The Absence of an Ancient Word for “Judaism” Doesn’t Mean There Was No Ancient Judaism

In his recent book Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion, Daniel Boyarin gives a historical account of the term “Judaism” and concludes that Jews had no word equivalent to it before the modern period. Boyarin therefore argues that, “from a linguistic point of view, only modern Judaism can be said to exist at all,” and that scholars who speak of ancient or medieval Judaism are engaging in an unscholarly anachronism. In her review, Adele Reinhartz writes:

[Boyarin’s] iconoclastic claim . . . 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.” [But] Boyarin does not provide any support for this a-priori principle. . . . [I]t is by no means obvious that the absence of a word denotes the absence of a concept. . . . 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. . . .

[For instance], there are words in other languages that, though absent from English, nevertheless describe feelings or ideas with which we are very familiar. . . . 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. . . .

Boyarin’s theoretical framework [also] presumes that the main function of words like “Judaism” or “religion” is to denote a concept. It is obvious, however, that words serve other purposes as well. . . . [W]hen we [scholars] refer to Second Temple Judaism, . . . we are not stating or assuming that, say, [the ancient Alexandrian Jewish philosopher] Philo’s goals or ideas were the same as those of the [apocryphal] books of Enoch, Tobit, or Judith, or the letters of Paul. But we can include them in the category of Second Temple Judaism when we want to gesture toward 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. . . .

[Lastly], 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 [his sometime co-author] 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 titled: “Apartheid Comparative Religion in the Second Century, in Theory and the Pre-Modern Text,” in which almost every word is anachronistic?

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More about: ancient Judaism, Jewish history, Judaism


What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy