Batnitzky’s “How Judaism Became a Religion”

Religious studies scholar Leora Batnitzky’s How Judaism Became a Religion: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (PUP) looks like a fascinating treatment of a subject right at the intersection of law and religion — that is, how a tradition based in law and practice came to describe and think of itself as a “religion.”  For those who think about how to define “religion” for constitutional and other legal purposes, this book looks useful.  The publisher’s description follows.  — MOD 

Is Judaism a religion, a culture, a nationality–or a mixture of all of these? In How Judaism Became a Religion, Leora Batnitzky boldly argues that this question more than any other has driven modern Jewish thought since the eighteenth century. This wide-ranging and lucid introduction tells the story of how Judaism came to be defined as a religion in the modern period–and why Jewish thinkers have fought as well as championed this idea.

Ever since the Enlightenment, Jewish thinkers have debated whether and how Judaism–largely a religion of practice and public adherence to law–can fit into a modern, Protestant conception of religion as an individual and private matter of belief or faith. Batnitzky makes the novel argument that it is this clash between the modern category of religion and Judaism that is responsible for much of the creative tension in modern Jewish thought. Tracing how the idea of Jewish religion has been defended and resisted from the eighteenth century to today, the book discusses many of the major Jewish thinkers of the past three centuries, including Moses Mendelssohn, Abraham Geiger, Hermann Cohen, Martin Buber, Zvi Yehuda Kook, Theodor Herzl, and Mordecai Kaplan. At the same time, it tells the story of modern orthodoxy, the German-Jewish renaissance, Jewish religion after the Holocaust, the emergence of the Jewish individual, the birth of Jewish nationalism, and Jewish religion in America.

Smith and the Critique of Religious Neutrality

Steven D. Smith has posted an excellent short piece, The Paralyzing Paradox of Religious Neutrality.  The piece revisits some of the criticisms that Steve first made in book form in Foreordained Failure, but there is a new critique of some of the arguments in support of religious neutrality to be advanced by Andrew Koppelman in an interesting forthcoming book, Religious Neutrality in American Law (about which I won’t say anything more, as it is still unpublished).  If you are interested in a short and readable introduction to some of these debates, this is a good place to begin.  — MOD

Dabashi’s “Shi’ism”

I want to flag Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature scholar Hamid Dabashi’s Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest (HUP), which should be interesting for those who study the compatibility of religious and legal institutions.  The publisher’s description is below.  — MOD

For a Western world anxious to understand Islam and, in particular, Shi’ism, this book arrives with urgently needed information and critical analysis. Hamid Dabashi exposes the soul of Shi’ism as a religion of protest—successful only when in a warring position, and losing its legitimacy when in power.

Dabashi makes his case through a detailed discussion of the Shi’i doctrinal foundations, a panoramic view of its historical unfolding, a varied investigation into its visual and performing arts, and finally a focus on the three major sites of its contemporary contestations: Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. In these states, Shi’ism seems to have ceased to be a sect within the larger context of Islam and has instead emerged to claim global political attention. Here we see Shi’ism in its combative mode—reminiscent of its traumatic birth in early Islamic history. Hezbollah in Lebanon claims Shi’ism, as do the militant insurgents in Iraq, the ruling Ayatollahs in Iran, and the masses of youthful demonstrators rebelling against their reign. All declare their active loyalties to a religion of protest that has defined them and their ancestry for almost fourteen hundred years.