Introduction: Forum on Cynthia Baker, Jew

MRB May 6, 2017 0

Shaul Magid and Annette Yoshiko Reed introduce Marginalia’s newest forum

Cynthia Baker. Jew. Rutgers, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-9954946-0-2. $90.00

Cynthia Baker. Jew. Rutgers, 2017. ISBN: 978-0813563022. $29.95

As Leopold Zunz once wrote, “Genuine scholarship is generative.” Good scholarship may teach us things we did not know, but genuine scholarship shifts and redefines a series of conversations, even beyond the specific subject in question. Producing genuine scholarship is like throwing a stone into a calm pond: the ripples it generates extend far beyond the initial impact. We think that Cynthia Baker’s Jew fits that model. Baker here undertakes the task of trying to navigate as well as interrogate the trajectory of the term “Jew” from antiquity to the present. Yet Baker’s book is much more than macro-history: it is a subtle intervention that seeks to question and challenge conventional theories about ethnicity, religion, and the very making of the West.

Concise yet potent, Baker’s Jew is a work that raises serious questions about the function of labels as they apply to individuals and communities, the importance of who makes and remakes these labels, and the way history hides more than it reveals. Baker’s core claim is that the term “Jew” has been used for most of its history by non-Jews to define an Other, both proximate and problematic. She thus contributes a new perspective to the lively debate about the shifting meanings of the Greek term Ioudaios among ancient Jews and Christians. Yet her book is not just an antiquarian word-study. She goes on to chart medieval and modern changes in what “Jew” has meant—and, most importantly, for whom. The label, as she shows, eventually becomes queered to some extent to refer to the ways Jews talk about each other (for example, the popular Yiddish yid as both endearing and also sometimes critical). Even the Jewish appropriation of “Jew,” however, retains something of the term’s ever-productive alterity.

The 2014 Marginalia Forum on “Jew and Judaean” demonstrated how debates over the meaning of this particular term can open up much broader questions about history and identity, ethnicity and religion, knowledge and power. The present forum extends these discussions forward and outward in conversation with Baker. For this forum we have invited scholars who specialize in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to engage Baker’s Jew and explore its implications. Inspired by Baker, their insights range broadly in temporal scope, spanning antiquity, the middle ages, modernity, and the present. In the process, the seven scholars in this Forum explore the ramifications of Baker’s insights for Judaism, Jewish-Christianity, and the Judeo-Christian tradition; for Samaritans and Muslims; for antisemitism, Islamophobia, and racism. What binds these reflections is that each one thinks with Baker’s Jew and pushes her insights further. Our hope is that our contributions thus exemplify the generative nature of her genuine scholarship, while also revealing some of the ever-expanding ripples in the pond. Baker’s Jew is sure to make waves for many years to come.

 Shaul Magid and Annette Yoshiko Reed 

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Chair of Jewish Studies in Modern Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies and the Borns Jewish Studies Program at the Indiana University Bloomington, as well as a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

Annette Yoshiko Reed is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, soon to join the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Program in Religious Studies at New York University.

Forum Contents 

Yeah Jew!,” Daniel Boyarin (University of California Berkeley)

Jew and the Making of the Christian Gaze,” Annette Yoshiko Reed (University of Pennsylvania)

“Thinking with Samaritans and Cynthia Baker’s Jew,” Matthew Chalmers (University of Pennsylvania)

“Between Jew and Muslim: Observations on Cynthia Baker’s Jew from the Perspective of Islamic Studies,” Michael Pregill (Boston University)

“Jew as Blow, but from Where?,” Naomi Seidman (Graduate Theological Union)

“Jew, Christian, and the Judeo-Christian: Thinking with Cynthia Baker’s Jew,” Shaul Magid (Indiana University Bloomington)

“Reading Cynthia Baker, Jew, with James Baldwin,” Susannah Heschel (Dartmouth College)

“One Final Word on Jew: A Response,” Cynthia M. Baker (Bates College)