Jew and the Making of the Christian Gaze

Annette Yoshiko Reed on Cynthia Baker’s Jew

Cynthia Baker. Jew. Rutgers, 2017. ISBN: 978-0-9954946-0-2. $90.00
Cynthia Baker. Jew. Rutgers, 2017. ISBN: 978-0813563022. $29.95

It is a potent time to rethink identity. Much of the twenty-first century had been marked by scholarly proclamations of its demise. Already by the close of the twentieth century, scholars had long noted how modern nation-states are “imagined communities,” and the reminder of the constructed character of national origin-myths, civic religions, and patriotic emblems had been repeated and repeated again. During the 1980s and 1990s, it similarly became commonplace for historians to trace how this-or-that religious and/or ethnic “identity” was created through the mirror of the Other (which was thereby constructed, and so forth). Such tropes became so widespread that Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper declared the discussion done in 2000. Precisely because of the promiscuous proliferation of assertions about “identity” as “fluid, constructed, and multiple,” Brubaker and Cooper suggested that the idea had been evacuated of all meaning: “If identity is everywhere, it is nowhere.” And as within academe, so too within some sectors of American culture. For many white liberals, the Obama years marked the age when the United States finally became post-racial and post-ethnic. For many white conservatives, it was an era no longer in need of an “identity politics” emblematized by the political correctness of the 1990s. “In America, but not only in America,” bemoaned Leon Wieseltier, “we are choking on identity”; he thereby proclaimed it “an idea whose time has gone.”

What seemed increasingly irrelevant with certain circles just mere months ago, however, was rather abruptly demonstrated to be a major factor, at least within American political life. Among the surprises of the 2016 presidential election was the importance of identity in mobilizing and collectivizing a set of voters who had not previously been understood in those terms—namely, those self-identifying as white. Since at least 2012, census data signaled demographic shifts rendering whites no longer a numerical majority in the United States.

In political speech, whiteness has shifted from unstated norm to named particularity

Nevertheless, in public discourse, whiteness remained framed as a neutral and unstated norm, devoid of ethnic particularity, exemplifying radical individualism, embodying the Americanness to which minorities aimed or feared to assimilate. During the 2016 presidential campaign, and now in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, however, this demographic shift has begun to be matched by a shift in public discourse. “The president-elect,” as Laila Lalami noted, “earned the votes of a majority of white people while running a campaign that explicitly and consistently appealed to white identity and anxiety.” In political speech, whiteness has shifted from unstated norm to named particularity; the white voter is now polled and labeled, and whiteness is increasingly framed as an “identity” in the same sense that term is used of (other) minorities.

What makes this shift so striking is its departure from the longstanding pattern, noted by Richard Dyer and others, whereby “the invisibility of whiteness as a racial position in white (which is to say dominant) discourse” has enabled whites “not to be represented to themselves as whites but as people” (and this, as Dyer notes, with a nod to bell hooks, perhaps especially on the left, is evident in “how amazed and angry white liberals become when attention is drawn to their whiteness”). Now, however, positions once whispered at the margins are becoming positions increasingly voiced in the public square, with white supremacy rebranded as alt-right ethno-nationalism, and some thinkers re-theorizing whiteness precisely by redeploying the same rhetoric of collective identity commonly used by Jewish and other minorities (cf. “white Zionism”). The range of acceptable public discourse is being reconfigured under Trumpism, and among the results is a shift in what is even spoken of as “identity”: the locus of whiteness can move from personal to collective identity—from “who am I?” to “who are we?.”

Cynthia Baker’s Jew could not have appeared at a more timely moment. This concise and engaging book takes up the task of “tracking the term Jew through diverse eras, contexts, and genres” so as to “provide a way of seeing—with depth and nuance—the ongoing construction and negotiation of ‘the West’ and of the westernized self.” In the process, Baker provides a model for how we can discuss “identity” anew, taking seriously the above-noted critiques of the idea but also taking seriously the enduring power of naming to shape groups, make differences, and motivate collective action. Baker does not analyze Jew as an “identity,” in the sense of a stable category or condition in which people participate to greater or lesser degrees; what she tracks is some of the “complex (and often ambivalent) processes” of identification that constitute Jew, heeding Brubaker and Cooper’s call “to specify the agents that do the identifying.” Rather than just asking when the term Jew came to take on this-or-that meaning (e.g., ethnic, religious, racial, cultural), she considers who makes and takes its meanings.

Historians of ancient Judaism have hotly debated the question of precisely when the Greek term Ioudaios came to mean “Jew” in a religious sense rather than “Judean” in a geographical or ethnic sense. That the translation of this term has ethical as well as historiographical consequences came richly clear in our 2014 Marginalia forum on the topic. By shifting our focus from when to who, Baker draws out dynamics in the debate itself. She notes the oddity of “the compulsion to provide two distinct categories and names—‘ethnic’ Judeans versus ‘religious’ Jews—by which to translate identical terms (whether yehudim, yehuda’i, Ioudaioi, or Ieudei) from ancient linguistic cultures that display no inclination to such bifurcation.” If this compulsion makes little sense in the ancient cultural contexts of the texts in question, it fits well within the modern cultural contexts that have shaped our scholarship: “Modern scholarship on the terms yehudim, Ioudaioi, and their cognates was, from its inception and until very recent generations, the purview of Christian philologists, homilists, and biblicists.” The very question presumes and reinscribes a distinctively Christian gaze:

Although content, context, and rationale differ significantly among those who adopt the bifurcated terminology Judaean/Jew, what persists, as noted above, is the division between elements that are currently assembled under the rubric ethnicity (nation, genealogy, nature, tribe) versus those gathered under religion (profession, adherence, faith, belief). Part and parcel of this dualism is the implication or assertion that the former represents a given or inherited condition whereas the latter involves choice and, more than that, aspiration (realizable through fundamental transformation or conversion) to a higher, more developed, and enlightened level of individual and/or collective being. In this respect, ethnicity versus religion shares a great deal with such other dualisms as outward versus inward, letter (or flesh) versus spirit, worldly versus heavenly, and particular/local versus universal, which come to shape Christian rhetoric and worldview. It appears, then, that our modern sociological/anthropological dualism ethnic versus religious, which is commonly presented as objective, neutral, and rationally secular description when invoked in social-scientific analyses, may nonetheless be as deeply rooted in a Christian Western worldview as are the more theologically explicit dualisms to which it so closely conforms. Indeed, the patterns of correspondence ethnicity=flesh/particular and religion=spirit/universal are as consistent and striking in recent academic studies of the origins of Jews as are historicized narratives of cultural transformation.

What appears to be neutral is crypto-theological: “rather than displacing theological and imperialist paradigms with neutral social-scientific descriptors, Judean as ‘earlier ethnic group’ paired with Jew as ‘later adherent of a religion’ (or ‘ethno-religion’ or ‘race religion’) only serves to reinscribe these paradigms still more firmly and subtly while obscuring their association with anti-Jewish discourses.”

In the assumptions undergirding the current scholarly debate about Jew, we thus find reflected part of the very history of Jew: “For most of two long millennia, the word Jew has been predominantly defined and delimited as a term for not-self… often signif[ying] an absolute other, the very antithesis of the Western Christian self.” And among the effects of the Christian construction of Jew—as Baker deftly shows—is the naturalization of this hierarchicalized bifurcation of “ethnicity” and “religion,” in which is also embedded an assumed narrative of development:

Not only do the terms “ethnicity” and “religion” come down to us through the prism of early Christian discourse about the Jews, but the narrative of progress from ethnicity to religion itself resembles an explicitly Christian historiography—one that morally subordinates ethnicity (as primitive and particular) to religion (as universal aspiration), much as it morally subordinates Judaism and Jew (as limited and superseded) to Christianity and Christian (as universal apex of human attainment).

This framework is now so naturalized as to be invisible and unintentionally reinscribed—even by those academics working in self-consciously non-confessional domains of historical scholarship on ancient Judaism. Accordingly, as Baker notes, one finds even Jewish historians of Judaism such as Shaye Cohen posing the question of the beginnings of Jewishness in these very terms—as the story of how “Religion overcame ethnicity.”

For Baker, this insight clears the way for her story about the “centuries-long process” by which the Christian construction of Jew as exonym became inverted with “the historically recent appropriation of Jew, in dominant Western vernaculars, as a term of self-identification.” Far from any simple arithmetic of alterity that mirrors Self and Other, Baker’s study thus embodies what can be done when one heeds Juliet Steyn’s corrective concern to “rethink identity as something made, as a process, as something that can never be complete, that is always becoming and contingent.” Baker shows how Jew is not simply appropriated from premodern Christian gaze to modern Jewish self-empowerment: “Currently, Jew conveys neither a simple sense of abject otherness nor one of secured selfhood,” and “just as the Jew is ‘proximate other’ (in the apt phrase of Jonathan Z. Smith) and repressed self of Christian/Western articulations of identity, so, too, the Jew has become, in many respects, a kind of proximate other and repressed (or celebrated, excavated, or memorialized) self to modern articulations of Jewish identity.” Here too, a focus on identification opens the way for understanding what might otherwise seem like strange or surprising twists in the expression of identity.

My question here, however, is about what is thereby rendered invisible—that is, the Christian ownership of an ostensibly neutral gaze and objective perspective. What did the Christian making of Jew, as abject and exonym, also make of the Christian? And what was lost, erased, constrained, or forgotten in the process? This is another story, and it is a story perhaps all the more pressing to ponder now, since it is part of the story of how whiteness came to be constructed as invisible—part of the Western making of a mirage of neutrality whereby white/Christian has been framed as a human norm rather than a marked “identity.” Baker’s book may open up a new window onto this story too.

To the degree that Baker traces the genealogy of the totalizing Christian gaze that constructs Jew, it is with appeal to Eusebius. Like Justin Martyr and Tertullian before him, Eusebius resigns Jewishness to the Christian past—a move that empties Jew to serve thereafter as a protean imagined Other. But this move also empties “Christian” to serve as a stable imperial stance from which one might claim to categorize and organize the ethnic and cultural difference of other Others as well. The latter is the stance that can adopt the universalizing epistemological pretensions of Greek ethnography—as Todd Berzon shows of Epiphanius and others—so as to classify Christian “heretics” alongside Jews, Samaritans, and Greeks. If these acts of knowledge-ordering don’t tell us as much as we might like about “heretics,” Jews, Samaritans, and Greeks, they do tell us about those particular Christians who claimed the authority to order such knowledge, and they also tell us something about what was erased of Christianness in the course of their totalizing claims.

Perhaps most notable are those positions that modern scholars call “Jewish-Christian”—that is, those positions that frustrate both ancient and modern Christian projects of framing Jew as a model for difference-making. Precisely in the fourth century, contemporaneous with Eusebius, for instance, one finds quite a different use of “Jew” in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, here placed in the mouth of the apostle Peter. Peter here claims that no Jews suffer the diseases caused by demons, thereby occasioning an explanation of what he means by Jew:

But no one of us [i.e., Jews] can suffer such a thing; they themselves [i.e., demons] are punished by us, when, having entered into anyone, they entreat us so that they may go out slowly. Yet, someone will perhaps say: “Even some of the God-fearers fall under such sufferings [i.e., diseases caused by demons].” I say that is impossible! For I speak of the God-fearer who is truly God-fearing, not one who is such only in name, but one who really fulfills the commandments of the Law that has been given him. If anyone acts impiously, he is not pious. And, hence, if a foreigner keeps the Law/Torah, he is a Jew, but he who does not is a Greek. For the Jew, believing in God, keeps the Law/Torah. But he who does not keep the Law/Torah is manifestly a deserter through not believing God. And thus—as no Jew, but a sinner—he is on account of his sin brought into subjection to those sufferings that are ordained for the punishment of sinners.

Here, the opposite of Jew is not Christian, but rather Greek and sinner, and the criterion is one’s adherence to “the Law that has been given him”—a criterion that the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies later explains to mean the teachings of Moses for Jews and the teachings of Jesus for Gentiles (both of which are asserted to be essentially the same). Accordingly, when the “pagan” Clement of Rome comes to follow the apostle Peter, Pseudo-Clementine Homilies do not describe his change of affiliation as “conversion to Christianity”; rather, Clement here says that he “took on the holy God and Law of the Jews, putting my faith in the well-assured conclusion that the Law has been assigned by the righteous judgment of God.” He does so, moreover, after realizing that “the whole learning of the Greeks is a most dreadful fabrication of a wicked demon,” choosing instead to embrace “the doctrine of the supposedly barbarian Jews” as the “most pious, introducing One [God] as the Father and Creator of all this world, by nature good and righteous—good, indeed, as pardoning sins to those who repent; but righteous, as visiting to every one after repentance according to the worthiness of his doings.”

What did the Christian making of Jew also make of the Christian?

What is absent and unnamed is “Christian.” The term, in fact, occurs nowhere in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies. The world is here split into Jews and Greeks/Gentiles, and what we might call “Gentile Christians” (i.e., non-Jewish followers of Jesus and his apostles) are here categorized as “Jews” and/or “God-fearers,” in contrast to Greeks, sinners, and “heretics.” “Christian” is subsumed into “Jew,” and authentically apostolic truth is defined by analogy to Judaism but in contradistinction to Greek paideia.

The contrast with Eusebius is notable. But this is not the only possible comparison.

Baker notes how the Hebrew and Aramaic equivalents of Jew “rarely appear in midrash or Talmud.” This is also the case for the name “Christian” and, indeed, for any framework in which this pair of labels might even make sense. To the degree that late antique Rabbis partition the world, it is into Israel and goyim, as Ishay Rosen-Zvi has shown, and whether intentionally or not, this bifurcation subverts any claim for “Christian” as a taxonomically meaningful “identity.” So too for the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies. The text is often called “Jewish-Christian,” but from its own perspective, the designation is meaningless: there are no “Jewish-Christians” or “Gentile-Christians,” just Jews and Greeks, Israel and the nations. Nor is the distinction merely abstract or rhetorical: the former are on the side of God, while the latter are infested by demons. As with Eusebius and Epiphanius, their position has precedents (in this case: in what is noted of Ioudaioi by authors like Philo and Josephus, and in what is noted of Hellênes by authors like Tatian). As in the Mishnah and other Rabbinic literature, moreover, Jewishness is less of a “religious identity” than the gaze and framework for organizing knowledge about particularity and difference in the rest of the world—albeit, for the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, grappling in particular with those new sorts of particularity and difference posed by non-Jews who accept Jesus as the Jewish messiah proclaimed in the Jewish Scriptures.

It may be significant that such perspectives were voiced even as late as the fourth century (and circulating widely thereafter)—not least because they point to some of what was lost within Christianity during the course of the process charted by Baker. The construction of a totalizing and imperial Christian gaze by Eusebius, Epiphanius, and others, with Jew as Other, also resulted in the reduction of the Jewishness of Christianity to the Jewishness of Christian Origins. In the perceived need for a hybrid term like “Jewish-Christianity,” no less than in the puzzling retention of “Judeo-” in “Judeo-Christian,” one might glimpse some anxiety about forgetting (and the impossibility of forgetting) this very Jewishness. It may not be coincidental, as Baker notes, that “almost all modern Western forms of the word—Jew, Jude, juif, Judío, giudeo, jood, Zsidó, etc. (and even the Yiddish word yid)—came into being in decidedly Christian-dominant societies and geopolitical contexts, and, with the exception of yid, they seem often to have taken their earliest written form in commentaries, translations, and sermons on the New Testament.”

For Christians to think with Jew is also to think about Christian Origins that are never just origins, as embodied in those Jewish writings that became Christian Scripture but remain trenchantly Jewish all the same. These generative tensions may be controlled by the creation of a totalizing Christian gaze exemplified by the Christian discourse about Jew, but they are never wholly erased—as perhaps clear from the relentlessly repeated remembering and forgetting and remembering of even Jesus’ identity as Jew. In this sense, Jewishness functions for Christianness perhaps akin to what Frank B. Wilderson III notes of blackness with respect to “the racial labor that Whiteness depends on for its unracialized ‘normality’”: it is the particularity without which a claim to universality cannot be articulated. And, as with blackness for whiteness, this claim is precarious, even when it is invisible, and especially when it is finally seen.

Instead of asking only how the Self is constructed with the Other, we might instead wish to ask: Who gets to construct an Other, and with what consequences to the Self? And which of these constructions of difference do and do not get to inform those systems of classification that we treat as neutral and natural, not least through the questions and categories that we use in our scholarship? Current events suggest that such questions may prove increasingly pressing in the coming years, especially as the dominance of whiteness (and white Christianness) in the United States shifts from demographic fact to discursive identity claim. After all, as Michel Foucault has taught us, claims about knowledge are always, or mostly, claims to authority and power. In this respect, it is significant that Baker is self-conscious about her participation in a process whereby Jewish Studies lays claim to a scholarly stance on Jews and Judaism that has been traditionally monopolized by Christians. “Scholarship on the Jew, as a kind of ‘cottage industry’ within Jewish studies,” Baker notes, “has served not only as a locus for exploring all of the important subjects and dynamics enumerated in the titles of the books and articles produced under this rubric, but also as a workshop for constructing, deconstructing, examining, and critiquing ideas about Jew as self.” And, precisely because of this perspectival shift, we might wonder whether Baker’s project can also tell us something about the Self more broadly, especially in an age now in need of rethinking “identity.”

This is the second essay in the Marginalia Forum on Cynthia Baker’s Jew.

Annette Yoshiko Reed is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, soon to join the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Program in Religious Studies at New York University.