Jewish Vaccines Against Mimetic Desire: Rene Girard and Jewish Ritual
Avery, Vanessa Jane
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Reason for embargo
Research is to be published elsewhere
In 1972, with the publication of Violence and the Sacred, René Girard makes the stunning assertion that violence is the foundation of culture. Humanity’s innate urges for competition and rivalry entrap us in cycles of violence, which left alone would find no resolution. Girard calls the cause of this rivalry “mimetic desire”, and the only way out of this deeply embedded vengeance is to create a scapegoat to take the blame, reconciling the conflicting parties. Girard asserts that the biblical texts uniquely reveal the mechanisms of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating, and even demystify sacrificial rituals as nothing more than sacrilized “good” violence to keep a fragile peace. This revelation, according to Girard, can finally allow us to remove violence from the sacred. Much scholarship has been devoted to Girard’s theory, in particular how it offers a viable alternative to the still-dominant sacrificial theology of the cross. But there is little scholarship on the connection between Girard and Judaism; and Girard’s own work leaves us with a picture of Judaism that is at best incomplete, and at worst unable to find an answer to disturbing violence permeating the scriptures. This dissertation brings the Hebrew Bible into dialogue with Girard’s ideas in a systematic fashion to assert, contra Girard, that the Jewish revelation is a full, effective and even practical expression of his theory. After an overview of Girard’s work in the first chapter, the dissertation examines three Jewish “vaccines” to the mimetic disease as follows: the Birkhat ha-Banim (“The Blessing of the Children”); the reading of the Book of Esther on Purim; and the reading of Jonah on Yom Kippur. The conclusion to the dissertation asserts, drawing on these three demonstrations, the following points: 1) Rene Girard gives an important and clarifying lens to aid us in finding a new way to talk about, understand, and unify Jewish scripture and ritual; 2) a Jewish perspective can help flesh out what a different “revelation” of Girard’s mimetic desire looks like—even providing prescriptions to curtail this desire; and 3) positive mimesis is possible, and there are Hebrew examples of it free of originary violence. The final chapter addresses certain challenges in reconciling Girard with Judaism, moving toward a sincere Jewish Girardianism that will harmonize with the central views of the tradition.
Funded in part by Targum Shlishi.
An earlier version of chapter 2 originally appeared in Contagion, Vol. 19 (2012): 19-39, under the title “The Jewish Vaccine Against Mimetic Desire.” Copyright © 2012 by Michigan State University.
PhD in Theology