Is “Judaism” a Jewish concept? Daniel Boyarin doesn’t think so.

Daniel Boyarin is one of the world’s foremost Talmudic scholars. In a recent book, Judaism: The Genealogy of a Modern Term, he argues that the use of the term “Judaism” as the “name” of the religion of the Jews was a Christian invention, and not necessarily a friendly usage. “Judaism,” he argues, wasn’t used by Jews as the name of their religion until modern times, as the Christian term took hold. In his deeply detailed linguistic study, he traces the use of the word “Judaism” over the course of history down to modern times. The thesis is, of course, controversial. The LA Times Book Review assembled several scholars to comment on the book. You may want to check it out.

He starts with how the term “Judaism” (in its original Greek formulation), was used in in the first centuries just before and after Jesus. He argues, based on linguistic parallels with the Greek usages, that the term did not reference religious beliefs. Rather it referred to a regional ethnic identity for people living in a specific geographical area. Judaism was, then, a term that referred to the behavior of people living in the country called Judah. A “Jew” was someone who behaved like people who lived in Judah. It applied to general behavioral considerations and the word didn’t specifically reference religious beliefs. It encompassed a wider range of regional behaviors. I’m not sure I’m fully or accurately capturing Boyarin’s argument here. The book is not a casual or easy read.

Centuries later, he says, the term was understood to define a set of legal values or doctrines. Citing example from some medieval texts, when an inquisitor (I’m not talking church inquisition here) asked a Jewish teacher to explain what Judaism meant, the Jew was expected to describe their legal practices or doctrines, what rules they applied to assorted situations.

Modern Jews might take offense at this distinction, arguing that their laws are their religion, that the two concepts are indistinguishable from a religious perspective. But that is not quite the issue that Boyarin raises. The question is whether prior to modern times, did Jews use the word “Judaism” as the name of their religion. He argues that there is no linguistic record of the Jews using that term as the “name” of their religion until modern times and that there is evidence that the term “Judaism” was used to name something that did not mean just their religion.

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