Is Judaism a religion? A culture? An ethnicity? In his book, Border Lines, Daniel Boyarin discusses the ontology of religion discrete from nationhood. If the following post reads like a piece of academic writing, it's because I initially addressed this issue in a paper for the brilliant Seth Schwartz (Not Chosen, if you ever need a primer on Ancient Jewish history, check out Schwartz).
Concerning the invention of religion, Boyarin contends that a mutual invention of heresy, sparked by a Christian identity crisis, led to the “disembedding” of religion in the first several centuries post-destruction [of the Second Temple]. For Christianity, religion was orthodoxy, whereby heterodox views and strange opinions rendered one an outsider and adhesion to orthodox views and practices provided access to identity; this perspective begat religion, ideologically. From the onset, Christianity defined religion discrete from culture or ethnicity. Subscribing to Christianity did not confer concomitant cultural or ethnic labels. In contrast, Judaism was (and, Boyarin asserts, is) more than a religion. Judaism also encompassed ethnicity, culture, and to some extent nationality and language, particularly at that time. (8-9) By calling an entity by name, even if the intent was injury, Christianity recognized its existence, thereby giving it power. Christianity, in creating a heresiology wherein the heretics were labeled “Jew,” created Judaism as a category of religion. Thus the Jews, rhetorically colonized by the Christians, appropriated the label of religion in order to exercise agency, as an act of resistance. By definition, therefore, Judaism did not exist prior to its invention by Christianity in its heresiological texts. Moreover, in engaging in the process of heresiology, Judaism tacitly accepted the label of “religion.” According to Boyarin, “Heresiology was the technology for the initial rabbinic acceptance of membership in the category of religion, while the end of rabbinic heresiology constituted an ultimate refusal of that membership.” (12) Ultimately, Boyarin argues, Judaism rejected the category of religion. The marker of this rejection is their abandonment of heresy. Once rabbinic Judaism was the ascendant form and legitimized by the Christian Empire’s legal system, they no longer had to reject non-rabbinic Jews. Though an Israelite sin, he is still an Israelite. (224)
Christianity invents religion in part because Gentile Christians, who were not prepared to think of themselves as Jews, had a “serious problem of identity.” (16) Boyarin writes, “For these Christian thinkers, the question of who’s in and who’s out became the primary way of thinking about Christianicity.” (17) For Justin and his Gentile brethren, their response to the problem of non-Jewish Christianity was to define their religion as something separate and entirely new, an identity to be achieved, not granted by accident of birth or citizenship. Identity was thereby the result of adherence to a canon of doctrine and practice. The answer to this question of identity and access, first suggested in Justin Martyr’s Dialogues, and then adopted by both rabbinic and Christian sources, was the invention of a heresiology. (17)
An essential undercurrent to Boyarin’s reconstruction is the idea that religion is not the result of a natural evolution and differentiation (organic), but rather is the production of a particular people for a particular purpose, primarily in response to the problem of identity. An ethnic group selects certain religious ideas and practices from the overall material cultural repertoire and their behavior affects only those religious ideas and practices that carry social and political meaning, instead of permeating all of society’s material culture. Groups select indica of identity that leads to a clustering, diffusion, and grouping of indica, all of which results in group identity: Jewish or Christian. In the beginning moments of the construction of rabbinic Judaism and orthodox Christianity post-destruction, there is no set of features that define who is a Jew and who is a Christian, such that these two sets do not overlap. The purpose of Boyarin’s book is to study this creation of two religions, who identify , “the forces that resist the production of an episteme of religions as a disembedded category of human experience” in contrast with those Christian and rabbinic heresiologists whose purpose it is to make that distinction. (26)
Congratulations to those of you who made it to the end of this post. You now have a MA in Religion.