October 30, 2008
Judaism and the Invention of “Religion”
I am lucky enough to be in possession of a rare source that definitively answers the
question of when Judaism can be called a religion.
Swem doesn’t stack this book on its shelves,
and a sentence on the back underscores the text’s selective distribution: “This edition is only
available for distribution through the school market.”
The book is so unique, in fact, that my
roommate and I don’t even keep it with our other books.
We keep it in our bathroom.
The book is
Bite Size History
by Hugh Westrup (author of such scholarly zeniths as
) and it is a collection of little-known historical facts
—or, if I’m being honest, largely historical one-liners.
It says, “Judaism is the world’s oldest
It was founded about 4,000 years ago by Abraham” (Westrup 1999, 3).
Surely, a whole lot of scholars must be feeling pretty silly right about now.
seems like a debate worthy of an entire 80-minute class, much less an entire book!
Hopefully, my facetiousness is detectable.
I do not honestly suggest that a 59-page book
on 5,000 years of world history written for an audience that still counts down to recess could
pinpoint a date at which “Judaism” can satisfactorily fill all of our requirements for what a
But reading page 3 of
Bite Size History
does spark two interrelated questions: Why
this debate so complicated and what can we call a religion?
Perhaps the first question is even answered by the second.
Do we require that Judaism
look exactly like it does today?
What aspect of Judaism must be present for it to be a religion?
Cohen’s linguistic argument sees a conceptual shift based on semantics around the time of
writing of 2 Maccabees, or around 100 BC (Cohen 1999, 90).
He claims that the use of
, up until this point in history used to refer to “Judeans” begins to refer to “Jews” at this
point (Cohen 1999, 90-91).
He bases this stance on the fact that people were no longer allowed
to call themselves
because of a decree by Antiochus, and why, he reasons, would
identifying oneself as a member of an ethno-geographic nation arouse the ire of a king? (Cohen
Certainly, this use of the word must be referring to someone who wants to follow the
ancestral laws and, moreover, believes in God having handed down those tenets and traditions so
integral to Jewish culture and life (Cohen 1999, 91-92).