At home in the university and the yeshiva by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Editor’s note: Some spellings of the non-English words are based on the Ashkenazic/Yiddish pronunciations of the words. 

Cultural anthropologists study the cultural system of a chosen group of people and attempt to learn how that system shapes the world in which they live. Some anthropologists travel halfway around the world to study cultures very different from their own. Others look closer to home. One example of the latter is Jonathan Boyarin, the Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University. His interest in Jewish culture is reflected in his new work “Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side,” which gives details of the year he spent studying Talmud at Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem, a yeshiva located in New York City.

In an e-mail interview, Boyarin noted it was not uncommon for him to seek subjects that relate to his own life. “I’ve never done fieldwork with people to whom I felt no prior connection,” he said. “But the nature of that connection changes. When I wrote about elderly Polish Jews in Paris, I often felt like a substitute for their own grandchildren, who may have been less interested in their stories. When I examined Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, I did so partly to figure out what my own Jewish politics were. When I chronicled a summer at the Stanton Street Shul, I was really reflecting on the almost 30 years I’d been a member there. And when I came (back) into MTJ, it was largely in order to increase my competence as a student of Talmud, not just to scout my next fieldwork project.”

Boyarin had studied at the yeshiva before, but returned in 2011 during a sabbatical. He felt comfortable there because he already had what he calls the relevant cultural competence. “I mean that in at least two senses,” he noted. “One was possession of the basic skills for reading the text, where I was way behind my peers, but not entirely out of their league. The other was my knowledge of Yiddish, which afforded me a certain amount of ‘street cred.’” 

At first, Boyarin wasn’t sure if he was going to write about his time at MTJ. After asking for and receiving permission from the rosh yeshiva (head of the yeshiva) to do so, he had to decide on the parameters of his participant-observation style of study. Was he only going to write about his experiences learning with and talking to the men at the yeshiva, or was he going to include formal interviews and explore the structure of the yeshiva itself? In the end, he decided to draw boundaries and focus on his personal experiences. Boyarin noted, “For an anthropologist, ‘participant observation’ classically describes precisely the method of coming from the outside and learning about the ‘natives’ by living with them and doing what they do. That doesn’t necessarily preclude interviews, but I haven’t really done interviews since my dissertation research almost 40 years ago. To take time out for formal interviews – even if my fellow students had agreed to it – would probably have been seen as bitul toyre [wasting time] for them and for me, a waste of time better spent learning. Besides, in the long run, I think I learned more about them and about myself just by studying together, day after day, year after year. And while it would be interesting to me, and probably more so to others, to know how the finances work, that really didn’t seem part of my story.”

It was important to Boyarin that “Yeshiva Days” be accessible to those with whom he studied. That’s why the book contains little academic jargon and less over-arching analysis than one might expect from an anthropological work. “This is connected to a strict criterion I set for myself when I decided to write this book: it had to be something that I could bring into the beis medresh [study hall] once it was published and share with the people there, especially those whom I write about,” Boyarin said. “To weigh my text down with academic analysis would have made it less accessible not only to them, but to many potential readers. I wouldn’t say there’s no analysis there, but for the most part I like to let the anecdotes speak for themselves, perhaps the way a painting is expected to. I hope, as I wrote, that by the end readers will understand why I think MTJ is a special place. Even more, I’m pleased and relieved when people close to the institution say that it seems an accurate picture.”

Boyarin is at home at both Cornell and MTJ, although there are times when he feels disconnected to each world. “To a large but certainly limited extent, textual analysis of Talmud in the yeshiva is consistent with critical approaches to the same text in the academy – or at least, some of my study partners were open to hearing about those approaches and didn’t seem threatened by them,” he noted. “I don’t think one can ultimately escape the larger ethical issues. These center on the tension between a sense of identification and even love for the rabbis on one hand, and on the other the fact that their world and value systems are not ours. [His study partner] has chosen to shape his values according to their authority. I haven’t or can’t; I can only have mine enriched by their wisdom. That’s one reason why I generally resisted the invitation to have long discussions of basic ethics with him, preferring to stay on the more ‘neutral’ ground of textual study itself.”

However, he also finds a disconnect at times to university life. “At the same time, I think that if my sole intellectual identity was ‘Cornell professor,’ I would be a less interesting teacher and thinker, and indeed my world would be poorer,” he added. “There’s a certain exhaustion of liberalism, individualism, and universalism – something that I’ve named, in the title of a course I taught recently, ‘the collapse of the secular future.’ Part of the reason for that is that we’ve learned humanity doesn’t necessarily get better and better all by itself, and part of the reason is that it’s almost impossible for most people to have a primary identification with all of humanity. So part of what drives my Talmud study is to understand the strategies and values of people who’ve sustained for so long a particular group identity, without state power and without dominating others.”

Boyarin does recognize that the yeshiva world doesn’t welcome women and he admits that it’s not possible to balance that with the acceptance of women in the academic world. However, he still feels comfortable in the yeshiva study hall. “I suppose if I were inventing Jewishness – this ‘culture,’ or ‘religion’ or ‘family,’ if you will – I would try to make it less patriarchal, especially when it comes to access to the study of authoritative texts,” he said. “And I applaud (almost) every effort to make these texts more widely accessible, whether to Orthodox or non-Orthodox women, those without specialized training, those who aren’t affiliated. I think of the Babylonian Talmud as a monumental aspect of human cultural heritage, and I also think of the ways it has been studied and transmitted, almost exclusively by men until now, as part of that heritage.”

He does say that part of what drew him to MTJ was that it was a neighborhood yeshiva (he has an apartment in the area where he lives when not in Ithaca) and it helped that no formal plan of study was required. Boyarin could come and go as he pleased, and didn’t have to worry about being graded or missing a session. “I imagine that if, for example, Machon Hadar (an egalitarian yeshiva on the Upper West Side) had been the only yeshiva in my neighborhood, I might have spent a year studying there,” he said. “But even if I had wanted to, a place like Hadar isn’t really meant for someone like me. After all, I didn’t have to apply to MTJ, and I wasn’t enrolled in a ‘program’ there. For now, MTJ is the neighborhood yeshiva on the Lower East Side. I was a guy from the neighborhood, a Jewish guy to be sure, who wanted to learn, and as such I was welcomed there in ways that made me feel at home. And I’ll always remain grateful for that.”