Keeping Kosher and the Salaita Boycott

Since a federal judge ruled on Thursday that the Steven Salaita lawsuit would go forward—and rejected the UIUC argument that Salaita did not have a contract with the university—I’ve gotten a lot of queries from academics wondering whether the boycott of the UIUC is now over. I’ve replied that, no, to my knowledge, it’s not over, since the demand of the boycott is that Salaita be reinstated. Which he has not yet been. Until he’s reinstated, the boycott continues.

Ever since we declared the boycott, I’ve gotten these sorts of queries. From academics wondering whether the boycott has been called off or asking me whether some particular course of action they are considering would violate the boycott. I’m always made uncomfortable by these queries. For two reasons.

First, the boycott is a genuinely grassroots campaign with no formal or recognized leadership. For better or for worse, it doesn’t have any strict or agreed upon rules of engagement. Some signatories to it have declared their refusal to accept any and all invitations to speak at UIUC. Others have declared that they won’t read tenure and promotion files. And so on. So who am I to be denying or granting permission? I usually try to respond to folks by explaining my own position, what I am willing or not willing to do. But I’m not the Pope. Second, and related to that Pope question, I sometimes feel like I’m being asked to grant absolution. The person asking me seems dead-set on breaking the boycott, and merely checks in with me so that I’ll say it’s okay.

But this isn’t what I wanted to talk about. What all this back and forth about the boycott really makes me think about is…being Jewish. Specifically, about all those rules—so cockamamie and obsessive, so picayune and seemingly pointless—that hem in a Jew’s life from the day’s she born till the day she dies. The rule-bound nature of Judaism has long been a source of bemused irritation—and genuine wonder—to Jews and non-Jews alike. It’s also been a source or symptom of a not inconsiderable amount of anti-Semitism. But whether friend or foe, people have often asked of these rules: Why? Why this obsessiveness about the smallest, seemingly most irrelevant, details of life? As I wrote in my recent Nation piece on Hannah Arendt and Eichmann in Jerusalem:

If you stumble upon a bird’s nest, take the eggs to sustain yourself, but not the mother. So says the law. If you build a house, put a railing round the roof so no one falls off. If you lend money to the poor, don’t charge interest; if your neighbor gives you his coat as collateral, give it back to him at night lest he be cold. A king should not “multiply horses to himself”: perhaps to make him and his people stay put, perhaps to keep his kingdom focused on God rather than war. Who the hell knows?

In my Nation piece, I explored one possible answer.

That combination of seemingly antithetical ideas—that we always and everywhere think about what it is that we’re doing, that we always and everywhere think beyond what we’re doing—lies at the heart of a religion so dedicated to the extraction of the sacred from the profane, of locating the sacred within the profane, that it encircles human action with 613 commandments, lest any moment or gesture of a Jew’s life be without thought of God.

The point is that Judaism imposes a mindfulness about material life—the knowledge that it is out of our littlest deeds that heaven and hell are made—that turns our smallest practices into the peaks and valleys of a most difficult and demanding ethical terrain.

Over Passover, I mooted another: that maybe all the emphasis on rules and regulations reflects the Jews’ experience or memory—real or imagined—of bondage in Egypt. A slave’s life is a condition of subjection to the arbitrary will of another, of permanent lawlessness at the hands of a master. Is it so surprising that a class of men and women who only became a people through their emancipation from slavery, whose every injunction to believe in and obey God is justified via the memory of that slavery and emancipation, would make so much of a muchness of obedience to rules? The prefatory comment to the Ten Commandments reads: “I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” The Ten Commandments—and the other 603—are meant to be the antipode to, the antithesis of, that experience of power unbound. However insane and fetishistic this religion of rules may seem, perhaps it would seem less fetishistic if we recalled that experience of lawlessness, of unbounded and unregulated power, that preceded it.

But today, in the context of a Salaita boycott, I want to explore a different explanation. Perhaps this religion of rules has something to do with the quotidian reality of organizing a collective mode of life. Whenever we initiate a collective course of action—be it for the sake of something as grand as politics or religion or as pedestrian as a road trip—we run into unforeseen circumstances, bumps in the road that force us to rethink the course we have set out on. We declare something as seemingly simple and straightforward as a boycott of UIUC, and suddenly there are a thousand details and unanticipated contingencies that have to be dealt with. Am I allowed to submit an article to a journal that is connected to the UIUC? Can you speak off-campus? What if she pays her own way and refuses to accept any honorarium? Is he allowed to participate in a conference that is being held on another campus but is partially funded by the UIUC? And on and on.

Think about a strike. As anyone who has participated in a strike will tell you, there are all sorts of questions that come up in the course of a strike as to what constitutes strike-breaking. Teachers, for example, have to run a minefield of individualized requests and extracurricular circumstances—the graduating student who needs a letter of recommendation, the test-taking junior who was supposed to receive special evening tutoring, and so on—that complicate the simple injunction to stop work. Or the strikers’ themselves may have individualized needs and requests. Strike leaders have to navigate these requests, maintaining solidarity and discipline while making allowances for these complicating factors of everyday life.

I am just speculating here, but I wonder if something similar is not at play in the development of the Judaic code. From the very beginning, Jews inherited a way of life, replete with ancient and simple rules that possessed, initially, an easy intelligibility and easy applicability, but which, with time, had to be adapted—perhaps even at the moment of their promulgation—to unforeseen circumstances. And because of that memory of bondage, where lawlessness seemed akin to slavishness, the Jews wanted to act rule-fully in the face of these unforeseen circumstances. So they proclaimed new rules. And then new rules. To avoid the very arbitrariness—that feeling of making it up on the fly, which can threaten solidarity—that so often confronts the organizers of any large-scale action.

That is how, maybe, we’ve made our religion—like our boycott—kosher.


  1. fosforos17 August 8, 2015 at 5:40 pm | #

    In speculating that Jewish ritual commandments are sequelae to a supposed experience of “slavery” in Egypt, you leave out the fact that according to the Bible it was an Israelite, Joseph, who devised the scheme whereby the Egyptian people (but not his compatriots) were forced to become “slaves of Pharaoh.”

    • Corey Robin August 8, 2015 at 5:50 pm | #

      What passage in Exodus are you referring to? Pharaoh makes Joseph his right-hand man, that’s true, with virtually all the powers of Pharaoh, but I don’t remember any passage saying that Joseph makes the Egyptian people slaves.

      • fosforos17 August 8, 2015 at 6:35 pm | #

        The story is not from Exodus but from Genesis 47: 21-22. “So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh…and as for the people he made slaves of them from one end of Egypt to the other.”

        • Corey Robin August 8, 2015 at 6:43 pm | #

          Oh, yes, of course. My mistake. But that passage says the Egyptians asked to be bought, in order to save their lives, and it contrasts greatly with how the involuntary enslavement of the Jews is described in Exodus 1. Very little suggestion of harsh labor and total power; in fact, just the opposite.

        • Corey Robin August 8, 2015 at 6:43 pm | #

          In any event, it has no bearing on my original point.

  2. Simeon August 8, 2015 at 6:29 pm | #

    Mr. Robin,
    How much does it matter whether it was “real or imagined”? I’m curious considering “mythologizing” is not uncommon in religion as in politics.

    • Corey Robin August 8, 2015 at 6:44 pm | #

      I don’t think it matters much at all.

  3. Simeon August 8, 2015 at 7:01 pm | #

    Mr. Robin,
    How do you think we should distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate forms of “mythologized” histories? For instance, the Southern view of “the war of Northern aggression” being about states rights and son. Or certain contemporary conservatives views of a golden age of Conservative Thought squandered by so and so crazies etc. I don’t mean to draw equivalences. I would just love to hear from you on how the Israelite form of “mythologized” history, or Saga as Gerhard Von Rad put it, derives its moral and political authority.

    • dtr August 9, 2015 at 4:15 pm | #

      Here is an interesting take on the politics of “mythologized” history by someone who found himself at the receiving end of “Exodus” authorized ethnic cleansing:

      …Walzer formulates a theory, and/or finds a person or text — provided that none is totally general, too uncompromising, too theoretically absolute — that provides the basis for a new category of politico-moral behavior. The book of Exodus as interpreted by Walzer does fit the need quite perfectly, especially by allowing him to appropriate the language of national liberation and apply it anachronistically to the ancient Jews…Operations of this sort cannot survive critical analysis. Exodus and Revolution proves their fallibility in all sorts of ways. The nagging question is how Walzer can continue to claim that his positions are progressive and even radical. He seems unconscious of the degree to which Israel’s military victories have affected his work by imparting an unattractive moral triumphalism — harsh, shortsighted, callous — to nearly everything he writes, despite the veneer of radical phrases and protestations. The results have often been extraordinarily disturbing, but not, apparently, to him; here and there a disquiet will briefly disturb his style, but all in all Walzer is at ease with himself and always has been been. In 1972, for example, he argued that in every state there will be groups ‘marginal to the nation’ which should be ‘helped to leave’. Saying that he had Israel and the Palestinians in mind, he nevertheless conducted this discussion (that coolly anticipates by a decade Kahane’s bloody cries of ‘they must go’) in the broadly sunny and progressive perspectives of liberalism, independence, freedom from oppression…a position retaining the vocabulary of the Left, yet scuttling both the theory and critical astringency that historically gave the Left its moral and intellectual power. For theory and critical astringency, Walzer has substituted an often implicit but always unexamined appeal to the concreteness and intimacy of shared ethnic and familial bonds…

      I’m sure tribes in Papua New Guinea that were famous for endemic low-intensity warfare would have found much to admire in Walzer’s thinly-veiled ethnocentric philosophizing. Only trouble is that none of those tribes has received close to a quarter trillion dollars from US taxpayer to carry on its never-ending wars of colonization and subjugation.

  4. Charles Joseph August 9, 2015 at 3:20 pm | #

    Cory great post. The mindfulness over the mundane details – Chassidus, every action , thought and moment infused with infinite meaning, elevating the holy ‘Sparks’ contained in every material object. Ty

  5. Roqeuntin August 9, 2015 at 7:06 pm | #

    I’d tale a more Hegelian perspective. In the transition from Reason to Spirit, which represents the move from consciousness at the individual/particular level to Spirit, which is consciousness as a universal, the first section to appear is “Spirit – The Ethical Order.” All these minutiae of what can and cannot be done are what bind us together as groups and indicate the territorial boundaries of a culture. When one asks the question “What are ______?” The answer comes in the form of a set of rules and practices, as well as a handful of claims about the world. This makes the boundaries of a group very easy to notice. A set of behaviors either happen or don’t, they function like a secret handshake, like a password given to know whether or not a person is one of us or not. This is ideology at its purest and is most certainly not limited to religious doctrine even if it is relatively obvious in that scenario. We have plenty of culturally acceptable standards about what can and can’t be eaten, clothes which can and can’t be worn, all the tiny rules of etiquette that allow society to function as a cohesive whole.

    So to bring it all home, whether you accept it or not, people believe your opinion on the boundaries of the group counts for a lot. The question is “If I do ______, will I still be part of the club.” You are right to notice the similarities between this and religious authority. They both come from the same root.

  6. decollins1969 August 10, 2015 at 7:26 am | #

    Interesting, but kind of weak at the same time. Historically, there have been multiple kinds of Judaism, official and unofficial, and though the rule-bound nature of Judaism does parallel in some ways with the Salaita boycott, I’m not sure it entirely fits. Perhaps because it’s not exactly a universal concept to write down 613 laws governing what we can and can’t do under threat of spiritual separation from Yahweh. It is universal concept, though, to want boundaries, to want to know which boundaries can be pushed and which ones are absolute, which will keep the spirit of solidarity and which will separate us from a good cause or ideal. For me, this is less about the roots of religion and solidarity, and more about the psychology of making the ill-defined a certainty.

  7. rewenzo August 10, 2015 at 8:02 pm | #

    Good post. I’m curious to what extent you think the ancient Israelites perceived the Torah as being particularly onerous – as in, more so than other tribal religious?

    My working theory is that the obsession with rules didn’t really come about until the Rabbis got involved. 613 rules sounds like a lot of rules, but it’s really not anywhere near enough rules for a functioning society. Especially when you consider that a goodly portion of them are about animal sacrifices.

    I wonder if the reputation of the rabbis as being rules-obsessed is based on the particular incomplete record we have of them – the Talmud – which is essentially a long string of loosely connected legal arguments. I’m sure they had other interests!

  8. Kia August 13, 2015 at 11:28 am | #

    There’s a story by Primo Levi on this theme in his collection “Moments of Reprieve.”

  9. LFC August 20, 2015 at 11:04 pm | #

    from the OP:
    maybe all the emphasis on rules and regulations reflects the Jews’ experience or memory—real or imagined—of bondage in Egypt. A slave’s life is a condition of subjection to the arbitrary will of another, of permanent lawlessness at the hands of a master. Is it so surprising that a class of men and women who only became a people through their emancipation from slavery, whose every injunction to believe in and obey God is justified via the memory of that slavery and emancipation, would make so much of a muchness of obedience to rules?

    But Islam also has a multitude of rules covering every aspect of existence (or so I gather, and this was somewhat confirmed for me today when I happened to read some quotations from the ‘Little Green Book’ of Ayatollah Khomeini), and, afaik, Muslims do not have the same collective historical experience of slavery and emancipation that Jews do (although specific Muslim communities may; my Islamic history is kind of weak). So I’m a bit dubious of this explanation/speculation.

  10. Nathanael August 23, 2015 at 4:37 am | #

    The historical evidence is that “bondage in Egypt” was a complete myth; never happened. The very first archaelogical evidence which seems to correspond to “Jews” is the disappearance of shellfish and pig bones in the middens of some of the sites in southern Palestine, which comes around the time when Egypt occupied that part of Palestine, and stays around after Egypt withdrew. (Oh, Google it, I can’t be bothered to dig up the reference.)

    Egypt is known to have occupied the area and then left again; but there’s no evidence that there were ever Jewish “slaves” carried off to Egypt proper, so that probably didn’t happen. The hisstory likely got muddled through successive retellings. The most interesting point: many of the “Jewish” rules in the Torah (circumcision, not eating pork, the entire procedure with the Temple and Ark of the Covenant) are actually Egyptian cultural norms, which had existed in Egypt for hundreds or even thousands of years earlier, but didn’t exist among the Caananite and similar groups from which the Hebrews derived. So the evidence is that at some point a bunch of Caananites were occupied by Egypt, converted to Egyptian modes of worship, *retained* those modes of worship after the Egyptians left, and then started telling a fairy story about being slaves in Egypt….

    However, the Babylonian captivity — where the Babylonian Talmud was written — is historically documented, and *this* is much more likely to have created the rule-obessed mentality. After all, for centuries, nobody seems to pay that much attention to the rules through vast swatches of the Torah and Haftorah — and King David rampantly violates a whole bunch of previously stated rules, including most dramatically the “never worship in temples, only in tabernacles” rule — but after the Babylonian captivity, you start getting obsessive rule-observance.

Leave a Reply