Was the Word in the Beginning? On the Relationship between Language and Concepts

Adele Reinhartz on Boyarin’s Judaism

As part of the Key Words in Jewish Studies series by Rutgers University Press, Daniel Boyarin’s book, Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion, focuses primarily on the term “Judaism” itself, including the history of its usage, and ways its meanings have changed over time and space. Unlike the closely related term, “Jew,” studied by Cynthia Baker in this same series (2017), the term “Judaism” does not appear in literary or other texts before the modern period. Yet it is used regularly by those who speak and write about Jews, Jewishness, and Jewish history from the biblical period to the present. Boyarin’s book provides a fascinating discussion of this usage, with particular focus on the ancient sources from which the term “Judaism” is absent, medieval texts that use the similar but not identical terms yahadut (Hebrew) and din (Judeo-Arabic), and the role of Christianity as well as the German concept Judentum in shaping the modern term and its meanings.

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

Early on in this book, Boyarin expresses his appreciation for the work of Jonathan Z. Smith, despite their disagreements about perspective and approach. This also sums up my stance towards this book. What I appreciate in Boyarin’s book is the sweeping survey of Jewish self-definition. Where I disagree is with regard to the book’s overarching claim and its theoretical underpinnings.

Boyarin’s starting point is the empirical observation that “there is no word in premodern Jewish parlance that means ‘Judaism.’” The conclusion that Boyarin draws from this observation is that “from a linguistic point of view, only modern Judaism can be said to exist at all.” Because second temple, rabbinic, and medieval Jews did not have a term for “Judaism,” they did not have a concept of Judaism. This iconoclastic claim, however, is based on an a priori principle: that we “should not ascribe to a culture a category or abstraction for which that culture does not have a term.” To do so is anachronistic and therefore bad methodology. The implications for our scholarly practice is self-evident: we should not use the term Judaism when discussing premodern Jews.

Boyarin does not provide any support for this a priori principle. Rather, he feels “instinctively that utilizing terms like ‘religion’ to delineate the concept worlds of people who had no such concepts, or words, is a practice of self-replication and […] self-defeat.” If  “Religion” does not exist before the modern period, as Boyarin and Carlin Barton argue in their 2016 book, Imagine No Religion, then Judaism, commonly defined as the religion of the Jews, cannot exist before modernity either.

This argument is grounded in modern and postmodern critical theory, which has rightly complicated our understanding of religion, at least in part by exposing its roots in a specifically Christian perspective that also undergirded imperialism and colonialism in the modern period. At the same time, Boyarin’s a priori and “instinctive” principle is both problematic and narrowly conceived.

In the first place, it is by no means obvious that the absence of a word denotes the absence of a concept. In the 1920s, two linguists, Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, argued that a person’s language – English, French, Greek, etc. – shapes the way a person habitually perceives reality, thinks, and behaves. Their hypothesis has been misunderstood to mean that if the language we think in has no word for a particular concept, we cannot think about that concept at all. Linguists and cognitive psychologists have long agreed that the relationship between language and concept is far more complex than Boyarin would have us believe.

Research in these fields confirms what common sense suggests: it is eminently possible for us to have concepts without words to denote them. Very young, preverbal children, for example, understand the concept of gravity long before they understand the term. It is true, of course, that while babies know what happens when they drop or throw their toys, they do not understand the science behind gravity. But their lack of knowledge does not negate the fact that they understand the concept: items that drop from their hands do not float in space but fall to the ground.

Furthermore, there are words in other languages that, though absent from English, nevertheless describe feelings or ideas with which we are very familiar. An obvious example is the German word Schadenfreude to describe a delight in the misfortune of others. The German word Kummerspeck (literally, grief bacon) refers to the excess weight gained from emotional overeating, and the Scottish word Tartle refers to that panicky hesitation just before you introduce someone whose name you can’t quite remember—a situation that most people have experienced at one time or another. Research as well as common sense argues against Boyarin’s instinctive conviction that the absence of a word in a given language denotes the absence of the concept from those who speak and write in that language.

This is not to say that premodern Jews had a concept of Judaism as a religion, its common meaning today. But many were well aware of the elements that we include under the Judaism umbrella today, such as certain beliefs and practices, holidays, the calendar, and a sense of connection with other Jews anywhere and with the idea of Temple and land.

My second and more important point, however, concerns scholarly practice. As I mentioned above, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis did not claim that the absence of a term in one’s language denotes the absence of the concept. Rather, it posited the reverse: if a person or group thinks or speaks habitually about a concept, they must either find or create a word for it. Whether or not premodern Jews had a concept of Judaism – though, as noted above, I believe they had a sense that Jews shared some texts, practices, stances, and connections – we as scholars may need the word Judaism to help us think, talk, and write about premodern Jews.

I agree with Boyarin that the term Judaism has a Christian inflection that renders it an imperfect vehicle for describing Jewish matters. But nothing prevents us from rejecting these inflections without relinquishing the term. In doing so, the scholarly community is doing, or, rather, has already done, what many groups have done before: taken an outsider’s term and made it our own. Making it our own means engaging in other common linguistic practices: changing the meaning of the term, and allowing for multiple, even conflicting, definitions. Rejecting problematic usages does not require us to reject the term itself. We can use it and redefine it in ways that make sense to us, and future generations of scholars will be free to do the same.

Boyarin’s theoretical framework presumes that the main function of a word like Judaism or religion is to denote a concept. It is obvious, however, that words serve other purposes as well. Abstract nouns such as Judaism are useful precisely because they are vague and overdetermined. As such they serve generalizing and heuristic functions. While one might argue that these generalizations homogenize a complex and multifaceted concept, it is obvious that generalizations do not have to imply uniformity. For example, we often use the term postsecondary education to denote a post-high school program of study after high school without assuming that two year colleges are the same as Ivy League universities. Similarly, when we refer to second temple Judaism – a term we need if we habitually think about Jews, Jewishness, and Jewish literature between 530 BCE and 70 CE – we are not stating or assuming that, say, Philo’s goals, genres, and ideas were the same as those of the books of Enoch, the books of Tobit and Judith, or the letters of Paul. But we can include them in the category of Second Temple Judaism when we want to gesture towards some things they had in common, such as a reverence for the Torah, the impulse to apply biblical texts to their own time and place, and an affiliation – even if troubled at times – with other Jews.

This is not to say that anything goes. To attribute second- or third-century doctrines, such as original sin or the trinity, to the authors of the New Testament, for example, is an unacceptable anachronism; to investigate, say, Paul’s hybrid identity is not.

But does not the use of later generalizing terms give free rein to the dreaded sin of anachronism? Why, yes, of course it does. I would argue, however, that some degree of anachronism is inherent to the study of the past. Every time we address to ancient sources the questions that they themselves did not ask we engage in anachronism. Every project that is generated by the desire “to illumine our own predicaments through investigation of the past” is engaged in anachronism, even when, as in this book, anachronism is so vigorously disavowed. Yet without anachronism we cannot discuss such important topics as sexuality or identity, terms and concepts that are absent from premodern Jewish sources. How else could Boyarin and Virginia Burrus refer to the rabbis as resistant hybrid subjects, a self-definition that would have had those same rabbis scratching their heads? Or write an article entitled: “Apartheid Comparative Religion in the Second Century, in Theory and the Pre-Modern Text,” in which almost every word is anachronistic? Perhaps Boyarin would now disavow his earlier work on hybridity, identity, and comparative religion in the second century, on the grounds that none of these terms, and therefore none of these concepts existed then. My point here is not at all to criticize Boyarin but to argue that he, like the rest of us, must necessarily engage in anachronism in order to pursue his scholarly interests. I, for one, hope that he continues to do so.

Accepting the inevitability and, indeed, the usefulness of anachronism does not, however, mean that anything goes. The term apartheid in Boyarin’s 2006 article, for example, is in my view a step too far. Apartheid is so specifically associated with the history of South Africa that its application to other contexts, ancient or modern, is both inflammatory and misleading. And although I have just argued for using “Judaism” when discussing pre-modern Jews, in my most recent book I refrain from doing so – though not for the reasons that Boyarin’s book puts forward.

In my attempts imaginatively to inhabit the first-century Mediterranean world, my concern is not with Judaism, which I view as clusters of ideas, practices, groups, and individuals that relate to, or are derived from, an understanding of covenantal relationship with the God of Israel. Rather, I focus on Jews, the people who situated themselves somehow with regard to one or more of these clusters, often in their relationship with those Jews and Gentiles whose understanding of covenant included an understanding of Jesus as God’s son and agent in the world. “Judaism” can be a useful term, but it is also a static term; my interest is in Jews, who, past and present, are anything but static. The exception is in the term “anti-Judaism,” precisely because this term itself requires a “Judaism” that is a static abstraction.

All this is to say that while I disagree with the theoretical presuppositions and argumentation that Boyarin puts forward regarding the term “Judaism,” in practical terms my current work – like, I presume, Boyarin’s own work going forward – is also marked by the absence of this term. I am grateful for the opportunity that Boyarin’s book provided me to think through some of these theoretical questions, and to continue our ongoing conversation about the ancient individuals, groups, and ideas that continue to resonate down to the present.

This is the first essay of the Judaism forum.

Adele Reinhartz is Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa, in Canada. Her main areas of research are New Testament, early Jewish-Christian relations, the Bible and Film, and feminist biblical criticism. She is the author of numerous articles and books, including Scripture on the Silver Screen (Westminster John Knox, 2003), Jesus of Hollywood (Oxford, 2007), and Bible and Cinema: An Introduction (Routledge, 2013).

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