For nearly a half century, Daniel Boyarin has been one of the most influential and prolific scholars of rabbinic culture, expanding the parameters of the study of Talmud and ancient Judaism in a variety of ways. He studied with some of the great Talmudists of the previous generation, including Chaim Zalman Dimitrovsky and Saul Lieberman, and is a professor emeritus of Talmudic culture at the University of California, Berkeley. Boyarin’s work spans an impressive arc, from his dissertation “A Critical Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nazir” in 1975 to his recent book Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion in 2018. Other seminal works include Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (1993), A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (1994), Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Judaism and Christianity (1999), Queer Theory and the Jewish Question (2003), and A Traveling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora (2015).
In addition to his paradigm-shifting work in the field of rabbinic culture and the study of Judaism and Christianity, Boyarin has long been a critic of Israel and Zionism, writing periodically of his vision for a robust diasporism. His new book, The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto (Yale University Press, 2023), is his first book-length study of his vision for Jewish life outside of a nation-state. Using his sweeping knowledge of classical Judaism, French theory, Black study,1 critical race theory, and diaspora studies, Boyarin offers a strong and deep intervention into some of the most pressing conversations concerning Jews, Judaism, politics, and religion in the contemporary world. Provocative in its agenda, audacious in its scope, and piercing in its vision, The No-State Solution will certainly inspire debate and discussion about its program for a robust Jewish life of coexistence and Jewish practice.
The No-State Solution challenges theories of Jewish cosmopolitanism and integration. It also offers the reader an alternative to the Zionization of contemporary Judaism and Jewry, while simultaneously calling for a profound engagement with Jewish life and what Boyarin calls “Jewish doings.”
Below, I speak with him about the genealogy of his project, the story of his trajectory from left-wing Zionist to anti-Zionist, how he understands himself in relation to other thinkers on these matters, and his vision for the future of Jewish life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Thank you for doing this, Daniel. Your new book The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto is indeed a manifesto—and a much-needed intervention at a time when some American Jews are feeling increasingly destabilized by the result of the 2022 Israeli elections2 and the widening distance between Israel and some liberal and progressive American Jewish communities. Your No-State Solution certainly suggests a provocative alternative. And for many American Jews, it will be a radical one. So, I want to begin with a personal question. How did you come to this project? How did you understand Zionism when you were young, including the years when you lived in Israel, and was it a slow process towards a kind of anti-Zionist position? In other words, can you give us a short genealogy of the No-State Solution?
Well, I was a Zionist in my youth. In those years, I thought of myself as a left-wing Zionist. I mean, I was very active in Habonim [a socialist Zionist youth movement] and I even spent a year or two on Habonim’s central US organizing committee in my late teens or maybe early twenties. I think that I ultimately caught the leftism and socialism more than the Zionism. And when it became clear to me that I had to make a choice, I finally realized I had to let the Zionism go. That choice came when Yitzhak Rabin stated that the Israeli army should break the arms and legs of Palestinian kids who threw stones at soldiers.3
I asked at the time, what is this cruel idea of breaking the arms and legs of little boys? And somebody explained to me that this was necessary in order to maintain the state. And I said, if that’s necessary to maintain the state, then the state is clearly a wrong thing. One leftist proposition I never identified with was the idea that the ends justify the means. So it was a kind of turning point for me. I had been moving gradually into a more critical position vis-à-vis the behavior of Israel, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I remember the first time I wanted to say I was an anti-Zionist, I couldn’t even pronounce it. I couldn’t say the words. That’s how hard it was for me.
As I read the book, I kept thinking that in some way it is really a kind of critical response, or perhaps an alternative, to Judith Butler’s book Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012), and her vision of cosmopolitanism or what she calls “diaspora coexistence.” First of all, is that a correct reading, and does your anti-Zionist position offer a different model of how Jews could best flourish outside of a nation-state?
Well, first of all I did not write the book as a response to Judith’s book. As you can tell from reading The No-State Solution, I’m deeply hostile to the idea of cosmopolitanism and align myself with Aimé Césaire’s4 universalism as the coexistence of many differences, as distinct from Kwame Anthony Appiah’s5 notion of universalism as everybody being more or less the same—and morals being set by a committee of Oxford and Cambridge dons. I’m exaggerating, of course, but like in most exaggerations, there’s a solid kernel of truth there in my view. So, I think in some way, I am more concerned than Judith—who is a very, very dear friend—for the maintenance of a vital Jewish culture, for the future of Jewish culture. I think that’s fair to say, and I don’t think she would disagree. But essentially the idea of diasporic coexistence is a name I could give to my enterprise as well.
It’s a question of where you go with it. For me, the dilemma is how to maintain a truly vital, authentic, rich, lively, and compelling Jewish cultural life—without falling into the kinds of nationalism and ethnocentrism that we find all over the world today.
It’s interesting, I was reading a New York Times article recently about the status of democracy at the end of 2022, and Israel was listed as one of the democracies that have moved towards autocratic ethnonationalism (along with Turkey, Hungary, and India). And I think in a way that was inevitable. I think the very project of Zionism led to this. And that’s why I define myself as anti-Zionist.
So, this leads me to the next question. One of the surprising things in the book is the way you want to reappropriate the concept of nationalism as part of a positive model for Jewish diasporic life. And I’m sure that some readers of the book from the left will push back against reviving this kind of nationalism, even as you clearly differentiate it from the notion of the state. So, can you explain a bit why nationalism is so important to you? What work does it do?
National identity seems to be one of the most powerful forces for cultural maintenance, for collective creativity, for solidarity. That powerful force can be turned leftward or rightward. And we’re not even talking now about the state. Nationalism can be an overwhelmingly powerful force that focuses on “me” and “us” and forgets about the rest of the world. Or it can turn, as I hope it will in my cultural framework, into a national framework that supports the maintenance of different cultures everywhere. The state makes it even more impossible to imagine this. I’m willing to say that, in the beginning, Israel tried in good faith to align with national liberation struggles in Africa and elsewhere, but it got perverted so quickly that one has to consider the flaw in the Zionist imagination itself, in the very design from the beginning. It’s astonishing how quickly socialist nationalism turned into something that looks a lot like National Socialism.
As I read your book, I kept coming back to Dubnow’s “Diaspora Nationalism.”6 How is your diaspora nationalism different than Dubnow’s? Is the difference really in the context—that he was writing in early twentieth century Russia and you are writing in early twenty-first century America? Where do you see yourself situated in relation to him?
Dubnow is my intellectual Zayde.7 No question. The big problem, and this has to do with context as you just said, is that post-Nazi genocide, the Jewish people are not a European community speaking a European language, Yiddish, with a sort of marginal appendix somewhere in the East. (As if that were ever the case.) So any imagination of a contemporary diasporic nationalism has to include all Jewry. It should have been so even in Dubnow’s time, but it’s easier to see why Dubnow could avoid paying attention to that. And so, though the best term I can think of for the kind of diasporic nationalism I’m looking for is Yiddishkeit, I can’t use Yiddishkeit—not only because it’s unethical, but because it’s also untrue. Now it’s “halb-halb” [half-half, half European/Ashkenazi and half Mizrahi/Sephardi], we can’t imagine a Jewish future predicated on a contiguous range of settlement. Because after all, Dubnow was also working in a transnational framework. Indeed it was diasporic; it started in Berlin and kept on going all the way to Siberia.
So one of the big problems I had to think about, and I don’t think I really have a solution for it, is that I’m convinced a national identity must be predicated on a language. And I don’t know yet what that language is for us. Sometimes I think Yinglish8 is best, but again, that might run into the same Ashkenormativity as the word Yiddishkeit; so I don’t know. But I was talking on the phone a couple of months ago to a technician with regard to a piece of equipment. Here we were talking about fixing this piece of equipment. And I’m thinking, this guy is Jewish—not from anything in the content; he didn’t use Yiddish or anything, but just from the manner of speaking. But I didn’t say anything. After a little while he said to me, “Are you Jewish?” So, the potentialities of Jewish speech are not dead.
One of the more engaging things for me, and certainly one of the surprising aspects of the book, is how you use Black study and critical race theory in your analysis of the Jews and the situation you’re exploring. Why did Black study serve as a template for your study of Jews, and what does Black study offer Jewish studies more generally?
This is a great question, and I obviously did something very, very risky in that. It’s something that will require further exploration. I think that Black theory and Black study is, on the one hand, the most vital mode of theory and theorization taking place today, certainly on the American scene. And I would extend it beyond the United States at this moment. So one answer to your question is that Jewish study demands that we take on intellectually whatever is the best thinking that’s happening. Thirty years ago, the most interesting theorization was feminist theory, and twenty years ago it was queer theory. Now it may very well be Black study. And I’m saying Black study, not Black studies. (The former is about the study from the viewpoint of Black experience, not the study of Black experience by other folks.9) So that’s one answer. I’m reading this material and I’m intellectually thrilled and excited and challenged. The work of Fred Moten,10 for example, is not easy to understand, and it’s inspiring me intellectually. Second, perhaps a more useful answer would be that from its beginnings with DuBois,11 and almost without exception until now, Black study has always looked toward the situation of Jews. Not always positively, but as a point of reference. A point of comparison. Negative, positive, troubled, productive.
Now with Césaire, Fanon,12 and DuBois himself, of course—and more recently with contemporary writers also—we are already in a discursive mode of thinking. I don’t want to call it a dialogue. It’s not a dialogue between Black people and Jewish people. Been there, done that—not to mention the trouble of such a dichotomy for Black Jews. But it’s a discourse, a conversation I find very powerfully engaging that enables me to find the kinds of questions I want to be asking now, a model for how I want to be thinking about Jewish existence.
It’s interesting—several scholarly journals, including journals I have published in several times, have been turning down preliminary essays of mine vis-à-vis the book. And the feeling—at least in one very gross response that I got from a prestigious journal—is that Boyarin is saying, well, Black scholars do it, so therefore Jewish scholars can do it. I don’t know what it precisely meant—maybe assert ourselves, be ethnocentric—but it clearly wasn’t good. And there is a saying in Yiddish: “If six people say you’re sick, you should lie down.” So I’m starting to worry. But, you know, what I really want is to think more about this with other folks—how to imagine, or how to learn and create productive discourse for Jewish study. Is every learning from other people appropriation? That can’t be. It’s like what I often say, if Jews or Israelis call falafel the Israeli national dish, that’s appropriation. But if an Israeli goes to East Jerusalem and eats a falafel and enjoys it, that’s not appropriation.
With this book in particular, more so than many of your other books, I contextualize you within a whole cadre of American Jewish thinkers who’ve worked on this question of diasporism. Your views seem to resonate with previous thinkers such as Kaufmann Kohler [a president of Hebrew Union College in the early twentieth century]13 and Mordecai Kaplan [founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and author of A New Zionism]. Kaplan was certainly a Zionist, but a very diasporic one. And his Reconstructionist Judaism was certainly not focused on the Jewish nation-state. Additionally, in Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s14 Paradigm Shift Judaism, and the movement of Jewish Renewal that flowed from it, Judaism is a diasporic vision of Jewish collective life, one that reaches out beyond Jews to contribute to global flourishing. So while your thinking emerges from Black study, critical race theory, French theory, and the Talmudic imaginary, it also seems like an attempt to reconstruct an American or diasporic form of Jewish existence, one deeply rooted in Jewishness yet divorced from the notion of a Jewish state. Do you see your new iteration of Jewish diasporism as a kind of Jewish Americanism? Or is it a way of connecting American Jewishness to similar projects that preceded it in the US in particular?
Yeah, I’m not thinking about the US. I mean, I am thinking about the US, but my project is not American Jewishness. My project is for the world Jewish volk.15 But my immediate context is America, and an enormous number of Jews live in America.
And you live in America.
Yes, and being American is part of my self-image. You know, Daf Yomi [the daily study of a page of Talmud] and Emmy Lou Harris.
But my project is not specifically concerned with American Jewishness or Judaism. I mostly find the American forms of Jewish existence too assimilationist, including certain versions of neoliberal Orthodoxy, so in a sense you could say I’m imagining an alternative.
My next question is how you envision the reception of the book’s thesis in the world where a Jewish nation-state does exist, whether we like it or not? You use Dmitry Shumsky’s recent book Beyond the Nation-State very deftly, but all of the figures Shumsky examines—Herzl, Ahad Ha-Am, Ben-Gurion, Jabotinsky, etc.—who Shumsky claims were not necessarily statists, eventually did come out in favor of a state, even though they might not have initially, in large part due to the collapse of Europe in the 1930s. Do you think that a state was inevitable given the tragedy of mid-century Europe and America’s ambivalence about accepting hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees?
One response to your thesis is that diasporic coexistence requires a stable and largely receptive host culture, which I recognize is itself a problematic notion. But it requires a hospitable place where Jews can cultivate and pursue what you call “Jewish doings,” the things Jews do, cultivated and drawn from the tradition.16 The US has certainly met those criteria, but some Jews will understandably be skeptical that it will continue to do so, or that there are enough receptive host cultures elsewhere to give up on a state of our own. How would you respond to them?
About twenty years ago my son Shamma said to me, “Abba, they tell me that American Jews have to support Israel because if Israel collapses, then American Jews will be in danger. Jews all over the world will be vulnerable at best to assimilation, and at worst to God forbid. But on the other hand, they say, without the support of American Jews, Israel is in danger. It will collapse. So, which is it?”
I don’t think anything in history is inevitable. I think that tragically wrong choices have been made, but I don’t blame the people who made those choices. That needs to be clear; I don’t blame people from the past for the choices they made. I mean, unless those choices were obviously evil choices. I blame Hitler, but I’m saying my anti-Zionism does not consist of blaming, certainly not people living just after World War II. My grandfather, my father’s father, was never a Zionist. He was a Bundist.17 Yet after the war, he was raising money for the UJA and for Israel. He said it wasn’t that he became a Zionist, it was that he saw the state was the only possible answer to what had happened during the Nazi genocide. So, I don’t blame anyone, but I think the owl of Minerva flying shows that there was a fatal flaw in the idea of an ethnonational state. And we might have opportunities still to correct that and save the Jewish folk.
What would you say about transforming the Jewish state into a real liberal democratic state, a state of all its citizens? Or would that be the destruction of the state completely?
Many Jews would call that the destruction of the Jewish state. But a binational or trinational state with constitutional protection for the different ethnic national groups—somewhere between Switzerland and Belgium or something—I could accept that.
On some level, I guess Buber’s Hebrew Humanism was trying to do that. There were people who called themselves Zionists who did envision that kind of a state.18
Oh, absolutely. Look at our friend who calls himself the Magnes Zionist [referring to an anonymous Israeli blogger who calls himself a Zionist but supports BDS]. The rest of the world would call him an anti-Zionist. And of course, he understands that very well. But his kind of Zionism I could live with. Prague-style Zionism.
This is a question that I may have asked you before, but the book brings it up again. There were essentially three forms of Jewish anti-Zionism in the twentieth century. The twenty-first century may be creating a different anti-Zionism. But before that, you have the American reformists like Kaufmann Kohler and the American Council for Judaism, German Jews such as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenzweig, and Haredi anti-Zionists like Yoel Teitelbaum of Satmar and those he represents. Where do you see yourself on that spectrum? Which elements of each do you adopt in your argument and why?
The least appealing to me is the Reform version. I mean, it’s not even just a question of halacha, but the consistent imitation of liturgical practices and lifestyles of German Protestantism holds very little appeal to me. What was it? “Heidelberg is our Jerusalem. And the Neckar19 is our Jordan.”
But we do have Vilna being called the Jerusalem of Lithuania.20
Yeah, exactly. But that’s different. That’s because it was like Jerusalem—not because it was replacing Jerusalem. So, if I had another sixty years to be a scholar, which I obviously don’t, one of the things that I would do is write a book on Vilna and Berlin as two paths to Jewish modernity. One via Mendelssohn, the other via the Gaon of Vilna.
Eliyahu Stern does that a little bit in The Genius, his book on the Vilna Gaon.
Yes, and I would have him extend that into a full-scale analysis.
What about Teitelbaum and ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism?
Well, that’s why I tell people I’m a modern Satmar (meaning that my opposition to the state is founded solidly in Jewish religious tradition).21
I tell people the same thing. However, I do think one of the problems in Teitelbaum’s vision is that it was so demonological. He was so caught up in mythologizing the evilness of the state, and not only the state, but the whole modern Jewish project in a way, that it undermined any real contribution his thought could make to the present moment. It’s very hard to be sympathetic to what he was trying to say because of all the hyperbole. But he was a product of his time and culture too. I mean, in the Hasidic Hungary of his time, that’s the way people spoke and how he was educated.
Yes, exactly. Sometimes people ask, how can I say that the Gospel of John is Jewish? It uses such invective against Jews. I say that’s what proves it’s Jewish! Who else would talk about Jews like that? “You were of your father, the devil.” Straight out of Vayoel Moshe [Teitelbaum’s anti-Zionist treatise].
I have one more question for you. Again, if I’m reading you correctly, The No-State Solution is a kind of continuation of your previous book, A Traveling Homeland, where you try to create a kind of diasporic Talmudism for the modern Jew. It seems that this new Talmudism isn’t really attached to Orthodoxy in any way—not attached to any normative halacha—but something more akin to Talmud as culture, as a program of “Jewish doings,” which you talk about a lot in your new book. “Jewish doings” can of course take many forms inside and outside of Talmud, so it seems that Talmud serves as a kind of map for you more than anything else.22 So can you expand a bit on what you mean by Talmud, or what Talmud means to you as part of your cultural reconstruction of Jewish identity?
First, I wouldn’t call it a map. I would call it more of a language.
Can you explain?
It’s something that forms a language, a kind of aesthetic. An aesthetic of living, and an aesthetic of speaking and thinking. And you’re absolutely right. That’s exactly my project. I want to make a kind of Judaïté [a term Boyarin prefers to Yiddishkeit so as to include all Jews] that doesn’t first have to name people as Orthodox or not, that doesn’t have to do so at all. Some may do more mitzvahs, some may do fewer mitzvahs. But my project leaves behind that conceptual framework of determining Jewishness by levels of halachic “observance,” which is after all a very modern framework. But it also doesn’t leave the traditional practices and texts behind. I mean there’s nothing new in saying that, right? The same expanded frame was used by Jews who developed movements or whatever you want to call them. For example, was Rashi Fuenn [a leading figure of the Eastern European Haskalah23] Orthodox? I mean, what was he, Conservative? No, he was a Jew. Professor Dimitrovsky24 taught that every time Rashi Fuenn passed the synagogue in Vilna where they were praying mincha,25 he went in and prayed because he didn’t want people to say, “Oh, the maskil, the enlightened Jew, doesn’t daven mincha.” So sometimes he would daven mincha five or six times in a day. That’s a Jewish joke, Vilna style.
It’s interesting to note that most of the people who read this will probably be young Jews in their twenties and thirties. And they will mostly be progressive and very curious about your project. And I think in a certain way, many of them are uncomfortable with the present Israeli nation-state and yet don’t really have a Jewish language to express it. They don’t really have an architecture to help them think about alternatives within a Jewish context. So why should they read the book?
Because then they can think about alternatives in relationship to Jewish life.
Right. You’re offering a realistic alternative in a sense, a global diasporic Jewish paradigm that requires no state structure, that demands no state at all. Though again, are you offering an alternative in the real world where there actually is a state of Israel?
I wonder, if the alternative is not available in the real world, why should my book arouse so much opposition? I’m not a prophet, but in a sense, I imagine myself as preparing, or participating in the work of preparation, for a Jewish future beyond . . .
I mentioned the title of the book The No-State Solution in a conversation on Facebook and somebody said, “I can’t believe somebody used the no-state solution as a title. That was an old anarchist joke from seventy-five years ago.”
Okay, so now it’s finally reaching its bourgeois form.
Exactly. Thank you so much, Daniel, this has been a pleasure. Good luck with the book, and I urge everyone to read it.
- Sometimes used as an alternative to Black studies.
- The 2022 Israeli elections brought an unprecedentedly extremist, ethnonationalist, far-right coalition government to power, with the notable inclusion of Kahanist politicians Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir.
- Yitzhak Rabin was a former prime minister of Israel. This statement, made when he was defense minister, was reported in the press in 1990.
- Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) was a French theorist, poet, and politician.
- A contemporary American philosopher.
- Simon Dubnow, killed by the Nazis in 1941, was a Jewish historian who proposed Diaspora Nationalism as an alternative to Zionism.
- Grandfather, in Yiddish.
- A colloquial amalgam of Yiddish and English.
- See, for instance, Andrew J. Douglas & Jared Loggins, “The Lost Promise of Black Study,” Boston Review, September 28, 2021.
- A prominent contemporary Black theorist.
- W.E.B. DuBois was a foundational Black theorist of the early twentieth century. His book The Souls of Black Folk remains a classic and indispensable work.
- Frantz Fanon, who died in 1961, was one of the founders of postcolonial theory.
- Rabbi Kohler was an outspoken anti-Zionist and an accomplished scholar of rabbinics and early Christianity. He was a contributing editor of the Jewish Encyclopedia (the first encyclopedia of Judaism written in America), and wrote all the entries on Christianity, as well as many of the entries on rabbinics.
- The founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement.
- Folk or people, in German.
- For Boyarin, “Jewish doings” offer an alternative to the notion of halacha as the source of formal legal decisions.
- A Jewish socialist.
- Martin Buber (1878–1965) was a Jewish philosopher and a Zionist who advocated for a binational state shared by Jewish and Palestinian citizens.
- A river in Germany.
- Before the Holocaust, Vilna was a vibrant and essential center of Jewish cultural and spiritual life in Eastern Europe. In some sense, Vilna represented the center of traditional Judaism while Berlin symbolized a more intercultural expression of Judaism.
- Satmar is the Hasidic sect founded by Teitelbaum that remains ultra-traditional and anti-Zionist.
- The final chapter of Elad Lapidot’s book Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism (SUNY Press, 2020) resonates very strongly here.
- Also called the Jewish Enlightenment, Haskalah was a movement to adapt and preserve Jewish thought and practice in relationship to European Enlightenment philosophies.
- Professor of rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and Boyarin’s teacher.
- Jewish daily afternoon service.
Daniel Boyarin has taught Talmud to generations of students at UC Berkeley and is now actively resting. The No-State Solution: A Jewish Manifesto was published on January 31, 2023 by Yale University Press.
Shaul Magid is Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University, and rabbi of the Fire Island synagogue. He works on Jewish thought and culture from the sixteenth century to the present, focusing on the Jewish mystical and philosophical tradition. His three latest books are The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism (Academic Studies Press, 2019), and Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical (Princeton University Press, 2021). His book The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance will be published with Ayin Press in 2023. He writes regularly for Religion Dispatches, +972, and other topical journals. He is an elected member of the American Academy for Jewish Research and the American Society for the Study of Religion.