Imagined Religion: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Judaism

Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic Cultures at the University of California, Berkeley, discusses his forthcoming book “Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Notions”, in which he argues that Judaism, as a full-blown concept, is a modern creation.



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Photo: Vendor of Judaica at the Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem

One comment on “Imagined Religion: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Judaism

  1. Greg Pollock says:

    “It was the secular that was invented in the early modern period.”

    –the interviewee

    But, Daniel Boyarin goes on to say, sematic categories generate their opposite as part of meaning appropriation, so with the secular comes the distinctly religious. Listening, I thought of another Tel Aviv Review guest, Jonathan Israel, who in Radical Enlightenment argues that Spinoza posthumously offered a way station for the emergence of science, his God as law forever unfolding, placing all as part of God, saving monotheism (as another Review guest, Reza Aslan, holds in his own advocacy of faith, “we are all God”), providing emotional cover for practitioners and what I would call cultural critics; until, with the empirical successes of science, God is jettisoned as superfluous, science bought out of the word by its manipulative power (leading to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Man become terrified God). Religion emerges as private experience, voluntaristic, emotive, not part of understanding as increasingly scripted through mathematics. Enjoy yourself with your God, but let there be no impact in the greater social world. Yet, of course, this last is not true in our present world at all as God stubbornly demands to return to everywhere.

    The fundamental thesis I hear is that many categories used now and emerging in the mid to late 17th Century–law, politics, religion, science as material efficacy–were operative before, but not separated as they have now evolved. As example Boyarin notes that planning a rebellion in a temple would be natural, as the temple was core to group ethnic identity, neither a great cheat or brilliant subterfuge but natural, quasi-public way of proceeding if of that ethnicity. “Subterfuge” is anachronistic importation post secular/religion dichotomy.

    Yet, the interviewer says, was there not still some sense of “religious” as used today. While the interviewee denies such, I am not so sure. Not surprising, as the interviewee notes that distinctions nascent evolve, little full cut at emergence. Judaic monotheism provides an example. The Roman world had many gods, and there was no sense that believing in one debunked others; gods could be linked, that called X here the same as Y there, this providing intellectual fodder for many a mind–something we might consider in our own cultural musings, so much effort for importance only of its day. A kind of neutrality emerged, but one fully denied in Judaism by the Roman period. The only God had an only people, not true of any gods elsewhere in the Empire, where ethnicity need not preclude or demand worship of a god, unless the god was fake or destroyed by other gods. But for Judaism all other peoples so persons were essentially duped, or at best confusing a lessor creature with divinity, which really couldn’t be all that good. Even if worship, law, custom, politics were all linked within Judaism, this radical separation produced an essentially secularized outside world–for them. Under Rome, Judaism had a form of secularity, I’d say, when dealing with the outside world, quite noticeable in refusal to worship either a dead Emperor or live one, leading ultimately to the destruction of the Second Temple.

    Christianity nascent universalized God while retaining insider exclusivity, alienating from the Empire, leading to persecution when it too refused to worship one of many divinities–the Emperor. A simple extension of Judaism, so at Mark 12:17 Jesus says “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This does not fit Boyarin’s seamless culture where God is everywhere.

    The reply, of course, would be that Rome was not a single culture–but that’s the point: the interface of cultures breaks their seams, especially so when one overarching holds military hegemony while becoming essential economically to lessers. As noted, the effect would be absent under pantheism as multiple gods, but lethal to exclusive divinity. No wonder, then, that Judaism, if I can say, was politically destroyed, temples ruined, offices blotted out. Stranger, then, Christianity’s capturing of Rome; but before Constantine there were several attempts to regulate religion to control the empire in, I think, commerce, taxation, and politics, one of them rather overtly monotheistic, the others merely providing greater place to the god favored by Emperor of the day. I have used the word “religion” here where I shouldn’t. But I say I can for the same reason I can use external secular with respect to Judaism: in the vast Empire of Rome, there was no seamless culture, Imperial imposition of a cult or god effectively religious dominance for economic and political ends. Christianity seems to have been Rome’s final solution to the problem, but for some time it was only one of several faiths: commemorative coins minted shortly after the death of Constantine include one where he, riding chariot, is about to be picked into heaven by the hand of God, but other coins refer to standard Roman gods while commemorating Constantine. Those coins together circulated in uneasy alliance, fundamentally incompatible in symbol, as the brief flare of the Emperor Julian attests.

    I suggest that secularization began as self imposed alienation of divinity long before any early modern science, but was lost in the later forced universalism of the Christian faith. It is quite possible for secularization to be projected on one side of a cultural interface (Judaism) but be unfathomable on the other (other parts of the Roman world). We can see this as well in various sects of Christianity when one holds, even if privately, the others false. While this employs a purity/impurity distinction, the full modern sacred is just one condemned as impure everywhere–save for its own kind, who will say the same of all these others in reply. The first step toward modern science is to make a cultural area bereft of divine causation, save as punishment or helpmeet to the true somehow minority exclusive God. In that wasteland, something else must be found, and after the post Reformation religious wars, both military, social, and intellectual, there were many lands of waste.

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