In 1993, Daniel Boyarin published a relatively compact book entitled Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture, in which he attempted to redirect the study of rabbinic literature in at least three respects. First, he encouraged talmudists to shift their gaze from matters of law, theology and the history of the rabbinic mind toward interpretation of the body, its carnality and its messiness. Second, Boyarin encouraged students of rabbinic literature to consider developments in literary theory, philosophy, semiotics and cultural studies, and the hermeneutical possibilities offered by New Historicism. The book helped establish gender as an important theoretical lens for talmudists and to spur engagement with the work of Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin and other theoreticians, which began to appear in critical rabbinic scholarship. Third, in crafting a rabbinic anthropology, Carnal Israel engaged the Hellenistic Judaism of Paul and Philo, which in Boyarin’s reading developed into most (western) articulations of Christianity. While the relationship of rabbinic literature to Christianity has been a central concern since the rise of academic Jewish studies in nineteenth-century Europe, Carnal Israel conveyed a sense of urgency to the issue, along with a new set of questions and answers.
The academic study of rabbinic literature has never been the same. Carnal Israel was not the first scholarly work to address some of these developments, but its influence on the field is impossible to deny. Boyarin’s book was largely responsible for the “modernization” of talmudic studies in North America, and it played a signal role in updating the concerns and methods of talmudists to match broader trends in the humanities.
Shai Secunda, “The Construction, Composition and Idealization of the Female Body in Rabbinic Literature and Parallel Iranian Texts: Three Excurses”, NASHIM: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies and Gender Studies No. 23 (Spring-Fall 2012), 60-61.