A giddy dive into the elaboration of a concept, Cynthia Baker’s Jew will lend itself inevitably to two kinds of weak misreadings among many of its readers. The first possible misreading mirrors Foucault’s once provocative contention that “the homosexual” did not exist prior to the construction of the concept as a fixed medical identity at some point in the nineteenth century. The parallel genealogy would map the critical contention that “Jew,” a symbolically freighted word that evokes much aversion in western culture. Baker’s claim is that the word “Jew” is not one actually owned by Jews prior to the modern period, reflecting instead the imposition of a Christian construct for absolute and deviant difference to Christian norms. The second possible misreading mirrors a kind of Derridean jouissance,” “dissemination,” and messianic enthusiasm. Identity, once modeled as closed and fixed, gives way in free, floating signifiers, open and hospitable to anything and everything. No longer a clear object determined by reliable positivist taxa known to historicist scholars, “Jew” is subjected to new tricks from the scholar’s workshop in the wake of post-structuralism. This includes Baker’s decision to write out through the entire study the word Jew in italics, an orthographic decision meant to de-familiarize the concept.
A scholar of rabbinics and late antique Judaism, Baker’s careful organization of Jews begins in the first chapter looking at critically important and well-trodden controversies regarding the Greek term Ioudaios in relation to the Hebrew yehudi and Aramaic yehuda’i. What’s the right translation in ancient/antique contexts? Is an Ioudaios a “Jew” or “Judean”? The same question holds for the translation of the Hebrew term. Is a Yehudi a “Jew” or a “Judean”? In addition to the critical question of translation at stake is the determination of ethnicity (ethnos) and religion (religio), also in relation to gender. Does “Judean” signify a neat geographical meaning? Is the term “Jew” primarily a religious designation, as presupposed in the scholarship written under Christian conceptual rubrics? Are women even “Jews”? These weighty questions are in turn complicated by the fact that ancient and medieval Jewish texts refer to the Jews, not as “Jews” but as “Israel.” (For insight regarding these arguments regarding late antiquity you can find here the first “Jew” forum at Marginalia, with critical contributions from Adele Reinhartz, Steve Mason, Annete Yoshiko-Reed, and others.)
The difference between “Jew” or “Judean” in ancient and later antique Jewish, Greco-Roman, and Christian sources is undoubtedly an urgent problem for scholars of ancient texts, especially translators who are forced in their craft to choose between the one or the other word in European target languages. But the conclusion that “Jew” is primarily a Christian construct might have been made too quickly (pp.3, 42). In ordinary conversation, speakers of European languages can toggle back and forth between words like “Jew” and “Judean,” “religion” and “ethnicity” in such a way as to maintain the approximate meaning of multiple sets of terms prior to any one concept with a single, fixed meaning. Scholarly debates between “Jews” and “Judeans” among late antique scholars have enriched those discussions. Pity the expert. Baker herself contends that “ethnicity” and “religion” are “woefully inadequate” to the subject at hand (p.46). But a different approach entirely to names and concepts might assume that neither are ever fixed in such a way as to completely determine the meaning of any given term. It could be that under the right limiting conditions “religion” and “ethnicity” might be neither “woefully inadequate” nor “completely adequate” to talk about “Jews” and “Judeans.” They might actually be “more or less adequate.” It could be that “Jew” just sounds better, feels better on the tongue in the European target language regardless of the variable distortions carried by the word.
It is always possible to bring too much light, too much clarity to a subject. Philosophically, there is reason to suppose that any sensible object makes sense only in the shade and shadows; that is to say that objects, including conceptual ones, require a degree of vagueness. In the terminology developed in Enlightenment epistemology and epistemological aesthetics, the apperception of a phenomenon must be “clear” in the distinctiveness of parts in relation to a whole, while also “indistinct” and even “con-fused” in that relation between parts and whole for us to be able to apprehend the phenomenon at all. Now submitted to the scholar’s gaze, perhaps too much clarity, too much light, too much distinction has obscured any adequate view of our object, the “Jews.” The object will have dissolved under the bright light of the scholarly gaze, with no longer any “thing” to see here.
Focused on the ancient and Christian sources, chapter 1 goes nowhere. By this I only mean to say that the confusion between “Jew” or “Judean” is left unsatisfied even before we begin to look past the ancient source material. I am not sure if this was intentional; if not intentional. By the end of chapter 1, a reader might almost be tempted to throw up their hands with Adele Reinhartz. Historically, are we to conclude that there are no “Jewish” actors or actors operating within ancient cultural contexts? Is there reason to wonder if the Jews have been made to disappear from the historical record by an act of scholarly fiat? Is this indeed an “ethical” act meant to free the Jews from Christian calumny or an apologetic act to liberate Christian sources from the scourge of anti-Semitism? Does not the term “Jew” map onto and match up, not one to one, but unevenly with an overlapping word-set that includes the Hebrew Yehudi, the Greek Ioudaios, or the Arabic Yahud? Has the term “Jew” been isolated in such a way as to allow the conclusion that the concept goes no further than to signify for Christians the difference between Jew and Christian as a figure of the not-self and absolute otherness (p.4)?
If chapter 1 goes nowhere, then chapters 2 and 3 would be as if designed to take us out of a conceptual morass. In chapter 2, Baker beings to chart how the “Jew” was rehabilitated by Moses Mendelssohn, the eighteenth century Jewish Enlightenment savant, and by Jews in America and Israel to a variety of ideological purposes (liberal-assimilationist or nationalist) and also by French theorists in the twentieth century. In 1970s French theory, the “Jew”’ or “the jews” are now valorized, no longer condemned, as figures of absolute difference. But Baker’s primary contention in chapter 2 is that, in the west, institutionally recognized knowledge about the “Jews” is now actually owned by Jews, not Christians. “Jew” is now appropriated as a name for the self, not for “the other.” In chapter 3, the “Jew” is unpacked in such a manner as to be open to anyone and everyone. For instance, Muslims in Europe have been described rhetorically as “the new Jews” of the continent; in America a “Jew” can be anyone, given all the attendant mixings that happen here in this country. Now theorized as rooted and at home in the places they live, the “Jew” has been liberated from the confining difference the term once prescribed. Jews are now intermarried, “multiple and diverse,” “joined and divided,” “mixed and guarded,” “shared and discrete.” Jews are no longer other. As an act of judgment, the delirious conclusion is that now “Jews look like the peoples of all the lands, nations, and families of the earth” (pp.126, 148).
Empirically, this may be true or not true, the claim that “Jew” is now a slippery construct and that Jews look like everyone else. That may be more true for some and less of others. We would have to assess any such the claim in relation to culture and context, subculture and subcontext. Baker’s overarching point is excellent. This is that what we call “Jewish identity” is recognized today in our own global environment as much less fixed and distinct, more intensely variegated than might have otherwise seemed to be the case. Read in relation to the structure of Baker’s book, once freed from the disciplinary shackles of the study of ancient Judaism and of Christian frameworks in chapter 1, Jews (Baker’s book) and the “Jews” (the concept) begin to shake and move as a living form, not dead substance.
Without wanting to go into the historical weeds, my own question regarding “Jews” and Jews is primarily theoretical. Genealogical works intended to interrogate identities and concepts by ascribing them to some hegemonic, sovereign gaze are by now ubiquitous in academia. Baker’s intervention is a welcome addition. Neglected is the possibility that super-imposed concepts do important work in lending at least provisional coherence to a subject at hand.
Against the genealogical impulse, that Jew/Juif/Jude are European and Christian constructs for yehudi and Ioudaios does not “mean” anything. It certainly does not necessitate the view that such terms do nothing to illuminate Jewish culture and Jewish religious culture, assuming that one can, in fact, employ them in carefully and critically. Against anachronism, scholars are right to reject the thoughtless projecting backwards of what turns out to be Protestant and other Christian categories like “Jew” or “religion” onto Jewish and ancient Judean source material. One allows nonetheless that concepts drawn from ancient source material might, by way of another kind of anachronism, be projected forward, and, in doing so, open up and make better our own contemporary understandings of these very terms. If in fact, “Jew” is a colonial term, perhaps implicit in chapters 2 and 3 of Jews there is the possibility that loan concepts like “Jew” or “religion” can be re-colonized by Jewish users in ways that approximate more or less well ancient source material.
Wary of the disciplinary rigour of Foucault and the open-ended post-structuralism of Derrida, I am suggesting in this post that we try to suss this all out by way of Deleuze and Guattari’s famous essay on the rhizome in A Thousand Plateaus. I do this in order to grasp better how the “Jews” could constitute an example relating to the formation, deformation, and re-formation of concepts.
To begin: a rhizome refers to an acentric subterranean plant stem system composed of stems, roots, stems, and nodes that carry over across a wide horizontal surface plane. Deleuze and Guattari will mean something a bit more technical, but the botanical figure remains a fine starting point from which to unpack the term. Deleuze and Guattari turn to the rhizome as a better concept with which to model their own book (A Thousand Plateaus), indeed their own thought as a whole and to the phenomena that catch their attention. It is my own view that the concept helps articulate how we might better understand the “Jews” as a variable, changing social-religious “identity” in terms of a foundational difference.
Deleuze and Guattari maintain that the problem with the tree-root model of identity is its elision of difference. The single root model of system renders difference secondary to the identity of a One. Deleuze and Guattari describe how, “the Tree or Root as an image, endlessly develops the law of the One that becomes two, then of the two that become four.” Under this model, “On the side of the object, it is no doubt possible, following the natural method, to go directly from One to three, four, or five, but only if there is a strong principal unity available, that of the pivotal taproot supporting the secondary roots. That doesn’t get us very far” (p.6). Viewed as an identity with a tree-like structure, the Jews would start as a stable identity at one fixed point of time, as One, that then splits and variegates over time. (This model was popular in nineteenth century liberal and then twentieth century Zionist historiographic writing about Judaism and the essence of Judaism or Jewish nationhood. Judaism, for instance, was compared by Abraham Geiger to a tree whose main trunk is the religion of ethical monotheism.) Deleuze and Guattari reject a related model based on radicles or fasciculars: these, also, start with a single root, which then breaks, and onto which secondary roots are then grafted. Both models start with a single root in much the same way that scholars of Judaism might go back to an ancient meaning with which to understand “Jews” or “Judeans,” particularly in terms of “Judean” or “Jew,” “ethnicity” or “religion,” that model Judaism or the Jews branching off one basic or essential root. Conservative religious thinkers do the same with “law.” One could follow Deleuze and Guattari here and reject any conceptual work meant to establish the priority of any one term or value to the other and to others. Indeed, these models go not so far with the “Jews.”
In contrast to models based on a putatively deep, original root unity, Deleuze and Guattari propose the sprawling surface form of a rhizomatic structure. To understand them properly, it is important to note that what they mean by rhizome is a formation understood as the coming together of at least two heterogeneous elements that are at once distinct but now inseparable. Examples they offer are the contraction of “wasp” and “orchid,” or “baboon” and “cat,” or “book” and “world” (p.11). These rhizomes are intertwined assemblage formations whose spiraling movements would then be traced out by the theorist as they fold and unfold across “territories” or temporal durations.
As a rhizome, the “Jews” would be modeled as a relational modality consisting of what Deleuze and Guattari call “an outside where they form a rhizome with something else” (p.12). At the very least, this could mean historically with other peoples and their cultures, including religious cultures, in different social and political contexts and constraints. About the Jews and their histories, about the Jews as a mobile people, one could do well to follow Deleuze and Guattari when they advise, “Always follow the rhizome by rupture; lengthen, prolong, and relay the line of flight; make it vary, until you have produced the most abstract and tortuous of lines of n dimensions and broken directions… Follow the plants: you start by delimiting a first line consisting of circles of convergence around successive singularities; then you see whether inside that line new circles of convergence establish themselves, with new points located outside the limits and in other directions. Write, form a rhizome, increase your territory by deterritorialization, extend the line of flight to the point where it becomes an abstract machine covering the entire plane of consistency” (p.12).
The most obvious way to plot out the “Jew” as a rhizome is on the model of an almost subterranean force moving across time and place, popping up in most unexpected places. This kind of structuring (territorializing) movement would be to see the Jew always already defined in combination with the world, the Jew and the gentile as a single unit formed at a foundational point of difference. This is the typical model in Jewish Studies as an academic discipline traditionally dominated by historiography. Jew-Persian (Yehud) would be a rhizome and also Jew-Greek-Roman (Ioudaios), Jew-Israel (rabbinic), Jew-Christian (Jew/Juif/Jude), Jew-Arab (Yahud), Jew-Polish-Russian (Jew/Zhid/Yid), and any variety of the Jew-Israeli (Ashkenazi and Mizrachi), Jew-American, Jew-Canadian. Like wasps and orchids, Jews enter into rhizomatic combinations in relation to larger host cultures. But against classical tradition in Jewish historiography, while the term Jew threads through the entire differential system, there is no one single root identity that determines the meaning at any one nodal point in this sprawling series and the complex set of differences conveyed by that one single name as it repeats itself in a serial form.
Another way to map rhizomatic Jewish identity formation would be internal to the name-set itself. We could map out the difference between Yehudi, Ioudaios, Israel, Yahud, Jew-Juif-Jude, Yisraeli. Jewish identity, the identity of the Jews, would be modeled as always formed in some relation to internal features of nominal, overlapping points of difference. This would cut against the standard theory of identity that seeks to map out manifold difference stemming from a putative unitary identity of a single original name. Instead of seeking to locate difference in an original identity, a rhizomatic model would seek out identity as it emerges in and out of the very unfolding of difference. As Deleuze always understood, identity is the secondary term, no less real or actual for being secondary, but not the first. To see the relation between “Jew” and “Judean” as rhizomatic would mean that no one term comes before the other. The difference between Jew, Yehudi and Iodaious are foundational as is their contraction one with the other over time. In this respect, “Jew” is not “woefully inadequate” as a concept, assuming that there is no way to “decide” the difference between ethnos and religio in the formation of a complex model of Jewish identities.
When a catastrophic lightning strike splits a tree-like formation into splinters, all that’s left is a more or less dead root system. Better able to sustain damage, the rhizome model provides a way to map out Jewish difference along the ruptured lines of historical locations, dislocations, and relocations. For Deleuze and Guattari, “A rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines. You can never get rid of ants because they form an animal rhizome that can rebound time and again after most of it has been destroyed. Every rhizome contains lines of segmentarity according to which it is stratified, territorialized, organized, signified, attributed, etc., as well as lines of deterritorialization down which it constantly flees. There is a rupture in the rhizome whenever segmentary lines explode into a line of flight, but the line of flight is part of the rhizome” (p.10). Looked at as such, Jewish difference and identity are always radically segmented, ruptured by catastrophe.
Consider lastly the opposition between religio and ethnos now as contracting elements that are intertwined in the form of a rhizome. Most contemporary scholars of religion at work today will themselves recommend when talking about “religion” that one toggle constantly back and forth between the sacred and the profane, the “spiritual” and the social, without having to prioritize one term vis-à-vis the other. While we are stuck with the words we inherit from dominant and powerful political-social actors, we are not stuck with the way one has to use and understand those terms. For their part, scholars and students of Judaism learn to navigate with relative ease the difference between social form and religion. The differential relationship is there deep in from the very start. As Deleuze and Guattari present this relation, one does not go from either one to the other as if from 1 to 2. The relation is always 1-2 from the very start, maybe even 1-2-3, and so on. The problem confronted by Baker and other scholars of ancient Judaism is with inherited patterns of modern, western thought that demands establishing some original and prior point (an “identity” in the narrow sense of the term) from which to start tracing out a series. And they have to struggle with preconceived notions that the “Jew” is a simple and undifferentiated religious designation or with contending notions that social identity is absolutely prior, meaning that Jewish ethnos is ethnic before becoming religious.
Following Deleuze and Guattari, the starting point is always the difference established in the contraction between two points. What follows in the form of repetition is difference, or a secondary identity whose foundation is difference. Impossible to disentangle except heuristically, religion + ethnos are rhizomatic, and so too is the relation between Jew + Jew + Jew + Jew throughout the entirety and variety of its iterations.