How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought

October 20, 2011

Of all the major religions, which in more innocent days were called world religions, Judaism is the most idiosyncratic. Is it a religion, a culture, an ethnicity or a mix? Leora Batnitzky asserts that only in modernity, which means only with the political emancipation of Jews in Western Europe, did Judaism get characterised as a sheer religion. This assertion is old hat.

More novel is her assertion that this characterisation proved hard to maintain. If we take the story of Judaism back to the Bible, we get an even more complicated picture. In Genesis i-xi, all humanity worships a single universal God, yet nobody is Jewish. From Genesis xii on, when God singles out Abraham to be the founder of his chosen people, only Abraham and his descendants worship the God of, to use terms not quite synonymous, Hebrews, Israelites and Jews. God declares to Abraham: "I will make of you a great nation" (Genesis xii, 2). Jewishness is here at once a religion and a nationality.

But it is also a race: Abraham is the biological, not merely political, father of Jews, and is himself descended from the race of Noah's son Shem. In the Bible, each nation has its own religion. In the Roman Empire prior to the loss of independence in AD70, Judaism was a proselytising religion, so that for converts it was a sheer religion - a point missed by Batnitzky. For 100 years before the "Christianization" of the Empire under Constantine, Jews could be Roman citizens - a kindred point overlooked by Batnitzky. Still, Jews, as non-Christians, eventually lost citizenship. Communities now forged legal relationships with the local ruler. Because the communities now ruled themselves internally, politics was reunited with religion, as Batnitzky explains. Political emancipation came first to France and only later to Germany, on which Batnitzky focuses. She argues that with citizenship came a divide between public and private spheres. One could be French or German in nationality while Jewish in religion exactly because the domains were distinct. But this freedom of religion did not work for Jews, she argues. In Germany at least, religion meant a Protestant conception of religion as that of individual, interior faith rather than the Jewish one of communal, outward ritual. Batnitzky then traces superbly the ramifications: the questioning of any easy divide between citizenship and religion.

Yet French Jews, the first emancipated, were fighting the grip of Catholicism, not Protestantism, and so had before them a conception of religion at least as communal and ritualistic as their own. The earliest Reform Jews, who were German, sought ritualistic changes, including the introduction of the vernacular and of musical instruments in their services - this in imitation, not rejection, of their Protestant neighbours.

Batnitzky devotes her book to differentiating the array of responses to the modern notion of Judaism as a sheer religion. She presents meticulously the disparate positions of figures as varied as Moses Mendelssohn, Abraham Geiger, Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Abraham Kook and his son, Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha'am, Emil Fackenheim and Mordecai Kaplan. She also presents the altogether "premodern" views of Eastern European Jews such as the Hasidim. She shows that even resolute Reform Jews such as Geiger failed to work out a clean separation between politics and religion. With the Holocaust and with the founding of Israel, any divide seemed refuted by history.

Contrary to Batnitzky, the difficulties faced by Judaism in modernity have also been faced by Protestantism and Catholicism, if not to the same degree. The difficulties are not only political but also intellectual: finding a place for religion - any religion - in seculardom.

How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought

By Leora Batnitzky. Princeton University Press. 224pp, £19.95. ISBN 9780691130729. Published 28 September 2011

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