Last Friday I delivered a plenary address at the NE regional SBL meeting in Newton, MA. Below is the text:

Who Needs Theory? An Historian’s Polemic
Michael Satlow

I have to start with a confession: I hate plenary sessions. I’ve always disliked plenary sessions, and I have generally avoided them – if not quite like the plague – then like a potential source of H1N1. What is a plenary, after all, if not a platform for a scholar, perhaps of some accomplishment or recognition, to bloviate about things already published; or new research of interest only to those immediately in the same sub-field; or whatever matters that might occur as he or she casts about desperately for a topic. Better, I always figured, to use the time devoted to plenary sessions more productively to hang out with my friends to exchange ideas, or at least gossip.

Given this attitude, there was a measure of poetic justice being asked to deliver this plenary address. As the rabbis off whom I make my living would say, midah k’neged midah, measure for measure. What goes around comes around. Not that I am not honored; I am deeply honored, and I thank Shawna Dolansky, who should be held entirely blameless for both my ambivalence and my coming remarks. I am also delighted to have an opportunity to talk before so many of my friends and teachers, who might by the end of this talk wish to remain unidentified. So my task today is, first and foremost, to try to keep you awake and feeling that you are not wasting your time, despite the fact that I will pilfer from some ideas that I’ve already published; present a bit of newer research; and bloviate about matters on which I have little business speaking. Primarily, I’d like to spend my time engaging you in an overblown, polemical discussion about the nature and role of theory for those of us, like myself, who consider our work to be rooted in historiographical methods.

Let me begin this discussion with an anecdote that is largely true, although in the Thucydidean spirit I modify a few details that if they didn’t happen exactly as I relate, they should have. We were interviewing a job candidate and our discussion turned to teaching. He was talking about some fascinating historical documents that might be used in a course that he proposed. These were great documents, and we could see immediately how they would be effective in the classroom. So we asked him how he would frame or theorize these documents for this lesson. He responded that he did not have to: his job, as a researcher, was to present provocative evidence. Theory had no place here; it was up to the students to think and make sense of these primary texts.

Now, many, if not most of you here today are graduate students. Yet I would wager that even you know, or now you do, that this is the wrong answer. Even forgetting the pedagogical implications of such a stance – and perhaps later my friend Dale Martin will touch on this in his plenary session – in a job interview one never, ever dismisses theory. Allegiance to “theory,” whatever that vague and abstract term might designate, must be paid. Our candidate never got a chance to clarify or justify his stance. He was dead in the water.

But what if he did have a chance to defend his dismissal of theory, under circumstances that were less fraught? In religious studies is there a principled case to be made against theory?

I do not want to make such a case at the moment, but I do want to articulate the things that many of us think and say behind closed doors. What is not to like about theory?

Plenty, in my opinion. First and foremost, it is frequently abstruse. Let’s get the obvious out in the open – theoretical writing is often challenging to read, most of the time because it is poorly written. How many of you have waded through Foucault, Heidegger, Bourdieu, Levi-Strauss, Butler, Giddens, Bhabba, Levinas with the initial elusive goal of simply trying to figure out what the hell they mean? Then, after that enormous effort and commitment of time, just when you think you might possibly have gotten it, you wonder how such a simple idea could have been expressed so poorly. And, like our job candidate, the theorist all too frequently feels no responsibility at all for explaining how these ideas actually relate to real people living real lives. The thinking becomes our job.

This brings me to a second complaint, which is the sheer hubris of much theoretical writing. I already mentioned one aspect of this hubris. Historians are frequently chided when they do not bring their conclusions into conversation with “larger issues,” which is often a kind of code word for theory. But theorists are rarely brought to task for their failure to relate their abstract thinking to reality; they often seem to get a free pass on this. A second aspect, though, has to do with the development of theory from small, local, ethnographic studies. Although we are aware that Emile Durkheim’s theories derive almost entirely from second-hand ethnographic data from aboriginal tribes of Australia and New Guinea; that Levi-Strauss’s theories emerged from observation of tribes in the Amazon rain-forest; that Clifford Geertz’s derive from only a few communities in Southeast Asia and North Africa; that Foucault advances his theories with the support of specific historical documents that he misreads; that Mary Douglas structures some of her most influential theories around theological differences between contemporary Protestants and Catholics; that Hhomi Bhabba and Peter van der Veer create large theories from the historical experience of India under British colonial rule; and that Derrida – well, let’s forget Derrida for the moment because I don’t know where his ideas come from – despite knowing all this we allow these and other theorists to shape our understanding of our own material. Why do they get to study small local communities and make broad generalizations about them to which we then need to relate our own materials, produced in different historical circumstances? Why do we continue to teach them and hold them up as fundamental texts? I often wondered how scholars today might receive a theoretical account based on the rabbis of late antiquity. Why do modern theorists study Pentacostalists rather than Episcopalians? But I digress slightly. The point is that there is an enormous hubris involved in treating the object of one’s own specialized and local historical study as a paradigm for humanity writ large.

Given its opacity and its inherent limitations, why do we continue to glorify theory? I think – and this is entirely speculative – that the reason is less for its utility than for sociological reasons. Russell McCutcheon has strongly argued – wow, talk about polemical – that religious studies is a field rather than a discipline, and that the best local administrative response to this situation is to eliminate departments of religious studies. McCutcheon’s intellectual argument certainly has some merit, and while I would not want to go as far as he does in suggesting that we eliminate academic divisions that I think do serve a valuable function, he at least provides us with a basic framework for explaining why in many – although by no means all – religious studies departments the faculty members have so little in common. Nicer and more cohesive departments recognize this problem and attempt to address it. They do so – and I mean this in the most well-meaning way – by focusing attention on their largest common denominator, that is, “religion.” These meta conversations, about the definition and nature of religion and issues of theory, become the glue that hold an otherwise entropic department together. Thus, when departments ask job candidates about theory, what they frequently are really asking is whether we have any common academic language; it is like the proverbial sports talk around the water-cooler. It might at once be absolutely necessary for group cohesion, and completely irrelevant for our actual scholarly work.

Has theory really been irrelevant to our work in this field? Well, in my own impressionistic survey of the literature, the answer has to be a qualified yes. Sure, there are some scholars who combine theory with ancient data in sophisticated ways that, whether compelling or not, have to be taken seriously. I think, though, that there are relatively few such scholars. Far more scholars, to move to the other extreme pay no attention whatsoever to theory. Then there are the scholars who fall in the middle. I would put such scholars into two groups. One group essentially pay lip-service to theory. It might frame their argument – to prove to their colleagues that it really does make a more important contribution than, for example, adducing another example of a vav-consecutive – but does not significantly change the argument one way or the other. Other scholars – the second group – build their article around a theory, with the goal of proving it. Yes, we learn again, Mary Douglas – or at least the “early Mary Douglas” – really does apply! Frazier is wrong again! J. Z Smith? With 849 citations listed in the ISI Web of Knowledge, you would think that we would actually have made some progress figuring out how to compare religion. Eliade? Mention him if you want to kill your career. OK – that was gratuitous, but another decent tip for job-seekers nonetheless.
To confirm this impression, I simply surveyed the last year’s issues of the Journal of Biblical Literature. This is hardly scientific, but I attempted to divide the articles into three groups: those that truly integrate theory; those that allude to it or use it more as window-dressing; and those that are completely oblivious to theory. Out of the 51 articles I surveyed, an astounding 41 – that’s 80% – do not engage theory at all. By fairly liberal reckoning 5 articles – 10% – engage theory fully, and the other 10% fall in the other two groups. I don’t know if we actually tell our colleagues about our theoretical interests, but they are certainly not on display in the journal of our primary professional organization. We speak amongst ourselves.
If the JBL more or less accurately reflects the mood of the field and the composition of this conference, then a polemic against theory is preaching to the converted. Kind of like Sarah Palin addressing the Tea Party. But, alas, this is not my polemic. Indeed, while I am fully sympathetic to these complaints against theory – each one of them completely valid – my polemic runs in precisely in the opposite direction. We need theory and, more importantly, theorizing. It is not simply a matter of lip-service; the use of theory can fundamentally alter what we do. My polemic is against the 80% – it is against business as usual.
Let me be clear. I have no interest in glorifying theorists. And I have no interest in preaching to you, as if I am better-than-you when it comes to theory. To the sins of misusing and ignoring theory in much of my own work, I plead guilty. I regularly discuss these sins with my own academic confessors. Usually over coffee while the plenary sessions are going on.

Now, this polemic is of course not new; you may recognize that you were subjected to it a few years ago in Jonathan Z. Smith’s presidential address at the annual SBL meeting. Entitled “Religion and Bible,” his typically learned address delicately called for the integration of “biblical studies” – whatever that means exactly – and the academic study of religion. In somewhat elliptical language, as I read him, he drew attention to the fact that although he argued for more or less exactly the same thing nine years earlier when he gave a plenary address at the annual meeting, basically nothing had changed.

Smith’s agenda is sweeping and daunting. He calls for both the creation of classificatory and analytical schemes and the development of the linguistic skills necessary to carry them out. Smith himself recognizes the somewhat utopian and overwhelming nature of these demands. Like reading Lacan in French, it remains unclear if the investment is worth the scholarly payout.

Theorization, though, does not necessarily require going that far. In fact, I would argue that smaller steps toward the integration of theory and theorization are not only easily achievable, but are in fact necessary for us to grow individually and collectively as scholars, and to give our work wider impact within the academy and beyond.

Let me be more concrete here. We use all kinds of terms all of the time in our work without giving them much thought. These terms can be subjects: the Bible; biblical literature; Judaism; Christianity; New Testament; biblical religion; myth; Gnosticism. They can also be phenomena: asceticism; sexuality; sacrifice; piety; magic. I’m not telling you anything new. What I do want to push is the idea that our implicit definitions of these terms really do matter – they frequently determine our scholarly questions and methods. Sometimes something as simple as forcing ourselves to define each of these terms as we use them opens doors that we may not have seen. And if we find that we are unable to define our own terms, perhaps that too is indicative. This is low-lying fruit – it requires no new linguistic skills or engagement with Heidegger. Increased self-awareness is a matter of low investment, with potentially high payout.

Let’s take the word “Judaism” for example. In a parochial setting, the meaning of this term is clear, or at least clear enough. If I am a Jewish worshipper in my synagogue, my community has a good idea about what Judaism is, and what it isn’t. Even if I am a Christian minister preaching to my congregation, we have a certain shared idea of what we mean by “Judaism,” even if our meaning does not necessarily correspond to that used in the synagogue down the street. In these contexts, “Judaism” is a first-order term, used by communities to draw boundaries for a variety of reasons. One community might use the term to create a group solidarity among its members; another to mark the dangerous other. What is clear is that we, as scholars, cannot and should not use the word “Judaism” in this first-order manner, placing ourselves as arbitrators of what counts and what does not. We can and should study how communities have used the term and those like it, trace its development, etc., the normative judgments of who really belongs and who doesn’t, is or should be outside of our “four cubits of the law,” to use a rabbinic saying.

So then how can we, as scholars, use the term? Is “Judaism” a salvageable academic term? I believe that this is a critical question, and one that goes well-beyond the debates the terminological debates that pit Judaism against Judaisms or Judeanness. When I, as a scholar, walk into a classroom to teach my introduction to Judaism, what am I teaching? When I sit down to write on Judaism in the ancient world, what is my topic?

In previously published work, especially in my book Creating Judaism, I have argued for a polythetic approach to the term. That is, I have come to the realization that I cannot offer a single, simple, and essential definition of Judaism that can do justice to the wide religious diversity of communities, past and present, that call themselves Jewish. This polythetic approach to religious tradition was suggested over twenty years ago by, not surprisingly, J. Z. Smith, in his essay “Fences and Neighbors: Some Contours of Early Judaism.” The idea is that there are a number of features that are widely shared by communities of Jews through space and time. Not every community, in fact no community, will have all of these features; some may have only a few. Any two given Jewish communities might share many, or even theoretically, no features. This way of defining and thinking about Judaism thus draws on the notion of “family resemblance,” in which members of the same family resemble each other, or not, in a wide range of ways.

There are two clear and immediate advantages of this approach. First, as I mentioned, it relieves scholars from the awkward task of making normative judgments about what counts and what doesn’t. If you call yourself a Jew, then for my purposes as a scholar you are a Jew – your Judaism or that of your community is as authentic as anybody else’s. Your community’s beliefs and practices, of course, may not look much like those of others who call themselves Jews; that is a reasonable topic of analytical inquiry and explanation. But we have to take self-indentified claims seriously. Second, this approach moves away from reifying Judaism and thus treating it as if it has agency.

This latter point I believe is particularly important. Too often we speak of abstract systems, “religions,” or “traditions” as if they have agency. But, of course, they don’t. One cannot say that “Judaism” influences or is influenced, for example, because “Judaism” does not have agency – Jews do. Similarly, while there are instances when we can talk about texts doing things, we too often equate texts in a fuzzy way with communities and systems – the term “biblical religion” comes to mind, implying that the Bible is a self-contained entity of a self-contained community, rather than one among many intellectual resources that were used in different ways and combinations by different communities of actual, living people.

I am not arguing that there is no place for the word “Judaism” as a second-order scholarly category. Clearly a large number of communities through West Asia and the Mediterranean basin in antiquity understood themselves to be connected to each other through… well, what exactly? It is here that we can begin the messy, polythetic mapping that I believe can help to drive us to more interesting, precise and productive questions and research.

In Creating Judaism, I propose that we begin such an inquiry along three lines. The first, as I mentioned, is identity. How and why does a community identify as it does? In a recent essay, Steve Mason argued that ethnicity was the primary locus of identity. There is much to this argument; as Shaye Cohen and Ross Kraemer also argued, many of the extant inscriptions from antiquity that use the Greek term “ioudaios” are better translated as “Judean” rather than “Jew”. But it is also true that not all of those with roots in Judea worshipped the same god or saw themselves as connected to all other Judeans. Nor, of course, was the God of Israel worshipped only by those whose ethnic origins were Judean. Some Jews in antiquity marked this epigraphically with the term “proselyte”; I think that we are safe to assume that their children did not.

For Jews in antiquity, the issue of identity was inextricably linked to that of tradition. Tradition, particularly textual tradition, is the second polythetic map. As an “imagined community,” to use Bennedict Anderson’s felicitous phrase, Jews constructed their identity not only from their memories of their actual location of origin, but also from stories. These stories were preserved in texts that they found sacred, most notably and widespread the Torah. Nearly every Jewish community from antiquity known to us ascribed authority to the Torah, whether in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic. While I will return to this point in a minute, here I want to emphasize that the Torah contains stories upon which identities can be constructed. “Stories” and “identities” – neither are singular. First and foremost, the Torah presents a notion of identity based on blood and descent. Israel is a family. At the same time, though, the Torah tells a story that emphasizes Israel’s identity as forged in common historical experience. Jews are those who shared a history and who share a destiny; their bloodlines are largely irrelevant in this narrative. Finally, there is a notion that Jewish identity is rooted in worship of God, Yahweh, most prominently demonstrated by participating in the sacrificial cult.

The Torah thus provides at least three distinct ways of constructing Jewish identity. Later Jewish communities drew on these three ways, emphasizing and deemphasizing particular aspects in order to construct a Jewish identity that they found appropriate. I do not mean this in a cynical sense – identity construction in antiquity was more an unconscious process based on what felt right and natural than it was a deliberate choice. Jewish communities, based on their own local circumstances, would naturally be more sympathetic to one or another of these three options, emphasizing it over the other two.
Three brief examples illustrate how this played out on the ground. For Ezra, Nehemiah, and second Isaiah, option 1 – that of pure blood – was the most important criterion of Jewish identity. The Jews who lived in Egypt during the Hellenistic period, though, appear to have leaned to option 2 – identity based on common historical experience. This is why among the extant Jewish literature in Greek from this time, at least some of which was apparently produced in Egypt, emphasizes history, and especially Moses. For option 3, the emphasis on worship, we might turn to those who were not born to Jewish families who integrated into the Jewish family, whether through a process or act that we normally call “conversion,” or through marriage or other forms of identification. One extreme example might be the royal house of Adiabene, as told by Josephus.

I do not want here to argue as to the historical conditions that might have led each of these communities to construct identity as they did, although this naturally is the next question. I use these examples to make the simple point that understanding identity not as a product of “Judaism” but as one of local Jews and Jewish communities dynamically reading and making sense of their traditions better allows us to ask the right questions. There is no historical determinism to the tradition, however construed. What is in this tradition is far less important than how it was understood.

I just included a caveat – tradition, however construed. Jews in antiquity probably did widely acknowledge the authority of the Torah, but that does not mean that otherwise there was not a lot of fuzziness. Many of those texts that we call “extra-canonical,” whether as part of the modern day Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, or Dead Sea scrolls, were anything but to communities of Jews. The debates about cannon and its formation are of course ongoing, but here my point is to reframe the question somewhat. I might put it this way: For any given Jewish community, what constituted “tradition”? Avoiding the language of canon more clearly allows us to steer clear of a normative framework.

As primarily textual scholars, we are often most comfortable understanding tradition itself as textual. Yet – and this would be my third polythetic map – for most people at most times, tradition is more heavily concentrated in a set of practices mimetically passed through generations. It is less important that these practices were accurately transmitted – we are all aware that practices regularly change or are invented – than that they were believed to be authentic. Moreover, as we also are well aware, practices that are thought to be traditional relate in unpredictable ways to texts thought to be authoritative. Sometimes these practices arise from the texts; at other times texts are used to justify them; and sometimes they are in clear tension. For most Jews in most times and places throughout antiquity it would be inaccurate to talk of the halakah or Jewish law. Jewish communities maintained practices. Some of these practices clearly do come out of the text of the Torah and were widely shared by different Jewish communities, if not in all the details then at least in a general way – circumcision, avoidance of pork and sacrificial meat, and observance of a Sabbath are the three most widely noted Jewish practices in antiquity. Yet we also must assume that Jewish communities followed traditional religious practices that they shared with only some, or perhaps no, other Jewish communities. Scholars have a tendency to talk of Jewish law in antiquity, undoubtedly a vestige of the ancient Christian critique found as early as Paul. Yet simply by replacing this language with that of traditional practices we can better avoid implicit issues of normativity in order to focus on the more fruitful questions of historical recovery of these practices and their explanation.

Another, and more complex, example – that of “magic”. Nearly all of the communities that we study have practices that many scholars have labeled “magic.” In general these practices were widespread, although the details frequently differed. Jews in antiquity engaged in a wide variety of practices that scholars call magical, ranging from spells to amulets and tablets to so-called “magic bowls” in late antique Babylonia. The written texts draw freely from the Bible and other texts, whether in using God’s names or some derivative form thereof. Their cosmological and angelic details also often rely on the Bible.

But what makes these practices “magic”? These are religious and cultural practices like any other. Sometimes, when we call a practice magical we are simply reinforcing a normative first-order definition created by the ancient (and perhaps modern) religious elite themselves. If the rabbis called a particular practice “magic”, for example, modern scholars might follow their lead. Yet when done with no or little acknowledgement that we are excavating a first-order ancient normative category, this is clearly problematic. And when we expand the category as if it is a second-order scholarly category, we get into more trouble: scholars will label some practices as “magical” even when the rabbis would not! What we end up with is an ill-defined category of analysis that makes unnecessary and invidious distinctions between types of ancient religious practices. These practices too were seen as traditional, with connections to sacred texts. Why treat them as if they are different or inferior?

I picked here on the term “magic,” but the truth is that too frequently we unthinkingly we use similar kinds of terms in our writings. Like magic, the terms “myth,” “asceticism,” “cannon,” “ritual,” “belief,” and “sacrifice,” among many others, began their life as first-order normative terms that have slid into second-order usage, with little thought. Many of the basic categories of analysis are undertheorized, used as if their meanings were in some way obvious.

I am not suggesting that we do away with all of these terms. Rather, I would like to argue that like “Judaism,” “Christianity,” and other so-called “traditions,” we should stipulate clear definitions when we use them. Such categories are not ends in themselves; they are tools, and we use them in order to get at more interesting insights and comparisons.

Put gently and positively, this means that if we were all to think a little harder about each of these terms every time we use them, we stand a much better chance of asking new questions; of opening up new avenues of investigation; of breaking through old and tired scholarly discussions. This is the low-lying fruit of theory, and its potential payout is high. All it requires is that we stop using terms without thinking. It means that if we are unable to define a term without becoming embarrassed, that we search for another way to say what we want to – and that if we can’t, perhaps we need to change what we want to say.

Let me now put this polemically and negatively. To the extent that we do not do this – that we neither acknowledge theoretical issues nor define our basic terms of analysis – our scholarship suffers. It is not only that we find ourselves cut off from the larger academy, locked into a peculiarly insular and idiosyncratic set of conversations. We also severely limit our own ability to break out of tired issues and paradigms that cease to lead anywhere: where, for example, do we actually get anymore by asking about the relationship of “Judaism” and “Hellenism”? As anyone who creates or was forced to slog through reading lists for PhD exams can attest, scholars have created voluminous writings around questions that we now regard as silly with answers based on ill-defined terms. Too often when we seek to participate in these scholarly debates we plead that we must do so in their own conventional terms. To do so, though, is to cop out. Participating in a fruitless debate serves nobody. If we cannot stand in front of another group of scholars and define and vigorously and sincerely defend the central terms that govern our argument – such as “magic” or “myth” or “power” or “influence” – we have no business using them.
Throughout this presentation I have drawn my examples primarily from the historiographical field that I know best, that of Jews in antiquity. Yet my intention was not to pick on this sub-field. In fact, among the several sub-fields that you all represent, I suspect that we’re in relatively good shape. We continue to throw around terms like “Christianity,” “myth,” and “the Bible” as if their meanings were self-evident. Despite what I believe is a widespread acknowledgment of the severe problems of the term “Gnosticism,” vigorously argued by scholars such as our own Karen King, it continues to find a home in the scholarly literature. In the same vein our own Jonathan Klawans has recently pointed to the flawed conceptual models that underlie much of the enormous scholarly literature on the Israelite and Jewish temple-cult. These and other critiques of the way that we do business are not mere theoretical side-excursions; they point to the need to fundamentally shift our frame of reference.

We are neither at a crossroads nor are we in crisis, which perhaps is too bad – crisis is not always necessarily bad, our politicians tell us. Instead, if my numbers are at all representative, 80% of us continue to slog along with terms, concepts, and frameworks that we either can’t or can’t bother to question or simply articulate and defend. Perhaps I am among this 80%; you are in a better position to judge that than I am. What I do know is that I, and all of us, can do better.

So maybe we don’t need obtuse and overreaching theories that with hubristic confidence seek to describe some meta-narrative of human civilizations. That could be the subject of an entirely different polemic. But in the limited sense that I’ve argued for here, theory as self-awareness and explicit clarity of our terms, fundamental concepts, and frameworks, who needs theory? We do.