Things Jewish: A View from Judeo-Arabic

Jonathan Decter on Boyarin’s Judaism

In his current work, Carlo Ginzburg raises questions about “the emergence, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, of a comparative approach to religions—an approach far older than the late nineteenth-century codification of the history of religion as an academic discipline. Older, yes, but how much older?” Here Ginzburg pushes back a comparative intellectual practice before the discovery of the New World and the Enlightenment, which have been highlighted by such scholars as Jonathan Z. Smith and Guy Stroumsa as the incipient phases of what ultimately became the academic study of “religion.” Daniel Boyarin’s conceptually rich and sharply argued Judaism comes as a disruptor to any such project in that it interrogates the pre-modern existence of the very category that these scholars present as their object of study.

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

For some, “religion” is something “out there,” natural to human existence, and people in this camp will never be convinced that its study can be invalid for any place or time. For others, it may be a scholarly construct, but it is one that can be studied for at least many other places and times. For Boyarin, a speech group’s possession of a word denoting “religion” as a conceptual abstraction is necessary (with some qualification) to posit the concept’s existence in a given place or time. Of course, one can have similar debates about other abstractions such as art, family, literature, government, etc., and undoubtedly things are to be gained and lost by positing either familiarity or strangeness across human experience. Importantly, Boyarin does not present the differences in approach in absolute terms, as between wholly valid and invalid, but rather as between being more or less revealing (or obscuring). It is of particular value that he does not simply wish to demonstrate the absence of “Judaism” in pre-modern periods but rather to show that we can better analyze the thought categories of pre-modern people when we allow their language to speak for itself. Getting at the precise meaning of words – the semantic fields to which they belong – is an essential starting point for such a project and a place where high theory and philology converge.

Coming from my own corner of the research world – which is medieval Jewish studies with a focus on the Islamic world – Boyarin’s work is provocative and challenging. His arguments about the medieval Hebrew yahadut as usually meaning “the state of being a Jew” are largely convincing, though the Tosafists’ comment on b. Yebamot 47a (not treated by Boyarin) might not quite fit his analysis. Here the Gemarah states that one should trust the sincerity of a proselyte “who is well-known to you,” and the Tosafists gloss “most of those who come to us be-torat yahadut are Israel.” It cannot simply mean the “category or state of being a Jew” since the people in question would not be proselytes. These people must have manifested something, either by performance or profession, that assured that “most” (but importantly not all) of them were Israel. It could conceivably mean, “in (or with) the practice of Jewishness,” i.e., resembling or following that which Jews practiced, but this is only one possibility.

Boyarin’s interrogation of the Arabic word dīn is appropriate and in line with recent scholarship. Whereas Wilfred Cantwell Smith argued in 1962 (certainly to promote Christian-Muslim understanding) that of all the religious traditions of the world, “Islam alone possessed a category, dīn, that was close to the Western ‘religion,’” Ahmet Karamustafa has called for a “historical and critical scrutiny of dīn that might untether Islam from investigation through a Protestant vantage point” (a response to scholarship since the 1980s, also a driving force for Boyarin’s work, that has revealed the polemical thrust and colonialist origins of Religious Studies). In the Qur’ān, Karamustafa continues, dīn seems to be a “polysemous Arabized word of foreign origin” roughly meaning “God’s directives for the conduct of human life on earth, which will form the basis of his judgment of humans on the Last Day.” Yet, over time, through a process that has yet to be examined in detail, Muslim scholars came to view Islam as the sole “true dīn but that there exist other corrupted or deficient dīns and thus allow for a plurality of human orientations toward God,” as Karamustafa has shown. Hence a comparative framework clearly emerges in classical Islamic writing. But the comparison of what exactly?

Boyarin’s choice of “doings” to render dīn reminds us of the desirability for a somewhat undefined category that subsumes the many things medieval writers discuss with respect to groups. Boyarin sees it as preferable to “religion” or “culture” (both over-determined and fraught) for its relative “colorlessness,” and I agree. Though “doings” is not unassailable, it is valuable precisely because it means so little. What we really mean to say is that dīn means X where X contains all the things that medieval Arabic speakers associate with dīn; the statement is accurate if circular. That said, Boyarin does not give sufficient weight to “belief” as an element among these “doings.” The downplaying of belief seems to be maintained in support of Boyarin’s taxonomy of groups (Christians on one side; Jews, Indians, and everyone else on the other) that allows Jews to stand with the others as the objects of colonialist distortion (including self-distortion) rather than as agents of colonialism from within a “Judeo-Christian” framework. Perhaps a better way out would be to recall that imān (belief) is a critical category within Islamic thought and that Maimonides defined it as a conviction one holds only after intellectual demonstration, not something one holds despite, or because of, the absence of clear evidence (the Christian fides). Also, Muslim authors often used dīn as the obverse of dunyā, the material world, or dawla, the state or politics, a significant set of distinctions even if it is not identical to the modern division of “religion” and “the secular.”

Given Boyarin’s claim that there is no premodern word in any language with the contours of the word “Judaism,” the Arabic (and Judeo-Arabic) term that we need to grapple with, and which is morphologically proximate to yahadut, is al-yahūdiyya (this appears more frequently in medieval Jewish writing than yahadut). This is the modern Arabic word for “Judaism” in the sense of a “religion.” But simply translating al-yahūdiyya as “Judaism” in pre-modern contexts would be overly facile. Clearly it relates to the word yahūd, Jews, which medieval lexicographers derive from the root hwd, which means to “repent, return,” as it appears in Qur’ān 2:62, where aladhīna hādū (“those who repented”) is used in parallel with al-naṣāra, the Christians (lexicographers almost unanimously reject derivation from Jacob’s son Judah, let alone the territory of Judea). Al-yahūdiyya’s closest parallel is al-majūsiyya, from majūs, Magians, and is functionally analogous to al-naṣrāniyya, al-ḥanafiyya (from ḥanīf, a pre-Islamic monotheist), and al-Islām.

What kind of word is al-yahūdiyya? The –iyya suffix performs several functions in Arabic, and the one operative here is what medieval grammarians call the ism kaifiyya or “noun of quality, state” (more modern grammars also identify the form with abstraction). Hence authors frequently speak of the ulhāniyya (divinity, sometimes allāhūtiyya) and the insāniyya (humanity, sometimes al-nāsūtiyya) of Christ. Medieval translators coined many philosophical terms with this suffix such as māhiyya (quiddity, literally “what-ness”) or kamiyya (“quantity,” literally “how much-ness”). Hence al-yahūdiyya might be the “quality or state of being a Jew,” and so al-yahūdiyya might prefigure the German Judentum in the sense of “Jewishness” or perhaps better still, “Jewness.” But the usage is also broader than this; it is something that one can be bound by, that one can be instructed in, that one can follow, that one can enter, and it can also sometimes refer to “Jewry” (al-naṣrāniyya can similarly refer to “Christendom”). Al-yahūdiyya and its counterparts can have numerous things ascribed to them (such articles of faith, practices, laws, moral precepts, etc.), and can also be the names of dīns as independent entities. Arguably, just as kamiyya is the category to which all specific quantities belong, al-yahūdiyya, might be the category to which all things Jewish belong. In his discussion of the ism kaifiyya, the German grammarian Caspari defines al-ḥanafiyya as encompassing Ḥanafitenthum, Wesen der ḥanafitischen Secte, and as die gesammte ḥanafitische Secte.

Al-yahūdiyya appears in various senses quite frequently among Muslim and Christian authors, and its adoption by Jewish writers—including David al-Muqammaṣ, Sa‘adia Gaon, Joseph al-Baṣīr, Moses Ibn Ezra, Judah Halevi, and others—marks a turning point in the history of Jewish thought. Hence al-Muqammaṣ states that there are some moral or legal principles common to “all of the dīns (adyān) including al-yahūdiyya, al-naṣrāniyya, [and others]” (TS NS 91.26, f. 3, argument 24); hence al-yahūdiyya was a name of a particular dīn. Sa‘adia Gaon speaks of certain exegetic principles as going beyond the bounds of dīn al-yahūdiyya. I would venture that dīn yahūdiyya is also the Arabic phrase that stands behind Sherira Gaon’s torat ha-yehadut (plus this may shed light on the Tosafists’ torat yahadut above). Further, Sa‘adia Gaon holds:

the distinguishing mark of one’s being a Jew (al-‘alāma al-mutabayyina ‘alā al-mutahawwid), whether his intention (niyya) is truthful for not…. whether or not his heart is toward al-yahūdiyya (hal qalbuhu ilā al-yahūdiyya), is the observance of the Sabbath. As the rabbis said, “he who keeps his Sabbath in the market, behold he is as Israel (ke-yisra’el) for every matter, and he who does not observe his Sabbath in the market is like a gentile (goy) for every matter. (Sa‘adia on Isaiah 56:1-12)

The shift from the rabbis’ phrasing “he is as Israel” to Sa‘adia’s “his heart is toward al-yahūdiyya” is very significant and prefigures a sense of yahadut as “internal commitment” that Boyarin ascribes to the early modern period. Al-yahūdiyya exists as a freestanding noun; conceivably it could mean either “Jewry” or “the state of being a Jew,” but it is the word’s very versatility that makes it so interesting. It is polysemous and composite if not abstract.

I believe that Boyarin was quite right in Border Lines: The Partition of Judeo-Christianity when he argued that the rabbis of the Talmud opted out of the comparative framework being promoted by Christian thinkers (here he used the term “religion” rather freely, though he has since refined his usage). But whereas the rabbis may have insisted upon self-definition as an ethnos, their medieval counterparts fully adopted the comparative discourse of the Islamic Middle Ages. Although the modern “Judaism” and al-yahūdiyya may not contain or exclude all of the same elements, the use of al-yahūdiyya as a self-referential term represents a seismic shift in the history of Jewish thought for it tacitly accepts that the complex of tenets, practices, laws, interpretive modes, morals, etc., was a species of a broader genus and that the comparison of similar, structurally analogous entities was possible.

There remain many questions to be asked about al-yahūdiyya. Despite what has been shown here, the term actually appears relatively infrequently in the Judeo-Arabic corpus. Maimonides, for example, seems to avoid it, and speaks instead in terms of groups (even putting al-Islām in parallel with al-yahūd and al-naṣāra). Yet, his thinking about different dīns was extremely advanced and in the Epistle to Yemen he pondered the “difference between our dīn and the dīns (adyān) that resemble it.” Dīn existed as the category around which difference was structured, the genus to which the various species belonged, and this assumption of analogousness can clearly be identified as pre-modern. Jewish thought in the Middle Ages is at least as interesting for its adoption of a comparative framework as it is for its lack of the word “Judaism.”

To return to Ginzburg’s question about the emergence of “the comparative approach to religions… Older, yes, but how much older?,” if we qualify the word “religions” somewhat, we can surely document comparative practices before the Renaissance or the Enlightenment and in sources that are Arabic rather than Latin (if not earlier). Jewish works, especially those written in, translated from, or written in the spirit of Judeo-Arabic writing, should be considered part and parcel of the comparative discourses that ultimately gave rise to Comparative Religion.

This is the third essay of the Judaism forum.

Jonathan Decter is the Edmond J. Safra Professor of Sephardic Studies in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. He is a specialist in the Jews of the Islamic World during the medieval period and in the Jews of medieval Spain. His research focuses on the literature, thought, and social history of Arabic-speaking Jewry and on the interplay of Islamic and Jewish traditions throughout the medieval Mediterranean. His most recent book, Dominion Built of Praise: Panegyric and Legitimacy among Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), won a National Jewish Book Award in Sepharic Culture.  

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