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Daniel Boyarin responds to the forum

I thank all of the participants in this forum who have given my book such significant attention, honoring the work with their serious critique. After much thought, I don’t think that I could respond adequately to all of the responses offered here; each one of them provides an intellectual agenda—in very different ways and with different qualities—that could occupy years of discussion, writing, and thinking. I choose rather to address examples of argumentation from among the responses to discuss individually, followed by some general reflections in conversation with the respondents. My discussion will, I hope, expose the more theoretical and affective position behind the book, for good or ill. Each example addresses a particular aspect of that theory and desire.

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

The first example is drawn from Adele Reinhartz’s work, namely the argument from infants’ alleged conceptualization of gravity. Reinhartz claims that pre-verbal babies, not having any knowledge of the science behind gravity, nonetheless have the concept: “But their lack of knowledge does not negate the fact that they understand the concept: items that drop from their hands do not float in space but fall to the ground.” We may be using the term concept in entirely different ways, but in my understanding (of which I’m not entirely sure I have a concept), the learning from experience that things fall down is hardly evidence for a concept of gravity. Let’s imagine, for instance, a sophisticated group of folks who claim that every time they drop something an angel comes and pushes it to the ground; they also would be aware of the fact that things fall, albeit without any concept akin to our theory of gravity. There certainly are such collectives of humans (or ones with theories very like this hypothetical). Rather than conflating their theories with ours, I would want to know about and understand their concept-world—one very different from mine. Assuming a priori that their account of things falling is just another name for the concept of gravity—and that, moreover, all human infants (as well as apes I’m sure and ravens and perhaps octopi), who understand that when you let things go they end up on the ground, have such a concept—forecloses any investigation of different ways of seeing the world. And that is my very point. “Torah and mitzvos” is simply not the same concept as “Judaism,” and something is missed when we assume it is.

The second example is drawn from the response of Simcha Gross. Before attending to the example, however, I must attend to a rather curious—to me—misapprehension—again, to me—of my scholarly and intellectual position. I am primarily, that is first and foremost, a student of the Babylonian Talmud, and hardly one who gives pride of place particularly to a western trajectory of thought and culture. Indeed, it is not clear to me how a product of Byzantine Kulturgebiet such as the Palestinian Talmud (Byzantium being one of Gross’s “western” nodes) can be even considered apart from a product of Sasanian cultural territory, the Babylonian Talmud. Nor is it clear to me how the cultural products of the Jews of the Islamicate world fit into the paradigm of the West and the rest as simply westerners. What is absolutely true, and if it be a fault, let it be so, is that this book’s evidence is entirely drawn from written cultural products of the Jews and focused on those nodes in which one might have expected, or within which it has been claimed, that we find the concept of “Judaism.” I confess that Farsi is entirely beyond my ken and that I stretched myself into some dangerous Judaeo-Arabic ground for this project. But I am hardly innocent of, nor in any sense dismissive of, the cultural product of the Jews of Asuristan, that aforementioned Talmud. The reason that the Talmud, actually the Jewish literature with which I am most comfortable, was not included in my survey is that I thought (and we’ll judge that thought presently) that there wasn’t much to say: there isn’t even any alleged term that suggests that the Rabbis of Byzance and the Sasanian world had a concept of “Judaism,” as opposed to a sense of the whole fabric of Jewish cultural and national life—including, of course, its liturgies and analogous practices, both linguistic and embodied in other ways. If I am searching for the historical development of what is manifestly a modern term, “Judaism,” and its cognates, I have to look where it might be found and not where the light is strongest.

More material than Gross’s complaints about my alleged Eurocentrism (to be sure, he doesn’t use this term, but I believe it is operating in his concept world nonetheless) is his claim that I have missed something that would have changed my genealogy significantly. I refer to his citation of Rabbi Yoḥanan’s famous saying that Mordechai was called an Ish Yehudi because he repudiated idolatry; thus, according to Gross, providing an example (are there others?) in which being a “Jew” is defined in “religious” terms, giving the lie to my thesis that Jews did not operate with a concept of a Jewish “religion,” a Judaism as apart from something like overall national identity (and yes, I am aware, that the term “national” is problematic in similar ways, to be treated elsewhere, mersheshem). Gross writes:

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.

Let’s, however, think a bit about that passage from Megillah in situ. First of all, it is to be found in the context of midrash on the verse Esther 2:5 in which Mordechai is identified as a descendant of Benyamin and referred to as an ish yehudi in the same breath. The fact that this occasions such midrashic effort indicates that a priori for these non-western Rabbis calling someone a Benjaminite and a Yehudi constitutes a contradiction in terms. It follows, then, that Yehudi is used in the sense of a descendant of the tribe of Judah. Among the answers to this apparent conundrum are the ones offered by Rav Nahman, that he was a man of distinguished character and thus honored with the name “Judean,” and by R. Joshua b. Levi, that his father was a Benjaminite and his mother from the tribe of Judah, as well as an opinion by the Rabbis that the tribes of Benjamin and Judah were contesting his affiliation, each claiming him as theirs. Finally Rabbi Yoḥanan offers a midrash on the name Judah as a metaphorical honorific, parallel to the one given by Rav Nahman. Clearly Rabbi Yohanan’s assumption, as with all the others, is that ish Yehudi normally means a member of the tribe of Judah. This passage thus does not support an argument for an idea of “Judaism” in eastern Late Antiquity, particularly as the usual and common designation for what we call “Jews” at that time is “Israel,” both for individuals and the collective. Whatever Rabbi Yoḥanan was doing here, he certainly was not providing his own understanding of the now much-debated meaning of the term Yehudi, still less of anything cognate to “Jew.” And he was certainly not generalizing any such “religious” concept of “Jewish” identity into an abstraction akin to our current sense of “Judaism.”

When making this argument, however, Gross remarks:

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.

‍Yes. He could not have stated more clearly the argument of my book. What do we miss when we evaluate Jews everywhere through the narrow lens of Western and/or Christian categories, such as “religion,” or for that matter, “Judaism”?

When I read Jonathan Decter’s piece, I sighed a sigh of relief—finally someone who was willing to read the book on its own terms and evaluate, as well as productively challenge, it on those terms. I am not a scholar of Judaeo-Arabic (or any other Arabic), and I attempted through my ruse of the Kuzari (where I had a great pony) to do an end-run around that gap. I am very interested both in Decter’s evidence and in his argument. Despite appearances to the contrary, I am not wedded to my thesis of the German revolution (whether as an internalization of Christian categories or, as Martin Kavka suggests, perhaps more creative or active). At the beginning of this project, in fact, I set out fully expecting to find medieval evidence for a developing notion of “religion” before the Peace of Westphalia and for something like “Judaism” before Judentum. And I’ll be happy to re-evaluate my historical thesis in the light of any such evidence.

For the record, I do not think I am a Sapir-Worthian. I do believe that humans have very different conceptual apparatūs depending on various forms of cultural development but also that such concept-worlds are fairly easily mutable given cultural contact. I also believe, with Quentin Skinner, that grosso modo, language is the best evidence for such a conceptual apparatus and for its mutations. As discussed in the book, my theoretical framework is more what I think of as Wittgensteinian, the late Wittgenstein of the Philosophische Untersuchungen. Elliot Wolfson has offered a brilliant and moving reading of Wittgenstein in which the Tractatus and the Untersuchungen end up somehow in the same place; brilliant, moving, but not ineluctable, I think, and not as useful for me, at least at this moment and in this endeavor. I am not sure what would constitute right and wrong here, and I am certainly not opposed to readings of rabbinic literature that seek to (and do) expand our spiritual potential or ontic capacities. But that is not what interests me right now.

As an anthropologist, and that is how I identify at this point, my goal is to understand better those other humans. Recognizing, as I do, the theoretical and practical limitations of the goal of clear-sighted looking-at-the-other, nonetheless that is my desire. Pace Gross I wish not to be a westerner all alone in the world without anyone else to talk to. I have spent now nearly half a century with the Rabbis’ texts and have some sense that I begin to think myself into a part of their world, and I suspect that a half-century is what it takes to begin to “get” it—for any distant Lebensform. There are many goals for a spiritual and an intellectual life. Encountering the other in its own otherness—especially for me that Jewish other, the other that is I but also not—is where I’m at. Anachronism is not the problem—I’m not sure I even used the word—but homogenization through the lenses ground in the scholars’ study is. No one could accuse Wolfson of that. Elliot Wolfson is not J. Z. Smith. Time going backward is not tantamount to encounters of the second order.

To Susannah Heschel, I would answer that I think in my opposition to the State of Israel, I am more in line with Jaspers rather than Heidegger, that old ethnonationalist. And I think you have been spectacularly unfair in your characterization of the work of my teacher Saul Lieberman za”l as one who “continued the nineteenth-century project of creating critical editions and searched for the supposedly ‘foreign’ Greek words in the Talmud.” That said, I grant that Lieberman was even more unfair to Abraham Joshua Heschel za”l, who was also my teacher. (When I came to the Seminary, I was asked why I wanted to come, and I answered to study with Lieberman and Heschel. This caused astonishment among the members of the admissions committee; apparently no one had ever said that before. I went on to exult and cry at the beauty of both of their teachings.) I do thank you for your words honoring me, as I, having learned so much from you, honor you. As to the more scholarly question involved, I think that we are in a sense on the same side of at least one part of it. It is precisely the more integrated cultural forms of Jews in the East and South that I yearn for—not the “religion” of Western Europe. I propose Vilna as offering a more organic version of a Jewish modernization than Berlin, for all the glories of Berlin’s Jewish modernity, which I deeply love and respect as well.

This is the apposite moment to cite Shaul Magid’s insight that even in modernity and to this day, “Judaism” isn’t operant within worlds that are organically Jewish in a manner not within a non-Jewish/Christian/secular gaze. I’d like also to lift up here Kavka’s remarks concerning the prescriptive dimension to my argument—he is critical of any normative claim about when/how to use “Judaism” and what is and is not authentic, but I resist any simple sense of a scholarly gaze with no such preference or perspective. I grant readily my own perspective (viz. Jaspers over Heidegger) not just as a matter of describing what was/is but also highlighting what hasn’t been noticed so as to express or recover what should/could be. Clearing away the debris of uncritical terms opens space to see what hides in the underbrush.

Once again, I thank all of these respondents for the generosity they have exhibited by engaging so seriously with my scholarship and my thinking. I am currently engaged in beginning writing a book that I’m calling What is the Jews?: Towards an Older Future in large part a project generated by this conversation in its original oral form; all of these responses will serve me well in pursuing courses of correction and further development of these ideas. I wish also to thank Annette Yoshiko Reed for her extremely helpful comments as well as for putting this panel, which has been so productive for me, in the final formulation of this response.

This is the final essay of the Judaism forum.


Daniel Boyarin is Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, and Chair of Rhetoric, at the University of California at Berkeley.


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