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Socrates and the Fat Rabbis

Socrates and the Fat Rabbis

by Daniel Boyarin

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What kind of literature is the Talmud? To answer this question, Daniel Boyarin looks to an unlikely source: the dialogues of Plato. In these ancient texts he finds similarities, both in their combination of various genres and topics and in their dialogic structure. But Boyarin goes beyond these structural similarities, arguing also for a cultural


What kind of literature is the Talmud? To answer this question, Daniel Boyarin looks to an unlikely source: the dialogues of Plato. In these ancient texts he finds similarities, both in their combination of various genres and topics and in their dialogic structure. But Boyarin goes beyond these structural similarities, arguing also for a cultural relationship.
In Socrates and the Fat Rabbis, Boyarin suggests that both the Platonic and the talmudic dialogues are not dialogic at all. Using Michael Bakhtin’s notion of represented dialogue and real dialogism, Boyarin demonstrates, through multiple close readings, that the give-and-take in these texts is actually much closer to a monologue in spirit. At the same time, he shows that there is a dialogism in both texts on a deeper structural level between a voice of philosophical or religious dead seriousness and a voice from within that mocks that very high solemnity at the same time. Boyarin ultimately singles out Menippean satire as the most important genre through which to understand both the Talmud and Plato, emphasizing their seriocomic peculiarity.
An innovative advancement in rabbinic studies, as well as a bold and controversial new way of reading Plato, Socrates and the Fat Rabbis makes a major contribution to scholarship on thought and culture of the ancient Mediterranean.

Editorial Reviews

Judith Butler

“Boyarin’s imaginative and erudite book stages a quite stunning encounter between Socrates, and the philosophical enterprise he represents, and the rabbinic tradition of Talmudic interpretation. Along the way, Boyarin finds a way of accounting for both the formation and limits of philosophical idealism, returning his reader time and again to the gap that separates ideal worlds from the matter of living. At stake is the meaning of both dialogue and dialectics, both of which assume an important rhetorical dimension. With irony, brilliance, and grace, Boyarin shows how the rhetorical dimensions of irony, comedy, fantastic figures, polyvocality, and omission are essential to understanding the kind of dialogue that remains critical and vigilant in relation to the commitment to truth. Over and against an idealism that would transcend the sensuous world, including errant bodies and wayward utterances, Boyarin insists on the necessity of that chasm that separates ideal truth from the truth of what we can and must live. This is a joyous, serious, and convincing book, one that not only brings the study of Plato (particularly in the double-voice of Socrates) into a necessary engagement with Talmudic interpretations, but reminds us again how important it is for rethinking the dialogic conditions of truth to pay close attention to what fails to conform to authoritative law, to the faltering effort to find one’s way, and to a critical project that requires new forms of becoming, and new ways of becoming slightly less serious, in order to move, with others, closer to what is true.”

Common Knowledge

“It is almost impossible to experience the Talmud from outside the talmudic academy. Inside the yeshiva world, a long, rigorous training is prescribed — an initiation so thorough that, at the end of it, familiarity breeds blindness to the Talmud’s extreme strangeness. It is Boyarin’s strength that he looks at the Talmud from both in-and outside. His work balances on the pin’s head where Western modes (from Plato through contemporary theory) and Judaic ones intersect. The result is in some ways as heteroglossic as the mixed genres that Boyarin unearths in both Platonic dialogues and talmudic dialectics. This book is in a way its own Mennipean satire, ‘including scenes in heaven, dialogue between the living and dead . . . and especially querying (almost self-mockery) of the value of the author’s own search for truth.’ The result is to tear open textual fabrics that have remained on the whole intact because they are closely watched and self-enclosed. Boyarin’s book addresses suspicions that many have had as to how dialogical Plato’s dialogues are, and it brings to view how astonishingly constructed the Talmud is in ways that have ‘not been considered until now . . . because Babylonian Jewish literature has hardly been considered in any contexts but its own.’”

Times Literary Supplement

“Boyarin’s ingeniously constructed dialogue between Plato and the Talmud in this book has implications for cultural and intellectual history. . . . Boyarin simultaneously reveals the despotic kernel of secular rationalism and the grotesque core of sacred revelation.”—Times Literary Supplement


Simon Goldhill

“It is a brilliant and novel move to put the Talmud next to Lucian. Boyarin brings together here some very hot topics: cultural difference, cultural regulation, and the specific interface between Jewish and Greco-Roman culture. Socrates and the Fat Rabbis is a book with intellectual range and ambition. And it is fun—as the title promises.”

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By Daniel Boyarin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-06916-6

Chapter One

In Praise of Indecorous Acts of Discourse: An Essay by Way of Introduction

C. S. Lewis in an oft-quoted remark opined that, "this universe, which has produced the bee-orchid and the giraffe, has produced nothing stranger than Martianus Capella." I would like to claim that the dialogues of Plato and, even more, the Babylonian Talmud are as strange as Martianus Capella, bee-orchids, or giraffes. The interpretative traditions, both premodern and modern, have done everything in their power to reduce the embarrassment of such strangeness. I am delighted rather than embarrassed by the "monstrosity" of my "holy" books and find in them the key to a significantly different approach to the question of truth than what we are used to.2 Literary criticism with its near ubiquitous insistence on "decorum" provides—even in my dispute with that very term—the grounds of my engagement and production of the different way of reading that I propose.

The literary term, decorum, used slightly differently than in common parlance, will be a very helpful one for the analysis throughout:

Decorum [dikorum], a standard of appropriateness by which certain styles, characters, forms, and actions in literary works are deemed suitable to one another within a hierarchical model of culture bound by class distinctions. Derived from Horace's Ars Poetica (c.20 BCE) and other works of classical criticism, decorum was a major principle of late Renaissance taste and of neoclassicism. It ranked and fixed the various literary genres in high, middle, and low stations, and expected the style, characters, and actions in each to conform to its assigned level: thus a tragedy or epic should be written in a high or grand style about highranking characters performing grand deeds, whereas a comedy should treat humble characters and events in a low or colloquial style. The mixture of high and low levels, as in Shakespeare, was seen as indecorous, although it could be exploited for humorous effect in burlesques and mockheroic works.

Horace's definition of the opposite of decorum is very helpful here too: "The poetic body must avoid the monstrous conjugation of foreign parts." As we will see further on, human obesity is frequently figured in antiquity as a sign of the opposite of decorum and the non-serious. This is not owing, I think, to any inherent humor in fat or mocking of fat people, so much as to the alleged incongruity of the body engendered by certain parts of it being out of proportion with others, as well as the sheer fleshliness that it forces us to pay attention to. As we will see, this is a figure, as well, for malformed and disproportionate, indecorous discourses, condemned by most authors, but praised—highly—in this book of mine. When the high, the middle, and the low, the serious and the comic, the realistic and the fantastic, the "classical" and the grotesque, are all conjoined in a single text, we have a monstrous conjugation.

One of the very emblems of the concatenation of the serious and the comic in Plato's work is the incident of Aristophanes' hiccups in the Symposium:

Pausanias came to a pause—this is the balanced way in which I have been taught by the wise to speak; and Aristodemus said that the turn of Aristophanes was next, but either he had eaten too much, or from some other cause he had the hiccough, and was obliged to change turns with Eryximachus the physician, who was reclining on the couch below him. Eryximachus, he said, you ought either to stop my hiccough, or to speak in my turn until I have left off.

I will do both, said Eryximachus: I will speak in your turn, and do you speak in mine; and while I am speaking let me recommend you to hold your breath, and if after you have done so for some time the hiccough is no better, then gargle with a little water; and if it still continues, tickle your nose with something and sneeze; and if you sneeze once or twice, even the most violent hiccough is sure to go. I will do as you prescribe, said Aristophanes, and now get on.

This incident involves a double "lapse in tone." First of all, a text in which a serious investigation of the place of Eros in human endeavor is being discussed is hardly the occasion, it would seem, for such low bodily burlesque. As adumbrated just above, Plato himself insisted on a criterion of seriousness as being of ultimate import. Furthermore, the spoudaios is precisely that at which it is wrong to laugh, as we learn from the Euthydemus (300e): So I remarked: "Why are you laughing, Cleinias, at such serious and beautiful things? [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]." Secondly, the implication of this hiccups passage is that the text itself (or at least its order), which one would have thought is carefully planned to make its points, has, in fact, been partly generated out of the out-of-control antics of the lower body. This all hardly conforms to Plato's claim to composing the fairest of all, the truest of all, the most spoudaios of all texts. Why are you laughing, Plato, at such serious and beautiful things?

The Serious, the Comic, and the Seriocomic

Five quotations on page vii—four from ancient sources and one from a modern writer—announce the theme of this book as its epigraphs or mottos. Since these quotations track the overall structure of the argument of the book, I have chosen to gloss them each briefly as a way into the essay presented here. The first epigraph: "As for jests, since they may sometimes be useful in debates, the advice of Gorgias was good—to confound the opponents' seriousness with jest and their jest with seriousness. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1419b). It is clear from this quotation that at least as far back as Aristotle's time, and if we trust him in his report, as far back as Gorgias himself, the categories of spoudaios and geloios—"serious" and "humorous"—were already active in Greek culture and recognized modes of discourse. An oblique witness can be found, perhaps, at the Gorgias 473e, where Socrates upbraids Polus: "What's this, Polus? You're laughing? Is this still another kind of refutation, to laugh someone down whenever he says something, but not to refute him?" According to Gorgias, moreover, they stand somehow in opposition to each other, such that one can "confound" the other; either one can demolish the other (this is a key point). Aristotle, perhaps surprisingly, entirely endorses Gorgias's view on this issue.

We don't quite know what Gorgias meant by spoudaios, and we can only guess at the cultural import of this opposition. One clue, however, is provided by the following passage from Herodotus (1.8.1):

VIII. This Candaules, then, fell in love with his own wife, so much so that he believed her to be by far the most beautiful woman in the world; and believing this, he praised her beauty beyond measure to Gyges son of Dascylus, who was his favorite among his bodyguard; for it was to Gyges that he entrusted all his most important (spoudaiestera) matters.


From this eloquent passage, we can learn something of the meaning of spoudaios. The most spoudaios is that with which one entrusts the most trusted of one's retainers (indeed the story goes on to inform us that he wished to share the beauty of his wife's nakedness with said Gyges).

Derived originally from meaning "haste," spoudaios came to mean "energetic," and thus, perhaps paradoxically to our ears, "in earnest"; hence spoudaios as the earnest, the important, the serious, as opposed to the joking, the laughable, as the next citation from Aristophanes' Frogs (391), makes clear:


and that I may say much that is funny and much that is serious


One wonders how serious the Chorus of the Frogs is in stating that it will say much that is spoudaia in the course of that play, but in any case, we see here the contrast between spoudaios and geloios, as used by (Pseudo?)Gorgias.

One final quotation, from Demosthenes (Speeches 24.4), will help further specify the meaning of spoudaios among Plato's contemporaries:

Now it is the common practice of those who take up any piece of public business to inform you that the matter on which they happen to be making their speeches is most momentous, and worthy of your best attention.


This quotation adds further specification to the meaning of spoudaios by defining it precisely as "that which is most worthy of attention," the implication being further that the geloios as the opposite of the spoudaios is not worthy of attention, or at any rate less worthy of attention. (Note that I am not claiming that the only antonym of spoudaios in Greek is geloios.) This meaning will be crucial for understanding Plato's usage of these terms, which is what is central, of course, for this book.

Plato, in any case, expounds what he means by "serious," and he shows it to be consistent with all of the above citations when he writes, "for we have come to see that we must not take such poetry seriously as a serious thing that lays hold on truth" [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]] (Republic 10.608a). Plato has given us here, indirectly at any rate, quite a precise definition of the spoudaios as he sees it, namely that which seeks to seize on Truth. Any other kind of discourse, from tragedy to rhetoric, any discourse that resists the notion of Truth, will be by definition not serious, but geloios. The Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth is that which according to Plato is worthy of attention (which is not to claim that Plato thinks it accessible).

Andrea Nightingale has discussed this issue with respect to Plato's attitude toward tragedy. She shows that Socrates repeatedly uses the term "serious thing" (spoudaios) and grammatical variants to discredit tragedy as not being spoudaios: "Socrates claims at [Republic] 602b that tragedy is a 'mimesis' that is [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [a child's play and not serious]." Most important for my semantic purposes, however, are her following remarks:

In that text [the Laws 7], after distinguishing comedy and tragedy as genres concerned with (respectively) [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (816d9, e5; cf. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (817a2), the Athenian proceeds to contrast the "so-called serious" creations of the tragedians ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 817a2–3) with the "most beautiful and finest tragedy" that he and his interlocutors are themselves producing in their construction of a good code of laws ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], 817b2–3). Here, Plato not only denies that tragedy is truly "serious," but confers upon his own creations the title of serious tragedy.

In contrast to and defiance of general Athenian usage (as so frequently in Plato), that which they call spoudaios, namely tragedy, is declared by Plato to be only "so-called." What we learn very well and clearly from this passage is that, for Plato, "seriousness" is the mark of an important, significant discourse, that which deserves the name "tragedy," while the playful and mimetic—even on tragic themes—is not serious, not beautiful, and without virtue. The comic, it would seem, is even more contemptible than the tragic in poetry, as Nightingale elegantly argues. In contrast to Aristophanes, who seems to allow for both the spoudaios and the geloios in a comedy such as the Frogs, for Plato neither the comic nor the tragic is spoudaios.

Perhaps the richest, most explicit reflection by Plato on "seriousness" is given in the Laws 7.803.

ATHENIAN: [803b] And notwithstanding that human affairs are unworthy of serious effort [spoudes], necessity counsels us to be serious [spoudazein]; and that is our misfortune. Yet, since we are where we are, it is no doubt becoming that we should show this earnestness in a suitable direction. But no doubt [803c] I may be faced—and rightly faced—with the question, "What do I mean by this?"

CLINIAS: Certainly.

ATHENIAN: What I assert is this—that a man ought to be in serious earnest about serious things [spoudaion spoudazein], and not about trifles [me spoudaion]; and that the object really worthy of all serious and blessed effort is God, while man is contrived, as we said above, to be a plaything of God, and the best part of him is really just that; and thus I say that every man and woman ought to pass through life in accordance with this character, playing at the noblest of pastimes, being otherwise minded than they now are.

[803d] CLINIAS: How so?

ATHENIAN: Now they imagine that serious work should be done for the sake of play; for they think that it is for the sake of peace that the serious work of war needs to be well conducted. But as a matter of fact we, it would seem, do not find in war, either as existing or likely to exist, either real play or education worthy of the name, which is what we assert to be in our eyes the most serious thing. It is the life of peace that everyone should live as much and as well as he can.

This text is worthy of a longer analysis than I shall give it here for my present purposes. The subject of this text is no less than education, the education of the young. The speaker, if not Plato's "mouthpiece," certainly one of his approved voices, asserts that human affairs in general are hardly worthy of serious attention (spoudaia). But given that we are constrained to deal with them, it becomes necessary to distinguish the serious (spoudaios) from the nonserious (me spoudaios). Much more, of course, could be said about this passage, but here it is sufficient to cite it for my philological purpose of articulating what the "serious" is for Attic writers.

Like Plato, albeit with nothing like the same fulsomeness, the Babylonian Talmud (or the Bavli; both terms will be used below) knows explicitly, it seems, of a distinction between the serious and the comic in discourse. In a famous passage we are informed that

Rabba before he commenced [his lesson] to the scholars used to say a joking word [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]], and the scholars were amused. After that he sat in dread [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] and began the lesson. (Shabbat 30b)

The Bavli thus invokes the same structural opposition between comic (milta debdihuta) and solemn ('emta = literally "fear") with which Plato is working (although we are never told in the Bavli of what these "joking words" consisted). It is clear from the context that the "solemn" words and not the joking ones are the real matter at hand. Further consideration of the larger context of this passage will repay us. After observing that Kohellet (Ecclesiastes) contradicts itself several times on the question of the goodness (or evil) of laughing, the Talmud sorts out the contradiction between two of these verses in the following fashion:

"And I praised happiness" [8:15]—the joy of performing a commandment. "And happiness what [good] is it" [2:2]—this is joy that is not caused by performing a commandment. This comes to teach you that the Indwelling of God (Shekhina) rests [on a person], neither out of sadness, nor out of laziness, nor out of laughing, nor from lightheadedness, nor out of [idle] conversation, nor out of useless words, but from the joy of performing commandments.... Rav Yehuda said, "And the same is true for a matter of halakha."


Excerpted from SOCRATES & THE FAT RABBIS by Daniel Boyarin Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Daniel Boyarin is professor of Talmudic culture and holds the Herman P. and Sophia Taubman Chair in the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author, coauthor, editor, or coeditor of more than a dozen books, including, most recently, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity.

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