Introduction: Marginalia Forum on Daniel Boyarin’s Judaism

Annette Yoshiko Reed & Shaul Magid on Boyarin’s Judaism

At first sight, “Judaism” might seem like a word that hardly needs explaining. It is simply the religion of the Jews. But what is “religion”? And who are “the Jews”? For those who identify with Judaism today, such questions might seem immaterial (or, perhaps, academic). To academics, however, these are the questions that matter. Beneath such seemingly obvious terms often lurks an intricate root system with hidden meanings and forgotten connections. When and where were terms of this sort first used? Why and by whom? Were early iterations identical to later ones, or does our current sense stem from past ruptures or reversals? Jews have been a diasporic people for millennia and have been viewed through, and have identified themselves with, a variety of languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, Spanish, German, Yiddish, and English (to name just a few). Do modern English terms like “religion,” “Jew,” and “Judaism” suffice to explain what might look like similar words across myriad languages and what might look like similar phenomena in premodern cultures that lack such words? What might we miss when we take our terms and concepts for granted as if they were the most neutral and natural for describing others?

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

The task of scholarship is often to investigate that which is most taken for granted. And Rutgers University Press’ series Keywords in Jewish Studies has set out to do just that for the study of Jews and Judaism: to take a series of commonly used terms (e.g., “Jew,” “Jewish” “peoplehood,” “Jewish Studies”) and employ noted scholars to trace their genealogy. It is difficult to imagine anyone more apt for the task of taking on “Judaism” than Daniel Boyarin. Not only is Boyarin among the most incisive, provocative, and prolific scholars of Jewish Studies today, but he has repeatedly reshaped the scholarly conversation about what studying “Judaism” even entails—pushing its boundaries with the study of Christianity but also challenging us to rethink how our sense of Jewishness is wrapped up with gender, embodiment, sexuality, textuality, and power.

In Judaism, Boyarin brings his capacious learning to the questions of when, where, why, and how our current sense of “Judaism” took form, as an abstract concept presented as analogous to Christianity and other “religions,” and thus disembedded from politics, peoplehood, and place. He begins with the specialist debate among scholars of antiquity about the precise meaning of the Greek term Ioudaismos. But whereas most studies have stopped there—sufficing to ask whether in 2 Maccabees or Ignatius this term is or is not yet “Judaism”—Boyarin continues well beyond, into the middle ages and modernity, exploring trajectories in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, and German. The result is not merely a presentist quest for “origins.” Rather than asking when we see something that looks to us like our current sense of “Judaism,” Boyarin challenges us also to ask what we can see in the sources when we don’t just assume that our notions of “Judaism” are present always and everywhere: what can we see of other systems or styles of categorization that were used in the past to conceptualize Jewishness, for instance, and what might we notice when abstract taxonomies of this sort were embraced by Jews and when they were resisted?

A work of scholarship this broad and daring is not meant to offer the final word on its subject but rather to open up new conversations. In the case of Boyarin’s Judaism, this is a conversation that bridges different specialist sectors of Jewish Studies that too rarely engage with one another. In this spirit, we are delighted to bring together scholars from across Jewish Studies to engage critically with his book. As with Marginalia’s past fora discussing Adele Reinhartz’s reflections on Ioudaios and Cynthia Baker’s book Jew, we hope that this forum offers a window into what scholars do best—interrogate one another’s work in a respectful yet uncompromising manner, thus opening up new perspectives on what we might otherwise take for granted.

Forum Contents

  1. “Was the Word in the Beginning? On the Relationship between Language and Concepts,” Adele Reinhartz (University of Ottawa)
  2. “‘Judaism’ Here, There, but Not Everywhere: Persian and Other Non-Western Perspectives,” Simcha Gross (University of California Irvine)
  3. “Things Jewish: A View from Judeo-Arabic,” Jonathan Decter (Brandeis University)
  4. “Is ‘Judaism’ Necessary?,” Shaul Magid (Indiana University Bloomington/Dartmouth College)
  5. “The Heartbreak of Modernity,” Martin Kavka (Florida State University)
  6. “Hyperphilology and the Anachronism of Anachronism” + “A Critique of Daniel Boyarin’s Reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Elliot R. Wolfson (University of California Santa Barbara)
  7. “Time to Provincialize Christianity,” Susannah Heschel (Dartmouth College)
  8. “Responsum,” Daniel Boyarin (University of California Berkeley)

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