Rachel Adler: The Slippery Nature of Religious Borders

My first two posts here have focused on the works of Daniel Boyarin, in particular his books Border Lines and The Jewish Gospels. It is part of Boyarin’s project to consider religious borders, to destabilize them, and to question their legitimacy. While I’ve been critical of Boyarin, I’ll confess (again) that I admire his project. As Boyarin points out with great eloquence and considerable relentlessness, there’s something in the religious effort (or at least, the effort in Judaism and Christianity) to define who is in and who is out that is – dare I say it? – not kosher. The effort denies us the right to move as necessary from one side of the border to the other, and it creates an untenable position for those located where the border is being defined.

Yet as I wrote in my first post, there may be such a thing as a good religious border. I made a comparison to an open door – the doorway signifies the passage from one space to another, and allows us to assume the roles of host and guest, roles that can be said to have a sacred quality. I could go further and argue that it is a fundamental human right to close one’s doors and claim a measure of privacy. But it’s an open question whether a religion has an analogous right to close its doors, in effect to say who is allowed in and who must stay out.

On this question, let’s consider a terrific article by Rachel Adler, professor of Modern Jewish Thought, Judaism and Gender at USC and Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Dr. Adler wrote a piece in 2004 for The Reconstructionist magazine with the unwieldy title “’To Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest’ – Boundaries, Borderlands and the Ethics of Cultural Negotiation.” In this article Dr. Adler eloquently makes the point I tried to make earlier, that the discussion of human diversity is necessarily “talking about the positioning and texture of boundaries”, in that in is through these boundaries that a group maintains “its distinctiveness and its integrity.”

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Boyarin’s “The Jewish Gospels”: Were Second Temple Jews Binitarian?

To inaugurate my blog, I am taking a close look at The Jewish Gospels, Daniel Boyarin’s latest book on the intersection of early Christianity with the Judaism of the first few centuries CE. As I noted in my first post, I like Boyarin. He distrusts religious borders. He likes to mix things up. He’s controversial.

He also drives me crazy. Boyarin is a terrific scholar and an original thinker who (in my view) tends to take his scholarship and thinking to places beyond what the available evidence will support.

For an example, let’s examine his argument in The Jewish Gospels that “[m]any Israelites at the time of Jesus were expecting a Messiah who would be divine and come to earth in the form of a human.” (p. 6) By “divine”, Boyarin goes beyond the conventional idea that the Jewish Messiah would be a human “begotten” son of God, like the king of Zion in Psalms 2 (p. 28). No, by “divine” Boyarin means that in Jesus’ time some Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a “divinity”, “a God who looks like a human being” (p. 33), part of a “doubled godhead” (p. 34), the second person in a kind of “Jewish binitarianism” (p. 51).

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