Yeah Jew!

Daniel Boyarin 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

When my nephew was about eight or so, he went to school one day and, upon returning home, announced, “I saw a Jew in school today.” “What did you say to him?” he was asked. “I said, ‘Hey Jew!’” “And what did he answer?” To which my young nephew replied happily, “Yeah Jew!” “How did you know he was Jewish?” “It was easy: He had a yarmulke, peyis, and eyeglasses,” came the answer.

In her splendid book, Cynthia Baker uses several telling anecdotes including one at the very beginning about her classroom in which an American Jewish student and an Israeli student argue about whether the word “Jew” is always a slur or not; predictably perhaps the Israeli says yes, the American no. Clearly the young folks in my anecdote presuppose and enact the “no” side of things. But there’s a bit more to this story as well. Note (at least in the version I’ve been telling for over twenty years), the parent asks, “How did you know he was Jewish?,” not “How did you know he was a Jew?” The older generation (or perhaps only I, the teller of the tale) is a bit uncomfortable with calling someone “a Jew,” just a bit. Full disclosure (such nonsense that phrase): I do confess to feeling just a bit uncomfortable when a friend who hasn’t a cell of antisemitism in her body refers to someone as a “Jew” and not as “Jewish.” I swallow that discomfort immediately but can’t say it’s not there. I seem to be on both sides of the Israeli/American divide, bristling at the confident assertion that “Jew” is always a slur but also cringing, albeit ever so slightly (but detectably by me) and self-critically, at the word “Jew” used to name someone.

Baker interrogates the power of the word “Jew” in a tour de force that ranges from ancient history and philology to genetic science, leaving no assumption in place and very few stones unturned (she would modestly argue otherwise) in excavating the layered usages and affects attendant on the word. It joins other volumes in the excellent series from Rutgers University Press of studies of “Key Words in Jewish Studies” (full disclosure—again?!—I am writing a volume for the series as well on a closely related topic which will bear on some of my remarks below). Beginning with Andrew Bush’s own volume on Jewish Studies, the books of this series have made the familiar and unquestioned something strange and questionable. Baker’s book fulfills this mandate in spades. “Jew” and with it “the Jews” become terms with specific historical genealogies and not ones that come into being at a certain moment in history with a set meaning (for instance, naming members of a “religion”) which then they manifest forevermore.

In the rest of my remarks, I’m going to focus on one contained section of the book, one that most instructs my own thinking for mine, tentatively: The History of “Judaism”: A Philological Investigation. It is worth noting here that “Key Words in Jewish Studies” books all are expected to divide into three parts, a section called “Terms of the Debate,” a second one dubbed “State of the Question,” and a final one: “In a New Key.” My comment here is in regards to the first part, “Terms of Debate.”

Baker focuses her attention in this on the “sociological” categories of “ethnicity/race” on the one hand, a position deemed to be secular, versus “religion,” on the other hand, a position deemed to belong to “a universal human impulse expressed through particular systems of belief and practice labeled ‘religions.’” As she observes at the outset, “Such categories as ‘ethnicity/race’ and ‘religion’ shape current knowledge about the origin of Jew(s) in ways that can obscure and exclude as much as they illuminate.” For me, one of the most compelling parts of her discussion takes off from this point d’aperçu to interrogate (quite brilliantly) the discussion (in which my previous—and now future—work has been implicated) on tracing when the name by which members of Jewry were called shifted from being a so-called ethnonym to a so-called name for a religion. In English, this has been expressed by scholars using the neat distinction between “Judeans” and “Jews.” Pace Baker on this point, it is not only Anglophone scholars who are interested in the question; it is merely that only Anglophone writers have the simple recourse to a pair of words in order to express it. “Judeans” is understood as the ethnonym, that is, not as the name for a group formed out of the subject of their beliefs or even so-called religious practices but an “ethnic group,” while “Jews” is taken by these scholars as the name for the group once it has shifted from that earlier “ethnic” status to a posited “religious” status. Virtually all scholars in the field until now have posited that shift itself while arguing about when it took place (with suggested dates ranging over a thousand-year span, from 400 B.C. to A.D. 400).

When should we stop speaking about “Judeans” and start speaking about “Jews”? What Baker brilliantly shows is that the very terms of this debate reinscribe the very terms of a Christian theology in which the bodily, the outward, “Jews according to the flesh,” now called “Judeans,” is superseded historically by the inward, “Jews according to the spirit,” now named (again in English alone) “Jews.” The values remain the same as in the Pauline story, as it were, only the ascriptions have shifted: we Jews are indeed Jews according to the spirit; some others, either in the past or in the present that belongs to the past are those Judeans according to the flesh (again the same argument could be made in German—and was according to Baker’s analysis—while using different linguistic means). Baker’s manifestation of her argument is dazzling, if here and there a bit overdrawn as I’ll try now to show briefly.

Particularly impressive is her showing how the categories of ethnicity/race and religion (themselves modern categories as quite well known, if still contested, by now) map onto the categories of “natural Jew,” “outward Jew,” and “inward Jew” of Christian divines in the early modern period:

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 closely corresponds.

So far, so brilliant. Where I wish to push back a bit is in her claim that because the categories of scholars of Jewry map onto, and are very arguably the product of, Christianizing theological categories that they necessarily represent the values of Christian theology in which the “inward” supersedes the “natural” or “outward.” To be sure, Baker often describes this ethnic/religion bifurcation, and its mapping onto before/after, as “reinscribing” Christian theological categories. This can be read to mean that no single scholar is necessarily intending or even accepting the distinction or the valuation therein presumed, just repeating the question as it has been posed and thus unintentionally contributing the impression that the terms of the question are natural or neutral rather than historically situated and theologically charged. However, there seems to be some slippage whereby she sometimes states this point in terms that implicate the scholars in question in having and upholding this dichotomy and valuing what is thereby treated as the ultimate telos of “religion.” This slippage is given its most explicit expression in the following statement: “To return to the three excerpts quoted above, in which current scholars narrate the historical progress of yehudim/Ioudaioi from ethnic or tribal Judaeans to religious Jews: the theological pattern of religion/spirit supplementing or superseding ethnicity/flesh is immediately evident.” Returning to those three scholars (as Baker proposes we do), I find myself less sure of this immediate evidence. The first is Morton Smith; the second, Shaye Cohen; and the third, Steve Mason. All of them inscribe a historical shift from a so-called ethnic designation to a so-called religious one, but none of them (at least in the extracts given by Baker) indict this as a progression from a less valued to a more valued form of collectivity or identity, even without, of course, necessarily accepting the Pauline hierarchy of Jews according to the flesh vs. Jews according to the spirit. This analysis does not leave quite enough room, however, for the operation of a deconstruction of the opposition, an operation in which flesh becomes the valued term over spirit, in which “Carnal Israel” is read as approbative with the spiritual Israel marked pejoratively. Indeed, one could imagine a scholar accepting precisely the terms of this shift and arguing (implicitly or explicitly) for a reversal, for a return to a so-called ethnic/national conception of Jewry jettisoning the later accretion of or degeneration into a “religion.”

This does not constitute a suggestion, not even a hint of a suggestion, that Baker’s demonstration is brilliant but wrong, nor is it a defense of the “boys,” who may or may not be “guilty” individually of the sin of supersessionism that is structurally embedded within the scholarly debate. I think that Baker is absolutely right in ascribing the very terms of ethnic versus religious as always already imbricated in and on a Christian way of imagining reality with or without, or even when explicitly resisting, the value system that comes with it.

I propose that Baker’s argument here can be completely recuperated when we shift more thoroughly out of those very terms of debate or modes of argument that Baker is contesting and turn to a more history-of-concepts approach than hers, tracking the shift in relation to how Ioudaios came to be used as comparable to other Greek terms in the ancient archive. I would propose the following set of procedures for addressing the question or conundrum. First that we always and only operate with categories operative in the language(s) of the texts and periods that we are discussing (see C. Barton and D. Boyarin, Imagine no Religion for suggestions for how to do this). Second, that we study the key words using the tools of semantics: What other words are in the paradigm (sometimes morphological, other times semantic or syntactic) with our key term? Finally, that when we are tempted to translate (when do we think we should stop translating “Judaeans” and start translating “Jews”?), we should pay attention to the historical semantics of the term in the target language, as well.

we ought to be noticing that historical English itself operates with a quite different sense of “Jews” than our modern historicizing proposes

Let me quickly exemplify these points (without attempting to justify them here). The terms “ethnicity/race” and “religion” are not native terms in ancient usage; I recommend not using them at all to describe it. Secondly, with respect to the words that do exist, let’s say for the moment Ioudaioi, we look to see what other terms appear with it in the paradigm (we will surely, as nearly everyone concedes by now, not find names of putative “religions” there), and we don’t have to name Ioudaioi or Hellenoi or Skythioi with a modern anachronistic abstraction, viz. ethnicities, nationalities, either, but just observe that they are terms of the same semantic type. For another example, Ioudaismos ought not to be interpreted as the abstraction “Judaism” because the grammatical form in ancient Greek, very well attested, does not allow such a usage, any more than “Judaizing” would in modern English. Looking at other terms formed morphologically like Ioudaismos and observing their usage (there are reportedly a thousand such in ancient Greek) should provide some fairly instructive evidence for its usage in Judaeo-Greek as well. (One could, of course, argue for a total departure in usage in the latter, but one would have to work a lot harder than has been done so far.) Third and finally, we ought to be noticing that historical English itself operates with a quite different sense of “Jews” than our modern historicizing proposes, since “natural Iewes” are hardly the name of a collective constituted by faith—indeed that is the very point of the term! (Note that I am not suggesting, not by a long shot, that my principles have been ignored in previous scholarship, especially that of Mason from whom I have abstracted some of these points, or that Baker herself is not cognizant of them, only proposing that a more trenchant and explicit theorization of what we are doing might obviate some of the controversies.)

In fine, I find Baker absolutely correct in her deconstruction of these categories if also thinking here and there that the problems she identifies are even more thoroughgoing (and sometimes a bit less politically motivated) than her discourse suggests. I look forward in my nearly-completed book to both building on her work and taking it further in some directions, as we explore the semantics of the equally fraught, and not identical, problem of the term “Judaism” and its putative ancient and modern cognates.

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

Daniel Boyarin is Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric, and Chair of Rhetoric, at the University of California at Berkeley.