of the earliest expressions of feminism in Judaism. The central thesis here looks at how the Jewish/Christian way of thinking heavily borrowed ideas from the Greek, platonic tradition andbecame mind over body while the Rabbinical tradition of late antiquity, as both a philosophical and political move, maintained the importance of the body and sexuality.

Boyarin admits that the emphasis on carnality came out of tribal and even xenophobic reasons and formed an important point of difference and an implicit critique of the Christian view that became dominant. We look at how this focus on the body played out in questions of theology, sexuality, gender, and even the study of the Talmud (since the last was explicitly forbidden to women).

Boyarin’s  historical approach is well-balanced and precise. He is very precise and balanced in how he presents his topic by pointing out at various points the temptation to simplify into black and white discourses of “good” and “bad,” especially in line with modern political values about the body and feminism.

Boyarin points out that there is much good in the Rabbinic Tradition, that  Christians could and should benefit from. We see how to root ideas about sexuality in historical context, that are usually not thought about because they seem to be taken for granted (always difficult). This indeed helps Christians correct those notions that put celibacy over and against marriage and sex.

We clearly see that it is necessary for us to move past the dualist and allegorical readings of scripture. A key insight from reading Boyarin, is that we need to move beyond the dualist and allegorical reading of scripture. Christianity is in needs of a typological and liturgical approach to sexuality to avoid the twisted abstractness of “allegory”.  You will think about what you read long after the curtains are drawn so much and, in effect, isn’t that good writing is supposed to do?

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