The Heartbreak of Modernity

Martin Kavka on Boyarin’s Judaism

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

The argument of Boyarin’s book is right there in the title – Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion. Alongside many scholars resisting the argument that religion is primarily about belief, primarily something abstract, Boyarin argues that the association of religion and belief is a Christian imposition onto the field of the study of religion. What our undergraduate students would instinctively call “Judaism” and describe as a religion, Boyarin would prefer to call “the doings of Jewry.” That preference is justified as he patiently shows that “doings” is precisely what is meant by those ancient and medieval words that were often translated as “Judaism.” The other participants in this forum make this point far better than I can.

Now Boyarin’s narrative has many villains. Every good story does. Some of them appear in the final pages, set in the modern period. They are German Jewish intellectuals, assimilating to the Christian discourse on religion, happy to take up the dominant discourse precisely in order to get ahead in the game. To them, Boyarin in effect channels the great actress May Robson as Lettie, the grandmother in the 1937 version of A Star Is Born starring Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett. Before Esther leaves North Dakota to make her fortune in Hollywood, Lettie gives Esther most of her savings to help her fulfill her dreams but warns her of the risks always implicit in pursuing any dream: “Remember, Esther, for every dream of yours you make come true, you’ll pay the price in heartbreak. Mmm, I know what I’m talking about!”

In a brief and powerful paragraph, Boyarin describes Moses Mendelssohn and Aaron Halle-Wolfssohn as paying this price in promoting the discourse of Judaism or Judentum to the Jews, at the expense of what Boyarin takes to be the native discourse of Yiddishkayt:

The linguistic shifts carried with them fundamental eruptions in the form of life of the Jews as well, for by shifting from a Jewish language to a Christian language, the form of life of the Jews necessarily became Christian au fond in significant and recognizable ways. If Germans they were going to be, speaking German, then Judentum would have to be their “religion,” ultimately both “Judaism” and “Jewishness” and even as a name for the collective of Jews.

This same section of Boyarin’s book details the same price paid by other modern Jewish intellectuals, such as the historian Leopold Zunz (1794–1886), and tantalizingly describes the philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886–1929) as, in effect, having acknowledged in a 1921 letter to the historian of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem that he has paid the price only to wonder how he and other German Jews can get a refund.

This story about the rise of the term “Judaism” in the modern period – one that emphasizes passivity and assimilation – seems not quite right to me. To be sure, it is a common story told about modern Jewish philosophy and thought in the West, in which Jewish thinkers make use of currents in Western philosophy in order to defend their practices to their Christian neighbors, and betray those practices and the life in which they are embedded as a result of shifting the discourse that refers to those practices. Nevertheless, this sometimes despised canon of Western thinkers is in my view Jewish intellectual history’s primary source for arguments that whatever Jews do—what the members of this canon call “religion” and “Judaism”—is superior to what the local hegemons do and believe: Christianity. Three examples come to my mind almost immediately. In reverse chronological order: (1) Emmanuel Levinas’s 1934 charge that Christian otherworldliness, and especially the abstraction of the Christian account of the soul, makes Christianity powerless to resist Hitlerism; (2) Hermann Cohen’s 1918 charge, in the last quarter of Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, that Paul’s rejection of the law makes Christianity amoral because faith in Christ as the Messiah becomes the only barometer for evaluating moral action; and (3) Moses Mendelssohn’s 1783 account of Judaism as non-dogmatic and non-coercive, possessing the skills of persuasion that are integral to the stability of the modern state, skills that Christianity has a harder time inculcating.

Perhaps these arguments aren’t very good. Discussing whether they are any good or not is something that the field of modern Jewish thought ought to be doing more frequently. But I take it as incontrovertible that these arguments exist. And since they exist, I believe that even if one were to endorse the claim that there is a discursive shift during the modern period into the language of “Judaism” in eighteenth-century Germany, one should not endorse Boyarin’s claim that “reforming the Jewish form of life and reconstituting it as a confession, Judentum, Judaism, Yahadut” is part of an uncomplicated, assimilationist, “desire to be a part of Deutschtum.” There are traces of other desires in Mendelssohn and other thinkers in the corpus of Western European, modern Jewish thought. To give it a simplistic slogan, there is no reason why a desire to be a part of Deutschtum cannot coexist with a desire to be apart from Deutschtum. Indeed, one might narrate one key moment in German-Jewish thought as an attempt to narrate this confession “Judaism” precisely in terms of Jewish “doings.” It is Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem, after all, in which we find the claim that the Israelites received no saving truths at Mount Sinai, no revelation in that sense of the word, but instead divine legislation, “laws, commandments, ordinances, rules of life, instruction in the will of God as to how they should conduct themselves.”

Boyarin might respond to this by claiming that he is not simply criticizing “Judaism” as a belief system to which one might oppose Jewish “doings.” But he also wants to press scholarship towards a more local framework of analysis. At least that seems to be at stake in a sentence that appears in his epilogue: “versions of description or practice with respect to Judaism that treat it as a faith that can be separated from ethnicity, nationality, language, and shared history have felt false” to him. So any account of Jewish “doings” that hopes to have transnational validity – say, an account developed by Western Europeans that they would want to impose on Eastern Europeans – would have this same feeling of falseness. (My favorite example of this sort of account, recently brought to me by a student who has been deeply influenced by Boyarin’s love of Bertha Pappenheim, is Pappenheim’s report on her travels through Galicia in 1903, in which she criticizes the Hasidic rabbis of her day for forgetting that Judaism “knows no dogma”!)

And if this is part of the argument of Boyarin’s Judaism, then I cede its power. Still, if that is the argument, I wonder whether it has the authority that Boyarin wants it to have. In his epilogue, Boyarin writes that “something about the difference between Judaism and Christianity is captured precisely by insisting on the ways that Judaism is not now, and never was, a religion – for Jews.” That “not now” is key. With those two words, Boyarin leaves description and discourse-analysis behind and embraces the normative realm. In other words, it is not simply that Boyarin has shown that any talk of “Judaism” in antiquity or the middle ages ceded power to the hegemony of Christian discourse in determining Jews. It also means that any talk of Judaism today is just as illegitimate for Boyarin, outside of talk of “Judaism” as constructed by Christian discourse. This seems to me to be a strange claim. Why could one not say that Judaism as a religion is legitimate in certain localities, at certain post-Mendelssohnian times? Why could one not say that Jews got religion, and now they have it? Just because this Judaism departs from the past by virtue of being Judaism, we do not have the immediate right to describe it as illegitimate as a result. The historically prior is not better simply because it is historically prior. (Those of us who love indoor plumbing know this!) Affirming this should be the upshot of all genealogies; if genealogy does not lead an audience to be confirmed “among countless lost events without a landmark or a point of reference,” something has gone wrong with the genealogist’s method.

Boyarin’s response to these questions might (or might not) be that even if this use of Judaism is not illegitimate, it is inauthentic in the Sartrean sense of that word, because Christians are the ones determining Judaism. Yet once we reclaim the anti-Christian strands of the modern Jewish philosophical canon, this response shows itself to be inaccurate. Christians are not the only ones determining Judaism; Jews do it as well. In disputation comes self-assertion. (One piece of evidence for this is Boyarin’s own treatment of the nineteenth-century Lithuanian rabbi Shmuel Yosef Fünn, who, in response to Christian missionary work in the Pale of Settlement, invokes this new concept of “Judaism” [dat ha-yahadut] in order to criticize Pauline Christianity for misunderstanding Jesus the Jew.) In this new word “Judaism,” foisted on a people by Christians, there is the possibility for equally new forms of Jewish agency and resistance. It is not clear to me that those modern Jews, who have embraced those forms of agency, have paid the price in heartbreak for doing so.

This is the fifth essay of the Judaism forum.

Martin Kavka is Professor of Religion at Florida State University. He is the author of Jewish Messianism and the History of Philosophy (Cambridge University Press), which was awarded the Jordan Schnitzer Award in Philosophy and Jewish Thought by the Association for Jewish Studies in 2008. He is the co-editor of four books, including Judaism, Liberalism, and Political Theology (2014, with Randi Rashkover), and with his colleague Aline Kalbian, co-edits the Journal of Religious Ethics.

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