Jonathan Boyarin on Beth A. Berkowitz’s Defining Jewish Difference: From Antiquity to the Present
Trigger warning: devotees of popular Kabbalah and Judaism may be distressed by at least one of the findings of this book.
How much difference can one sentence make? Defining Jewish Difference traces several vital moments in the reception history of a single verse that is all about the making of differences. In Beth Berkowitz’s English rendering, verse 3 of chapter 18 in the book of Leviticus reads: “Like the practice of the land of Egypt where you have dwelled, you should not practice, and like the practices of the land of Canaan to which I am bringing you, you should not practice, and in their laws you should not go.” No doubt the verse has been read countless times over the centuries, in ritual and other contexts, without readers or listeners bothering to query just what it might mean. Which practices are intended? All? Only those that conflict with practices somehow already established as distinctively Israelite? Are Egyptian practices different from Canaanite, or is the repetition intended only for rhetorical emphasis? Are only Egyptian and Canaanite practices foresworn, since these might well be seen as the most dangerously proximate Others of the Biblical Israelites, or do they stand as representative of all non-Israelite (and later, of all non-Jewish) peoples? What is the difference between practices and laws, and what is the difference between practicing and going?
Berkowitz took a long pause to ask these questions and more; this book is her account of how the verse has been deployed in a range of texts from the Mishnaic era and beyond. As she states, the “anchoring claim of this book” is that there are two divergent but equally productive readings of Leviticus 18:3. One, “read in its local passage,” is “a broad ethnic paradigm of Israelite distinctiveness. … But when Lev 18:3 is read in the light of the entirety of chapter 18’s sex taboos, a paradigm of [more specifically] sexual or moral distinctiveness emerges.” In addition to placing the verse in these two levels of immediately surrounding text, Berkowitz assesses the multiple and divergent readings of the verse in the larger context of the Pentateuchal narrative, noting that “the double-sided portrait of Egypt and Canaan that emerges from Leviticus 18 — on the one hand sexual sinner, on the other hand simply not Israel — is mirrored in the complexity of the characters in Genesis.”
Berkowitz promises, and delivers, openness toward the “anxieties of both those who embrace … separatism and those who limit it,” in the present as well as the past. In addition to the “two divergent readings” of the key verse mentioned above, much of the thematic consistency between Berkowitz’s readings of texts widely scattered through centuries and territory is precisely this repeated fluctuation or tension between more expansive or absolutist, and more restricted or relativist interpretations of the scope of the verse. Inevitably, although her explicit focus is on how Israelites and Jews have been rhetorically distinguished from their neighbors, her explorations also constitute a contribution to the never-ending discussion about Jewish identification — in this case, through the remarkable persistence through time, language, and place of the very theme of how much and what kinds of difference Jews must maintain. One of the singular virtues of the book is its demonstration that close reading can be combined with broad historical scope, further helping to close the gap between totalizing readings of a distinct and basically unchanging Jewish history or culture, and particularist readings of multiple Jewish cultures restricted to their own chronotopes.
The particular texts Berkowitz analyzes provide a range of answers to the questions posed above about Leviticus 18:3. For the Greek Jewish Philo, the verse served — at least along with other, more literal or historical meanings — as an allegory of Bildung, in which Egypt and Canaan represented various stages of the immature soul. Yet, far from claiming Philo’s reading was entirely allegorical, Berkowitz suggests he had a particular animus vis-à-vis the Egyptians, not only those of the Exodus narrative but also those of his own day. She adds that he followed “robust precedent in Greek and Roman literature” that likewise denigrated the Egyptians, leaving us to wonder whether such literary imitation might be a violation of Leviticus 18:3’s ban.
One of the most unexpected and rewarding investigations is the invocation of the first verses of Leviticus 18 by a non-Jewish writer: the early Church father Clement of Alexandria. Berkowitz’s reading relies on fascinating recent work by Denise Buell and others exploring early Christian rhetorics of ethnicity (rather than a ubiquitous and immediate transition to universalism à la dominant readings of Paul). Clement identified the things proscribed by these verses in broad strokes as things of “the world and misguidedness, or passions and vices.” But for Clement the passage is not addressed to an undifferentiated humanity, which one might assume since the text identifies the one who properly follows these dictates and “lives by them” as adam (or, in his translation, anthropos). These words — in both Hebrew and Greek — could be read as generic references to humanity. Rather than a “universalist” reading, however, that apparently generic “person” is, in Clement’s view, “the Hebrews and their neighbors, that is, us.” Far from rejecting the strictures of Leviticus 18 as narrowly chauvinistic, Clement seeks to bring his community within its purview of both proscription and divinely-granted life.
In the same chapter, Berkowitz further raises the stakes, bidding to contribute to what she calls the deconstruction of the Rabbinic/Christian dichotomy in our readings of texts from Late Antiquity. She juxtaposes Clement’s ethnic reading with texts known as the Mekhilta de-Arayot that were included in the third-century Midrashic collection known as the Sifra. There we find a striking assertion attributed to Rabbi Jeremiah: “even a gentile who did [observed] the Torah, behold he is like a high priest.” And it is precisely here — in the Jewish text — that we find the invocation of the Torah’s word “person” (adam) in Lev 18:5 as a prooftext that the Torah is open to all humans for observance and reward. At the same time — again contrary to the association we are still accustomed to make between breadth of inclusion and diminished emphasis on distinctive practice — Berkowitz finds that both Clement and the Mekhilta de-Arayot both read the Levitical text as broadly covering “all manners of daily activities and behaviors.”
Further chapters dig deeper into various corners of Midrashic literature, into Babylonian Talmudic passages, and into what she provocatively calls “the Judaization of reason” in major medieval Jewish commentators. The fresh ways questions of Jewishness and difference are opened up at every stop on this itinerary makes it clear Berkowitz’s agenda is by no means solely antiquarian. Rather, it is marked at every turn by the conviction that the dilemma of Leviticus 18:3’s multiple meanings is not one to be solved, independently of the situation of any given writer or any community of speech, writing, and practice.
Nor does Berkowitz regard halakhic discussion per se as exclusively pre-modern. Quite the contrary, her concluding — and longest — chapter deals with the complex, imaginative, and in certain ways surprisingly pragmatic and generous readings of the verse by perhaps the two most prominent decisors of the latter half of the twentieth century, Rav Ovadiah Yosef and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. The former relied on his own assertion that non-European Jews had not been subjected to the same degree of pressure to assimilate as their Ashkenazi brethren in holding that some of the strictures based on observed non-Jewish practice need not apply to Sephardim in Israel. The latter permitted Orthodox Jewish men in America to dress in business suits just like those of their non-Jewish neighbors. Yet both evinced profound ambivalence about customs that, on one hand, had certainly not been observed by their ancestors (Thanksgiving is a prominent example), but on the other did not clearly involve halakhically prohibited acts and did not seem to be religious practices of non-Jews.
Some of Berkowitz’s propositions, especially regarding the relevance of her materials to the ongoing critique of the binaries between ethnicity and religion, between the religious and the secular, and between Sefarad and Ashkenaz, deserve further articulation than they get in this peripatetic volume. And of course the book’s title, along with some of its chapter titles (such as “A Short History of the People Israel from the Patriarchs to the Messiah”), playfully promise more than they deliver. All of which suggests that there should be many more books to come, by Berkowitz and others, in which the project of articulating Jewish difference for the present and future is addressed through such careful and imaginative reading of texts from the past.
Oh yes, that trigger I warned about? Sorry, kids, but according to the early Rabbinic compilation known as the Tosefta, the practices forbidden by Lev 18:3 evidently include tying a red string on one’s finger.
[An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified its author as Daniel Boyarin. Marginalia deeply regrets this error.]