Skip to content

Two Daniels (Matt and Boyarin) on Jewish creativity

November 1, 2011

Jim Davila notes that Moment magazine has a series of interviews on “The Origins of Jewish Creativity.”  Several of the interviews on creativity are worth reading, but Davila mentions the following two interviews in particular (which just happen to both be of scholars named Daniel and just happen to both live in Berkeley, California):

zohar_mattDaniel Matt

The Zohar, the foundational text of kabbalah, is a celebration of creativity—it shows how the Torah endlessly unfolds in meaning. Jacob ben-Sheshet Gerondi, a 13th century kabbalist, said it’s a mitzvah for every wise person to innovate in Torah according to his capacity. That’s refreshing because you often hear the traditional notion, to accept what’s been handed down or to learn from the master because you’re not able to create on your own. But ben-Sheshet says (after conveying one of his innovations), “If I hadn’t invented it in my mind I would say that this was transmitted to Moses at Mt. Sinai.” He’s aware that his interpretation is new, but he thinks it harmonizes with the ultimate source of tradition—the creative work itself is somehow deeply connected to an ancient mainstream. An essential component of all creativity is tapping into something deeper than your normal state of mind.

The basic approach of the rabbis is to apply midrash to reading the Torah—the rabbis are willing to be very bold in their interpretation. It’s natural for a Jew to be bold and innovative—that’s the secret to keeping the tradition alive. The Zohar reads the very opening words of the Torah radically. Instead of “In the beginning God created,” it’s “In the beginning the Infinite created God.” It sounds bizarre to say that God is the object of creation, but I think the meaning is that what we think of as God doesn’t do justice to the true nature of God, which they call ein sof, “without end.” Going beyond traditional midrash, the Zohar employs radical creativity to make us question our current assumptions about life, about the nature of the human being, about God and spirituality. It moves through the Torah verse by verse asking probing, challenging questions. As the Zohar says, “God is known and grasped to the degree that one opens the gates of imagination,” so it’s up to our imaginative faculty to understand reality, or the reality of God.

[Daniel Matt served for 20 years as a professor of Jewish spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He is currently composing a multi-volume annotated translation of the Zohar, entitled The Zohar: Pritzker Edition.]

See BLT posts on Daniel Matt here and here

boyarinphotopsDaniel Boyarin

The Babylonian Talmud is the most extraordinary creation of the Jewish people—it speaks a kind of manic energy and records that extraordinary energy and vitality from the areas where it was produced in the Babylonian Diaspora. Jews were imbued with creative energy through the intense study of this one peculiar vibrant work through the centuries. Sholom Aleichem, for example, records how the world of talmudic learning was diffused from the yeshiva throughout Jewish communities across class and gender. While the making of the Talmud was a creative act, so was the Jewish openness to many cultures: The cross-fertilization between ancient Jewish tradition and the outside world led to the taking in of new ideas and energy. Since the 19th century, much of Jewish creativity has stemmed from being in two cultures at the same time. Being in a position to observe a culture that you are also a part of is very conducive to creativity.

[Daniel Boyarin, Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture at the University of California Berkeley, has written extensively on the Talmud and gender studies.]

Davila mentions Daniel Boyarin’s forthcoming book The Jewish Gospels:  The Story of the Jewish Christ.  The book appears to be addressed to a popular audience (it will not published by an academic publisher but by The New Press and it features an introduction by Jack Miles.)  the blurb on Amazon frames the as a follow-on to a quote Boyarin in a 2008 New York Times story

jewish gospelsIn July 2008 a front-page story in the New York Times reported on the discovery of an ancient Hebrew tablet, dating from before the birth of Jesus, which predicted a Messiah who would rise from the dead after three days. Commenting on this startling discovery at the time, noted Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin argued that “some Christians will find it shocking—a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology.” Guiding us through a rich tapestry of new discoveries and ancient scriptures, The Jewish Gospels makes the powerful case that our conventional understandings of Jesus and of the origins of Christianity are wrong. In Boyarin’s scrupulously illustrated account, the coming of the Messiah was fully imagined in the ancient Jewish texts. Jesus, moreover, was embraced by many Jews as this person, and his core teachings were not at all a break from Jewish beliefs and teachings. Jesus and his followers, Boyarin shows, were simply Jewish. What came to be known as Christianity came much later, as religious and political leaders sought to impose a new religious orthodoxy that was not present at the time of Jesus’s life. In the vein of Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels, here is a brilliant new work that will break open some of our culture’s most cherished assumptions.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2011 5:48 pm

    What the NYT article shows already suggests Boyarin’s book will be revealing indeed. Thanks for the announcements and the links.

    Daniel Boyarin is a wonderfully creative mind. His essay “Masad or Yavneh? Gender and the Arts of Jewish Resistance” is brilliant and compelling (as a chapter in Jews and Other Differences). With the Hebrew tablet suggesting a old script for Jesus, perhaps, I wonder if Boyarin will in his new book bring in any of the womanly identities (in rabbinic literature in the diaspora that gets to the Roman’s feminizing stereotypes or later in Josephus). From the NYTs piece, there’s this that may relate to the gendered national resistance that Boyarin has noted in his essay:

    “His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come,” Mr. Knohl said. “This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel.”

  2. November 1, 2011 9:40 pm

    Well, I know both Matt and Boyarin, so I am probably not an objective judge.

    Have you read A Radical Jew? Just to completely confuse our different threads, here is … wait for it … N. T. Wright’s review of Boyarin.

    (Wright likes to say “wait for it” during his lectures.)

  3. November 3, 2011 8:56 am

    I think it’s just wonderful that you know both Matt and Boyarin and (as noted in a different thread) have had “personal chats with Wright”! I myself would rather have that sort of personal and personally informed judgments of these men than to be more of “an objective judge” without them!!

    (Thanks for sharing Wright’s review of Boyarin’s book. No, I haven’t yet read that work by Boyarin, but I find Wright’s perspectives on it to be quite amusing, telling even.)

  4. November 3, 2011 11:35 am

    That was a misstatement on my part — I only chatted once with N. T. Wright. Still, when you put it like that, it makes me look like a terrible name dropper.

    I think you would like that book by Boyarin.


  1. THE ORIGINS OF JEWISH CREATIVITY | The Book of Doctrines and Opinions:
  2. Peter Schäfer slams Daniel Boyarin–scholarly brawl « BLT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: