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


Benjamin Netanyahu Is a Successful Leader, Not a Magician

Sept. 20 2019

Following the inconclusive results of Tuesday’s election, weeks may elapse before a prime minister is chosen, and there is a chance that Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career isn’t over yet. Perusing the headlines about Netanyahu over the past year, Ruthie Blum notes how many have referred to him as a political “magician,” or some variant thereof. But this cliché misses the point:

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli Election 2019, Israeli politics