On May 17, the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Bar-Ilan University invited Prof. Daniel Boyarin to deliver a lecture for the general public, and an Im Tirtzu activist appealed to the university to cancel the event. The university compromised and switched the lecture from the open venue to Zoom.
Prof. Boyarin is controversial on so many levels, most importantly it is his no-holds-barred approach to studying the Talmud in conjunction with the history of the final days of the Second Temple. His books are fascinating, occasionally mind-blowing: his first book in English, “Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash” (1990), raises intriguing questions about the interplay between history, ideology, and interpretation. “Carnal Israel” (1993) distinguished between Jewish and Christian attitudes about the body, whereby Christianity rejected the Jewish tangible practice of the commandments, such as circumcision, in favor of a “spiritual” application. His “A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity” (1994) argues that Christian misunderstanding of Paul’s philosophy eventually led to the violent eradication of heretics by the Church.
Boyarin is an antizionist and highly critical of Israel, to put it mildly. In the preface to one of his books, he wrote: “On the stairs of my synagogue, in Berkeley, on Rosh Hashanah this year, I was told that I should be praying in a mosque, and versions of this, less crude perhaps, are being hurled at Jews daily by other Jews. […] More piercing to me is the pain of watching a tradition, my Judaism, to which I have dedicated my life, disintegrating before my eyes. It has been said by many Christians that Christianity died at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor. I fear, God forbid, that my Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Deheishe, Betein (Bethel), and El-Khalil (Hebron). […] If we are not for ourselves, other Jews say to me, who will be for us? And I answer, but if we are for ourselves alone, what are we?”
So, absolutely, Daniel Boyarin is an unrepentant critic (and some might just as easily use the word enemy) of Israel, and, like Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, he does not mince his words (neither, lehavdil, did Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel – those guys had a mouth on them…). There’s very little in Boyarin’s politics with which I agree, maybe nothing. But I’ve been mesmerized by his books and his talks (I’ve been to a few). I would not pay to hear him talk about Israel. But I would certainly shlep to Ramat Gan and fight for parking to hear him talk about the Talmud.
Im Tirtzu sent out a press release that describes accurately all the problems with Daniel Boyarin’s politics: “Boyarin is one of the leading supporters of the BDS movement in the United States, a member of Jewish Voices for Peace, calling for an academic boycott of Israel, and has testified in the past as an anti-Zionist. He has been quoted as saying Israel is ‘reminiscent of the Nazis’ and ‘guilty of destroying human rights and democracy.’ Additionally, he co-authored the book The No State Solution, in which he calls for the end of the State of Israel.”
Guilty as charged. But, you know, I’ve been following and supporting Im Tirtzu for a long time now, and unless I’m mistaken, one of their central arguments is that left-wing academics in Israel are biased against their right-wing students, to the point where some of them refuse to let them attend classes, or act vindictively against them come grading time. Israeli academia has for the most part proven outright anti-free speech over the past few months, in its war against judicial reform. Only a week ago, MK Simcha Rothman stood in a lecture hall at Tel Aviv University, where he had been invited to a debate on the reform, but a small group of anarchists just wouldn’t let him open his mouth, screaming at him with alarming brutality.
There is an interesting, important and unresolved debate as to how far the Right and the religious should go in using our opponents’ tactics against them in return, especially when those tactics clash with our core beliefs.
Im Tirtzu gave in to their impulse and imitated all the nasty things the left has been doing to us, and with that robbed us of the argument that anyone should be heard in a free and democratic society, especially on university campuses, especially when it’s a lecture on Jewish philosophy, and to let the court of free speech judge the value of what they have to say.
The Torah teaches us: “Let your camp be holy (Deut. 23:15)” (admittedly that pasuk is about retaining nothing unseemly in your camp, generally understood to be referring to human waste). But while others shut down lectures – we don’t. Jews don’t enforce ignorance – we pursue knowledge. And when it comes to pursuing knowledge, Ben Zoma said (Avot 4): “Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: ‘From all who taught me have I gained understanding’ (Psalms 119:99).”
Doe this include wicked people? You bet. Remember Elisha ben Abuyah (Acher) who became a heretic and openly desecrated Shabbat? He taught Rabbi Meir, who authored all the unattributed Mishnayot. It appears Rabbi Meir didn’t appeal to the academy to ban Acher. Of course, Acher it seems, was still respectful when teaching Torah, even as he no longer followed it.
I suggest a course correction (pun intended).