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  • Susanna Heschel

Time to Provincialize Christianity: A Response to Daniel Boyarin’s Judaism

Susannah Heschel on Boyarin’s Judaism

Daniel Boyarin has been a courageous pioneering scholar to whom we owe major gratitude not only for amazing contributions to Jewish Studies, but most of all for energizing and exciting vast numbers of colleagues and for placing the study of rabbinic texts at the center of the academy. He was part of a vanguard, together with Sander Gilman, in creating a huge, electrifying buzz around Jewish Studies in the 1980s and 1990s, making us feel that Jewish Studies was a thrilling intellectual adventure. Boyarin has also been an important champion of gender studies, feminist theory, and a supportive colleague to women in the field, for which all of us offer him great thanks.

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

The early buzz of academic excitement in Jewish Studies has died down, replaced in some quarters by active hostility from Jewish organizations and community leaders who try at times to silence us. In addition, today there is a concerted effort in the United States to undermine the authority of science and scholarship, with a president, senators, and cabinet members who think of science as irrelevant, governors who want to penalize students majoring in the humanities at state universities, various museums of biblical stories – e.g., of Noah’s Ark – created by right-wing donors who often display no concern for the authenticity of the manuscripts they showcase, nor the results of historical facts, nor for the precious planet earth that they themselves believe God created in just six days. Jewish Studies faculty have long been told to be representatives of the Jewish Federation on campus, while secretly being monitored and placed on internet black lists such as “Canary Mission” because we must not criticize the government of Israel. Boyarin has been targeted harshly for his outspoken moral voice, and that deserves our acknowledgment, to which I add my expression of support, even if I disagree with some of his positions.

Judaism is a small book with big ideas, written by one of the great scholars of our day. Boyarin has argued that Judaism and Christianity emerged together, influencing one another, and parting ways quite late, only with Constantine’s conversion. Boyarin has been putting forth his evidence for these claims in books and articles he has published over the course of many years. His argument is built on careful philological analyses of relevant texts and has gained enormous influence and acceptance. Judaism offers a short explanation of these claims, emphasizing that Christianity was born as a religion, and only under Christian influence did Judaism, too, become a religion. Boyarin’s Judaism complements Cynthia Baker’s recent work, Jew, a book that similarly argues for the Christian production of the category “Jew,” and while Baker is highly attentive to gender in her book, we eagerly anticipate her forthcoming book, Jewess.

It’s a wonderfully clever argument that demands we reconsider much of what we write and teach about Judaism. Yet while reading Boyarin’s book, a song began playing in my head, written by Carly Simon, with the refrain, “you’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you!” The song came to me not because I was thinking of Warren Beatty, the putative target of Simon’s song, but it was prompted by Boyarin’s implicit target, Christianity.

While nineteenth-century Jewish scholars liked to argue that Jesus was a pious Jew, and Paul, immersed in pagan thought, created the classic Christian doctrines of the incarnation, Trinity, and a virgin mother that were anathema to Judaism, Boyarin argues that these Christian doctrines are not pagan at all, that Jesus fulfilled Jewish messianic expectations, which he claims included anticipation of a suffering messiah, and that Christianity’s Trinitarian doctrines find their impetus in an ancient Jewish belief in a duality of divinity. That is, what is Christian is really Jewish. On the other hand, he argues that it was Christianity that brought into being the very notion of religion, and in so doing created its opposition, the non-Christian religion, Judaism, which it described with a rhetorical tradition through the centuries that has come to be known as “anti-Judaism.” Jews, in turn, Boyarin argues, embraced the underlying claims of the anti-Judaism – that Judaism is a religion – and came to constitute themselves as the religion of Judaism. Thus, the very concept of Judaism as a religion was produced by Christianity; what is Jewish is Christian – though what is Christian comes from Judaism. It’s a very topological argument, a kind of homomorphic Möbius strip in which the outside becomes the inside and vice-versa.

As Larisa Reznik, a scholar of Jewish thought, recently wrote, Franz Rosenzweig claimed that the unification of a people under a concept is what Christianity accomplished, making nationalism a Christianization of the collective. Yet that leads us to wonder about the multiplicities of Christianity. Exactly which Christianity does Boyarin have in mind for the creation of modern Judaism in nineteenth-century Germany? The complex Schelling-influenced Tübingen School? Or the Christianity that produced empire, since like Rosenzweig, Boyarin sees Zionism as a departure from Judaism? But perhaps we might turn the tables and ask about Christianity’s reliance on Judaism for its own modern shape; again Rosenzweig: “Christianity now needs the emancipated naked Jew, the Jew of the Jewish problem.” Or maybe, as Rosenzweig writes, it’s not about the Christian, it’s about starting with the pagan. For Rosenzweig, as Reznik notes, the shift from pagan to Christian creates messianic politics: that is the foundation of empire, Rosenzweig argues, and he viewed Zionism as Christian politics.

Boyarin argues that the concept of religion arises in conditions of empire, as an effort to incorporate a minority group. Discussing Leopold Zunz, he writes, “Wissenschaft des Judentums, nevertheless, is as Christian as anything that the term ‘rabbinic’ has to offer, and it’s the Judentum that is Christian here, much more than the Wissenschaft.” Was the Judentum of Wissenschaft the product of the empire called Christianity or the revolt against it? Or was Wissenschaft des Judentums creating its own, new empire, transforming the male-only realm of the yeshiva into a manly Wissenschaft that excluded women from its purview? As the nineteenth-century German Jewish scholar Abraham Geiger wrote, “We became men and wanted manly fare, we wanted Wissenschaft.” And it created an empire of the text: the textualization of Judaism masquerading as historiography and valorizing a particular kind of objective philology while denigrating the putatively feminine realm of religious subjectivity, the experience of praying (not prayerbook reform), the piety that constituted Hasidic Jewish life, for example, of both men and women. I don’t find much unheroic conduct in the Wissenschaft des Judentums; on the contrary, it was a scholarly movement that functioned, like others of its era, to create gender, as Bonnie G. Smith has described the historical profession. Finally, while I don’t want to return to my childhood, some of my debate with Boyarin has undertones of the debate between Saul Lieberman and Abraham Joshua Heschel over how to interpret rabbinic texts. While Lieberman continued the nineteenth-century project of creating critical editions and searched for the supposedly “foreign” Greek words in the Talmud, Heschel launched a new path, as expressed by Michael Fishbane: “the role of interpretation is neither aesthetic illumination nor aesthetic judgment, but rather the religious duty to expound and extend, and so to reactualize the ancient word of God for the present hour.”

This is why I wonder if the paradigm of the Judaism-Christianity interaction, though fascinating, might be getting a bit tired. I think it may be time to provincialize Christianity. As I have elsewhere argued, Gershom Scholem misunderstood the Wissenschaft des Judentums because he failed to understand its context: how the work of Jost, Geiger, Graetz, and others was received in the European Christian world of professional historians reveals the politics of the Jewish arguments. Theirs was a political effort. Jewish historians, like so many others under colonial domination – in China, India, Egypt – wanted to create a non-European historicism that would grant them sovereignty over the past. Initially, as Dipesh Chakrabarty writes, they were “hunter and gatherers of historical documents,” like Zunz, because the homo historicus held a belief in a transcendent historical truth. However, as I have argued in my analysis of Geiger, what the Wissenschaft des Judentums was doing was an overthrow of the narrative of European history that had placed Christianity at its foundation.

Was Wissenschaft created by Christianity? Or was historicism one of the crucial methods of colonial and even anti-Christian revolt? Aimee Cesaire, upon resigning from the French Communist Party, wrote, “I am not burying myself in a narrow particularism. But neither do I want to lose myself in an emaciated universalism.” On the Jewish front, just as in India, China, and Egypt, what ultimately emerged was a nationalist, Zionist historiography, a hegemonic political theology of the nation that ironically returned the Jews to their colonized subjugation in order to legitimize their nationalism; Haim Hazaz narrates this in his famous short story, HaDrasha, in which the protagonist declares to his fellow kibbutz members, “We Jews have no history; the Christians have written our history for us.” Wissenschaft des Judentums is a revolt against the hegemonic Christian, not a creation of it.

Post-colonial theory has called our attention to the politics not only of the term “religion,” but also of exercises such as philology. It has also led to Santiago Slabodsky’s argument, in Decolonial Judaism, that Jews might embrace not the Judaism that Christianity excreted through its anti-Judaism, but the Judaism designated as “barbaric.” Not Christianity versus Judaism, but civilization versus barbarism, with Jews embracing an alliance with victims of colonialism. “I am incurable barbarian,” wrote Albert Memmi. If Boyarin’s book wants to guide a Jewish resistance, perhaps he might turn away from the civilized German and Lithuanian Judaism he puts at the center of Judaism and turn instead to the global south where there is a very different kind of modern Jewish experience, including the broad swaths of Jews living in Islamic lands.

Boyarin’s attention to the translation of the Arabic word din into the Hebrew dat in the section of his book dealing with the medieval period has already been discussed by Tzvi Langermann, but Boyarin does not mention that Islam’s influence on Judaism did not cease with the end of the middle ages. I would like to call attention to the role of Islam in shaping modern Judaism not only by Jews living in the Islam-dominant regions, but also by Jews in Europe, as evidenced by synagogue architecture, academic writings, and other expressions traced by John Efron, myself, and others, and analyzed particularly in Robert Erlewine’s book, Judaism and the West. Boyarin’s Eurocentrism that focuses on German Jews and Lithuanian Jews participates in the Eurocentrism of Jewish Studies that ignores Jews in North Africa, Iraq, Iran, the Ottoman Empire, Palestine – to say nothing of Hasidic Jews.

Daniel Boyarin is a brilliant scholar who stimulates us to think in new ways, for which we are all grateful. Yet I am still left unsettled by this book. I am left wondering: what is its goal, what is its ethical mandate, especially in this terrible moment of rising fascism around the world. This question is addressed to all of us: What is our responsibility as scholars? After completing my study of Nazi theologians and professors, it became clear to me that no scholarship is divorced from the political domain. Our work stems from both our intellectual commitments and our humanity with its commitment to our society. Let us be Karl Jaspers and not Martin Heidegger: Jaspers’ voice after the war, his outspoken denunciations of Germany and his efforts to recreate the humanity that had been destroyed, is important precisely because Jaspers took responsibility for his country rather than distancing himself from it. Boyarin, too, has taken crucial stances on political issues of the day and suffered severe consequences for his declaration, “I am not a Zionist.” But when I turn to this book, I wonder, what is its political meaning, this religion of Judaism created by Christianity? Why does it continue to matter that Judaism was created by Christianity, and what is the ethical mandate emerging from this argument?

Ultimately, I am asking: What are the politics of this book? I suppose Christians can continue to hang their heads in shame at having created the anti-Christian monster of anti-Judaism yet be relieved that their anti-Judaism turned into a vibrant religion, since Judaism, Boyarin argues, is the embrace of the anti-Christian, namely, the religion of Judaism, thus offering a certain redemption to Christianity. Boyarin adds to the long-standing Jewish preening that Jesus said nothing new or original by claiming that all that Paul added – Trinity, incarnation – did not stem from paganism, but also came from Judaism. Thus, as much as Christianity invented Judaism, Judaism gave rise to Christianity.

Finally, Boyarin’s argument implies that since Judaism is not an ethnicity but a religion (thanks to Christianity!), Zionism is not its logical outcome; therefore, a Jew can be anti-Zionist, a position I find unfortunate. Easy, perhaps, to reject Zionism in 2019, but what Jew in Europe would choose to reject a Jewish state in 1942? Whatever the problems with Zionism and the State of Israel (show me a politics without disaster and I’ll show you paradise), our obligation is to follow the example of Jaspers, not Heidegger. Over the many years of his career, Boyarin has been a strong political voice of social justice. With his argument about Christianity’s creation of Judaism, however, the politics shift. Christianity comes to be the manly principle of generativity, at least implicitly, in Boyarin’s schema, and my concern is that assigning Judaism the status of a passive receptacle, however implicitly, might permit those who want an excuse to abdicate their responsibility for Jewish political existence.

This is the seventh essay of the Judaism forum.


Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. Her scholarship focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of biblical scholarship, and the history of antisemitism. Her numerous publications include Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (University of Chicago Press), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press). She has also taught at Southern Methodist University and Case Western Reserve University.


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