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  • Simcha Gross

“Judaism” Here, There, but not Everywhere: Persian and Other Non-Western Perspectives

Simcha Gross on Boyarin’s Judaism

The key insight of Daniel Boyarin’s provocative new book is that to better understand the “different ways that” Jews “have chosen to pursue their existence as humans” throughout history, it is misleading to impose the modern term “Judaism.” This word, most basically construed as “the religion of the Jews,” is neither timeless nor neutral; it abstracts certain aspects of Jewish collective identity and carries a host of connotations that might not have been operative for Jews in all times and places. On this basis, he argues that “Judaism” is anachronistic both as a term and as a concept.

Daniel Boyarin. Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion. Rutgers University Press, 2018. 234 pp. $29.95.

Boyarin’s new book succeeds at its primary goal: to destabilize the automatic use of “Judaism” by scholars. By questioning this one term, moreover, he clears space for thinking about how Jews in the past conceptualized, categorized, classified, and compartmentalized their lives differently than Jews do today. Yet his proposal is based on two propositions that might be nuanced. Boyarin is doggedly committed to two principles of historical method: (1) no term, no concept (i.e., subscribing to a strong form of Whorfianism/linguistic relativity) and (2) history should not be written in terms that its subjects (premodern Jews, in this case) did not recognize themselves. What I would like to suggest, however, is (1) there may indeed be premodern lexical terms akin to “Judaism,” especially once we expand our focus beyond primarily Western sources, and (2) there may be a variety of ways in which Jews expressed and internalized a category like “Judaism” without a perfect lexical equivalent for it.

When one nuances his argument in these two ways, moreover, one might further question his aim to define the single moment, the big bang, after which Jews conceptualize what they do as “religion.” Boyarin’s story has a single turning point: “Judaism” should only be used by scholars, in his view, after it is adopted by Jews themselves in the modern era. To make such a totalizing argument, however, his study – like others of its sort about “Jews,” “religion,” and more – adopts a view of Jewish history that prioritizes the trajectory from the Greco-Roman world to European Christianity to Western imperial and national contexts. Whether the invention of “religion” or “Judaism” occurred among the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, or Germans, the moment is always located in the West. But even if Jews in the West did lack a concept akin to “Judaism” before the modern era, that would still be less than half of the story of the history of Jews.

In his discussion of ancient Jews, the central terminology explored by Boyarin (e.g., Ioudaios, Ioudaismos, ethnos) is of Greek origin. Boyarin’s selective ancient Jewish lexicon is a product of the history of the field, where scholars have treated Greek-speaking Jews and their language as representative of Jews who speak other languages or dwell in other lands. This near-exclusive focus on Greek neglects linguistic differences and cultural particularities among Jews, both in the Greco-Roman world and beyond.

For instance, as Seth Schwartz has noted, Boyarin largely overlooks rabbinic literature, written in Hebrew and Aramaic, and its assumptions about collective identity. By way of example, the following statement is attributed to Rabbi Yohanan, the prominent third-century Palestinian sage, concerning the description of Mordechai in the Scroll of Esther as an “ish Yehudi,” a Yehudi/Jewish/Judean man (b. Megillah 13a): “Why then was he called ‘a Yehudi man’? Because he repudiated idolatry. For anyone who repudiates idolatry is called ‘a Yehudi.’” Rabbi Yohanan here provides his own understanding of the now much-debated meaning of the term Yehudi. His notion that “Yehudi” marks anyone who repudiates idolatry is certainly not shorthand for “Judaism”; yet it can hardly be reduced to the Greek notions of ethnos or genos either, as it does not indicate geography, region, kinship, or ancestral customs. These kinds of reflections are missed when we privilege Athens over Jerusalem, evaluating Jews everywhere primarily through the narrow lens of Western – that is, Greek – categories.

Even if the Greek Jewish world were to present a unified front, ancient Jews also lived under non-Greek empires. Many Jews did not have Greek language and categories as their starting point, but lived in different regimes of power that imposed their own categories on Jews and other groups. For example, Jews lived under Persian rule from antiquity to the present. At the outset of the Sasanian period, as the first generations of Babylonian Amoraim were flourishing, the Zoroastrian chief priest Kerdir boasted in a monumental inscription about establishing more priests, about cultivating the sacred fire, water, and animals, about destroying the residences and doctrine of the demons, and he boasted about smiting “Jews, Buddhists, Brahmins, Nazarenes, Christians, Baptizers, and Manichaeans.” Here, Jews are named as one of a series of groups with identities distinguished along lines surprisingly akin to what we now call “religious.” Kerdir, at least partially representative of the imperial power that ruled over some of the most influential figures in Jewish history, could lump Jews together with other groups according to their worship and belief in the gods, in a distinct manner from ancient Greek ethnographic accounts.

There are also Persian terms that may indeed be appropriately translated as “religion,” at least some of the time, and they are applied to Jews. For instance, the Middle Persian term dēn, a complicated term that has many valences, is often paired with the negative ag-dēn, or bad dens. The dēn refers to Zoroastrians, while the bad dens include Jews, Christians, and Muslims. While Shaul Shaked and others have offered preliminary studies of this material, suggesting that in some places these categories do amount to modern “religion,” much more work remains to be done on the way Iranians thought about Jews, and the way Iranian Jews, in turn, thought about their Jewishness.

In a similar vein, Adam Becker has argued that we find the deployment of a kind of precursor to “religion(s)” in the use of the Syriac term deḥltā, better translated as “fear” or “awe,” in certain Syriac texts. Deḥltā is used to refer to deḥlat alāhā, “fear of god,” but also the specific “fear” of certain groups – there is the deḥltā of the Magi (note: not of the Persians!), the deḥltā of the Jews, and the deḥltā of the Christians. To be sure, deḥltā does not quite entirely encompass the full semantic range of “religion,” nor in the case of the deḥltā of the Jews, the full semantic range of “Judaism.” What is clear, however, is that Babylonian Jews lived alongside two groups – the ruling Persians and the neighboring Syriac Christians – who appear quite capable of expressing an abstraction that is in some ways akin to what we mean by “Judaism.”

In addition, there are a variety of ways in which Jews may have internalized or assumed concepts akin to Judaism and/or religion without themselves using the terms. Most basically, Jews may have dealt with such concepts because hegemonic powers under which they lived classified them as such. Boyarin himself persuasively argues in this book that the Theodosian code begins to construct a Judaism, even as he maintains that Jews did not internalize these projections. But we might wonder whether Jews would have been aware of that construction on some level, by encountering it in law and social reality – just as Jews in the Sasanian Empire would understand on what grounds Kerdir persecuted them and their neighboring Christians, Manichaeans, and Buddhists. By focusing on the absence of modern terms in antiquity, we risk losing sight of the fact that we are describing law codes that circumscribed and defined the behaviors of people and groups in a manner that went beyond rhetorical or conceptual constructions (and this holds true even if such law codes functioned, at times, rhetorically and discursively).

It is pressing, of course, for scholars to refrain from treating these and other imperial categories as if they were more objective or descriptive than the terms used by Jewish and other ruled peoples about themselves (a point that has been central, e.g., to critiques of terms like “Hinduism,” “Buddhism,” etc.). But it seems unlikely that governing structures do not impact the self-conceptualization of groups living under their control. Here, the example of the Islamic category of the People of the Book, the Ahl al-Kitāb, is instructive. This was a category that determined many aspects of life for Jews, Christians, and others, and therefore it is not surprising that some Jews internalized features of this category. Thus, Saadiah Gaon, in a Judeo-Arabic Genizah fragment calls the Torah the Qurʾān and names Moses the rasūl, or emissary, of God, the well-known title of Muhammad, applying Islamic framing of scripture and sacred history to his own. Others, like Zoroastrians and Mandaeans, whose status as “People of the Book” was disputed, redefined and reconstituted their sacred traditions and history in order to receive the status of People of the Book with its attendant benefits. They may not have used the term “People of the Book” to describe themselves. But its effects are clear.

Absent imperial abstractions that are similar to “Judaism” or “religion,” Jews had diverse experiences through which Jewish identity might have been conceptualized without employing a single corresponding term. Thus, for example, Jews were regular participants in Islamic Majālis: study and discussion forums where representatives of different groups debated theology and practice. While the debates organized by and before the Caliph are most famous, these scholastic study circles met locally and by choice; we have evidence of many Majālis that included Christians, Zoroastrians, Muslims, and Jews, and some such encounters included Geonim and sons of known Jewish exilarchs. Whether or not Jews at home conceptualized themselves in another way, these gatherings presumed a level of parity between the members of these groups that made them apt study or disputation partners, in which their various traditions, practices, scriptures, and beliefs could be compared and contrasted. To wit, not only were Jewish beliefs and practices perceived as constitutive of what it meant to be Jewish – akin to what it meant to be Christian or Muslim – but these aspects could be conceptually isolated and identified by some Jews themselves, as shown by their participation in such encounters.

A similar – and perhaps primary – way in which Jewish collective identity might be expressed through deed rather than word is in the act of boundary-crossing. Boyarin minimizes the significance of boundary-crossing for understanding Jewish collective identity in the premodern world. Assuming that one of the central differences between religion and ethnicity was their respective mutability, however, Shaye Cohen has argued that the unprecedented incorporation of non-Jews by the Hasmoneans, culminating in the rabbinic conversion ceremony, was a key indicator of a transition from an ethnicity to a religion. This argument was countered by Boyarin and others who noted that we do seem to have evidence in Greek sources of members of one ethnos transitioning into another, even if, as they acknowledge, this was typically considered peculiar and highly unusual, and even if there is no clear ancient equivalent, to my knowledge, of the kind of systematized conversion ceremony that we begin to see developing in Tannaitic literature. Yet once these scholars argued that Greek collective identities could incorporate some kind of boundary-crossing, the unique features and the fluctuations in Jewish boundary-crossing were dismissed as falling comfortably under Greek collective categories, whether genos or ethnos.

This approach to conversion, however, flattens a range of evolving Jewish discourses and practices surrounding conversion in a way that, as Cohen and others argued, clearly reflect changing notions of Jewish collective identity. And while Cohen was primarily interested in Jews in the Greek and Roman world, conversion continued to change and evolve, as illustrated by Moshe Lavee’s recent book on conversion in the Babylonian Talmud. We have much to learn about how Jews thought of themselves by the way in which they allowed for and discussed the process of becoming a Jew.

Indeed, that moments of transition may stretch the available lexicon for Jewish collective identity in a given period is clear from 2 Maccabees 9:17, where Achior becomes a Ioudaios while also remaining a Seleucid, a text which Boyarin is forced to admit represents an “outlier” in the use of Ioudaios more generally. Perhaps “a member of the Jewish religion” is still not the right way to render Ioudaios in this passage. But the ways in which the act of boundary crossing stretches the standard usages of Ioudaios show us precisely the limitations of an exclusively lexical study to encapsulate fully the conceptual assumptions about Jewish collective identity that are expressed in moments of boundary-crossing.

Just as conversion was quickly naturalized by scholars like Boyarin as a normal reflex of genos or ethnos, godfearers have similarly been understood as Judaizers, much as Greeks who took on the practices of Persians were accused of Medeizing. Yet these boundary-crossers were invariably viewed negatively in ancient Greek sources, as betraying and violating their original ethnos. What scholars have failed to notice, to my mind, is that these Greek accounts of boundary-crossing are not first-hand accounts written by converts or godfearers themselves, but rather accounts written by those who are firmly situated within the conceptual universe of Greek notions of ethnos. Would the godfearers or converts, however, have seen themselves as changing their ethnos? Might godfearers instead have seen themselves as Hellenes who were attracted to the Jewish religio, detached from the Jewish ethnos as a whole, much as the Moschos, of the famous Moschus inscription, identifies himself as both a Ioudaios and a devotee of decidedly not Jewish gods? We lack any first-hand accounts of godfearers and converts in antiquity, which should give us pause before generalizing about the way Jewish collective identity was understood by all Jews in a given time and place.

These examples (i.e., of hegemonic categories, inter-“religious” debate, and conversion) all suggest that Jewish collective identity might be expressed through deed rather than word – and sometimes in ways that can be usefully discussed and analyzed together with modern terms like “Judaism.” In drawing attention to such cases, I am not simply suggesting that Judaism is an operative term and concept at an earlier date, nor am I defending earlier scholars who argued that Jews became a “religion” at a different time or place than Boyarin suggests. I am suggesting, rather, that abstractions that were in some ways akin to “Judaism” did exist some of the time for some Jews as well as non-Jews in the premodern world – though certainly not for all of them.

It may be time for scholars to eschew the quest to identify the one moment of the “invention” of “religion” and “Judaism.” This might enable us to draw upon the insights of these sorts of lexical projects, while sidestepping their theoretical and practical challenges. By abandoning the quest to isolate Judaism’s “big bang” moment of invention, it might be possible to fulfill Boyarin’s ambitious historical project without adopting his proposal. Alongside broader studies of Jewish collective identities that do not reflexively treat all expressions of Jewishness as “Judaism,” future studies should examine the ways in which notions akin to Judaism – among other notions of Jewish collectivity – emerge, submerge, and reemerge, in different times and places, under different – or similar – conditions. To describe this rich and varied history, we must adopt a broader, global, geographic and linguistic focus, and we must appreciate the ways in which the human experience might be expressed nonverbally.

This is the second essay of the Judaism forum.


Simcha Gross received his Ph.D. in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the History Department at the University of California, Irvine, and will shortly begin a new position in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. His work at present centers on Jews and Syriac Christians living under Sasanian and Early Islamic rule.


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