Daniel Boyarin: Judaism Unbound Episode 149 - Judaism?

Daniel Boyarin, eminent Jewish Studies scholar and most recently author of Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion, part of a series on “Key Words in Jewish Studies,” joins Dan Libenson and Lex Rofeberg to ask whether Judaism exists (!!), and to explore what that question means — both for the study of Jewish history and for contemporary Jewish practice. [1]

Image Credit: University of California-Berkeley

Image Credit: University of California-Berkeley

(0:01 - 14:56): To begin the episode, Boyarin states that “There is Judaism…now.” But he also argues that “Judaism” did not exist in the ways we tend to talk about it, in the category of “religion,” until the last few hundred years — that the abstraction “Judaism” would not have meant much to Jews in any language until the 18th century. To explain what he means, Boyarin rewinds to a person (and topic) whose relevance may not be totally obvious — Paul, and the emergence of Christianity in the first few centuries of the Common Era. [2] Weaving these two questions together, Boyarin explores how Christians constructed and mobilized the idea of “Judaism” as a religion long before Jews did.

(14:57 - 24:11): Boyarin explores the idea, which first emerged in Germany in the 18th century, that one could be a “man in the street, but a Jew at home.” [3] He also looks at how Judaism grew to be understood as a “religion,” despite a variety of ways in which it isn’t quite a parallel category to Christianity. Furthering this point, he considers why it is that people tend to perceive two possible identifiers for Judaism — “religion” and “nation.” He names that, because of that duality, it tends to confuse people when he argues against the idea that Judaism has historically manifested as a “religion,” while he simultaneously identifies as an anti-Zionist. [4] He then speaks personally to how Jewish collectivity resonates deeply for him, across the centuries and millennia, despite his resistance to the idea that Judaism as we talk about it today has “existed” in a trans-historical sense. [5]

(24:12 - 42:50): Speaking not only to scholars, but also to rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, Boyarin talks through some of the problems that can arise in Jewish spaces as a result of framing ideas of what “Judaism believes” or “Judaism says.” He rejects that notion that Judaism has agency, such that it can “believe” or “say” anything universally, and states, as a corollary, that Judaism is not a religion, from which one could kick out heretics or dissenters. [6] To close the episode, Boyarin reflects on his upbringing in rural New Jersey, and how his local Jewish Community Center — which might host services one night and a socialist meeting the next — helped him to forge a lifelong relationship to yiddishkayt.

[1] Learn more about Daniel Boyarin by clicking here, and purchase Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notion by clicking here. You can take a look at other books he’s written, and purchase them, by clicking here.

[2] To explore the emergence of Christianity further, we recommend The Ways that Never Parted (the “ways” being Judaism and Christianity), which features an essay by Boyarin, alongside others.

[3] Boyarin refers to Cardinal Lustiger. Learn more about him by reading this movie review, featured in The New York Times and looking at the 2013 movie The Jewish Cardinal.

[4] Learn more about Boyarin’s anti-Zionism by checking out this piece, written by past Judaism Unbound guest Alix Wall, and entitled “Daniel Boyarin: Talmudist, feminist, anti-Zionist, only-in-Berkeley Orthodox Jew”

[5] Boyarin names Bertha Pappenheim as one of his heroes, while also citing the problematic ways in which she conflated German Jewishness with Jewishness writ large. Learn more about Pappenheim’s life and legacy by clicking here.

[6] Learn more about rabbinic ideas of Yavneh, which Boyarin explores briefly toward the end of this episode, by reading “A Tale of Two Synods: Nicaea, Yavneh, and Rabbinic Ecclesiology,” which Boyarin wrote in 2000.