The Genealogy of a Modern Notion

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Daniel Boyarin
Key Words in Jewish Studies
  • New Brunswick, NJ: 
    Rutgers University
    , October
     234 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


As part of the “Key Words in Jewish Studies” series by Rutgers University Press, Daniel Boyarin’s book, Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion, focuses primarily on the term “Judaism” itself, including the history of its usage, and ways its meanings have changed over time and space. Unlike the closely related term, Jew, studied by Cynthia Baker in this same series (2017), the term Judaism does not appear in literary or other texts before the modern period. Yet it is used regularly by those who speak and write about Jews, Jewishness, and Jewish history from the biblical period to the present. Boyarin’s book provides a fascinating discussion, with particular focus on the ancient sources from which the term Judaism is absent, the medieval texts that use the similar but not identical terms yahadut (Hebrew) and din (Judeo-Arabic), and the role of Christianity—and the German term Judentum—in shaping the modern term and its meanings. 

Boyarin’s goal, however, is not merely to provide a historical-philological overview. Rather, he draws on the absence of the term from premodern Jewish sources to argue that “from a linguistic point of view, only modern Judaism can be said to exist at all” (xi). He bases this claim on an a priori principle: that we should not ascribe to a culture a category or abstraction for which that culture does not have a term (7). To do so is anachronistic and therefore bad methodology. The implications for our scholarly practice is self-evident: we should not use the term Judaism when discussing premodern Jews (19, 39). 

Boyarin does not provide any support for this a priori principle. Rather, he feels “instinctively that utilizing terms like ‘religion’ to delineate the concept worlds of people who had no such concepts, or words, is a practice of self-replication and ... self-defeat” (7-8). If “religion” does not exist before the modern period, as Boyarin and Carlin Barton argue in their 2016 book, Imagine No Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities (Fordham University Press), then Judaism, commonly defined as the religion of the Jews, also cannot exist before modernity. 

Yet this argument, despite its grounding in modern and postmodern critical theory, is both problematic and narrowly conceived. In the first place, it is by no means obvious that the absence of a word denotes the absence of a concept. While it may be true that language—English, French, Greek, and so forth—shapes the way a person habitually perceives reality, how they think and behave, the relationship between language and concept is far more complex than Boyarin would have us believe. Indeed, research in cognitive linguistics confirms what common sense suggests: it is eminently possible for us to have concepts without words to denote them. Very young, preverbal children, for example, understand the concept of gravity long before they understand the term. Furthermore, there are words in other languages that, though absent from English, nevertheless describe feelings or ideas with which English-speakers are very familiar. An obvious example is the German word, Schadenfreude, which has been adopted in English to describe a delight in the misfortune of others. This is not to say that premodern Jews had a concept of Judaism as a religion, as many understand the term today. But many were well aware of the elements that are generally seen as constituent of Judaism, such as a set of beliefs, practices, and holidays; the calendar; and a sense of connection with other Jews, both past and present. 

Second, even if the term Judaism did not exist before the modern period, it can nevertheless be useful and appropriate to use it in scholarship on premodern Jews. Boyarin’s theoretical framework presumes that the main function of words like Judaism or religion is to denote a concept. It is obvious, however, that words serve other purposes as well. Abstract nouns such as Judaism are useful precisely because they are vague and overdetermined. As such they serve generalizing and heuristic functions that are essential to scholarly discourse. When we refer to “second temple Judaism”—a term that is customarily used to refer to the period between 530 BCE and 70 CE—we are gesturing towards some commonly held ideas and attitudes, such as reverence for the Torah and an affiliation, if troubled at times, with other Jews. But we are not claiming that, say, Philo’s goals, genres, and ideas were the same as those of the books of Enoch, Tobit, and Judith, or the letters of Paul. Generalizing language such as “Judaism” elides differences but it does not posit homogenization. For example, the term postsecondary education is often used to refer collectively to post-high school programs of study but it does not imply that two-year colleges are the same as Ivy League universities. Similarly, using the term second temple Judaism does not mask the great diversity of Jews, Jewish ideas, Jewish practices, and Jewish text in this period. 

I agree with Boyarin that to use “Judaism” of premodern Jews is anachronistic. I would argue, however, that some degree of anachronism is inherent to the study of the past. Every time we address to ancient sources the questions that they themselves did not ask we engage in anachronism. Every project that is generated by the desire “to illumine our own predicaments through investigation of the past” (8) is engaged in anachronism, even when, as in this book, anachronism is so vigorously disavowed (11, 12, 27, 30, 50 and passim). Yet without anachronism we cannot discuss such important topics as sexuality or identity, terms and concepts that are absent from premodern Jewish sources. This is not to say that anything goes. To attribute 2nd or 3rd century doctrines, such as original sin or the trinity, to the authors of the New Testament, for example, is an unacceptable anachronism; to investigate, say, Paul’s hybrid identity is not. 

These concerns notwithstanding, Boyarin’s study of “Judaism” is an insightful and thought-provoking reminder of the importance of words and talking about words to our scholarly practices.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adele Reinhartz is Professor of Religious Studies at the Univeristy of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
December 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Boyarin is Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Imagine no Religion: How Modern Abstractions Hide Ancient Realities.



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