Armin Rosen reports on the big semi-annual, semi-mandatory sophomore class lecture.
The title of this post is actually a wee bit inaccurate. This wasn’t just the biggest walkout of the year–it was also the biggest walkout of last year, and was probably bigger than any walkouts that were held the year before that one, too. About seven hundred students were at Roone for Friday’s Contemporary Civilization course-wide lecture. By the time Berkley Talmud professor Daniel Boyarin had finished dissecting the seventh chapter of Daniel, a mere handful were left in the audience, proving that while Iraq might convince 400 or so people not to go to class, intellectual passivity is one cause around which practically everyone can rally. Even at Columbia.
If only John Erskine could have lived to have seen so spectacular a “fuck you” to the Core Curriculum and everything it represents. Granted, it was a Friday afternoon. And granted, I’ve heard some people complain that Boyarin’s central thesis–that the all-time mindblower that is Daniel 7 represents an attempt at suppressing certain polytheistic ideas within ancient Judaism, and that its formulation of an “older” and “younger” God provided a theological basis for the emergence of Christianity as a protestant movement within Judaism itself–has nothing to do with what we’ve been reading and studying in CC. I’ve heard others say that his brilliant synthesis of linguistics, history, literature and religion was off-topic and irrelevant; that his meticulous application of comp-lit methods both on a practical and theoretical level were limited to ideas and concepts uninteresting to people without a strong background in Judaism.
Sure, these people say, he was able to use documentary and methodological evidence to prove that the vision of the beasts and the “throne apocalypse” were separate texts that were interwoven in order to downplay the latter’s suggestion that God could take the form of an earthly “son of man.” And yes, he did use exhaustive Talmudic and historical evidence to prove that there existed a surprisingly Christian belief in pseudo-human divinity within ancient Judaism, and that later Jewish thinkers tried to weed out a certain “mythological” strain within the religion.
But apparently that wasn’t enough for some of you. So Boyarin dropped a Hebrew term or two (surprise–that’s the language Daniel was written in!). And he used big, Jewishy words like “Talmud,” and “Torah,” and maybe dropped a bit more Aramaic and ancient Greek than we’re normally accustomed to. But these kinds of criticism only prove that Boyarin was a victim of his own sophistication. Sure, the theological and intellectual history of two major monotheistic faiths might not seem all that relevant to the study of Western thought–except wait a second, how isn’t that totally relevant to the study of Western thought?
Boyarin was abstruse at times, but the brilliance of his analysis was never in question. He brought a mind-boggling depth and originality of thought to a piece of literature whose significance within the cannon should have been clear, but whose historical and literary meaning certainly was not. His analysis shed light on an obscure but hugely important topic, and complicated typically comfortable theological and historical lines–categories like “Jewish,” “Christian,” “monotheist” and “polytheist” are only safe until a scholar like Boyarin disturbs them, and reminds us that every last idea has a vast and infinitely complicated history lurking behind it. I thought it was fascinating. Too bad so many people disagree.