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Anthropological Studies of Judaism

Changes in anthropology--and in Jewish studies--have brought about a new field of inquiry in academia.

Reprinted with permission from Judaism Viewed from Within and Without (SUNY Series in Anthropology and Judaic Studies).

In recent years a growing number of anthropologists have turned their attention to the study of Jewish life and have widened, thereby, the scope of Jewish studies. To those unfamiliar with these disciplines in their modern forms, this combination of perspectives may seem surprising.

Classically, anthropology has dealt with remote tribal cultures having no written language. Investigation of these cultures has therefore involved the prolonged exposure of a researcher to the way of life of natives far from the researcher’s own familiar society. Judaism, on the other hand, has meant the study of a traditional civilization, whose hallmark is the sacred scriptures and writings based on them, and is normally researched by scholars pouring over texts in libraries and archives.hasidic men anthrpological study

An appreciation of contemporary concerns within both realms of scholarship, however, will reveal areas of mutual relevance in which anthropology may enrich Judaic studies and where anthropological understanding can benefit from a consideration of Jewish history and culture.

History of Anthropology

A brief glance at the history of anthropology shows a consistent expansion in the sphere of its concerns. While early researchers in American anthropology were mainly oriented toward documenting the vanishing way of life of indigenous North American societies, it was formally decided, in the 1930s, that the acculturation of these groups into the wider society was a legitimate and important area of study (Redfield, Linton, and Herskovits, 1935).

After World War II, anthropology became squarely involved with many of the countries of the third world, including some which boasted written traditions that were centuries, or even millennia, old. Anthropologists still continued to carry out most of their work in villages and small towns, but it became apparent that in order to understand these communities in their wider context, an appreciation of a society’s past and its major cultural contours was imperative.

The challenge of relating simultaneously to a great tradition such as Islam or Buddhism, embodied in historical texts, and to a little tradition, manifested in daily village life, thus became part of the anthropological program (Redfield 1956, Chap. 3). This challenge is particularly sharp in the case of Judaism.

Judaism in the Academy

It is by no means a new development that social scientists have trained their attention to Jewish topics. Central figures in the history of social thought have attempted to incorporate Judaism within the purview of their theories.

Frazer (1918) labored to show how the cross-cultural study of folklore could illuminate books of the Old Testament, and Durkheim (1912) made systematic reference to biblical material in his discussion of the division of labor in society. Max Weber’s (1952) analysis of ancient Judaism placed it within the framework of the comparative study of religion and civilizations that he was developing. Yet, despite these important efforts on the part of scholars who helped shape contemporary anthropology, the study of Judaism has remained relatively isolated from advances in that discipline.

A number of reasons may be advanced for this isolation. Stated rather directly, the new approaches were often not complimentary to Jewish religion and culture. Anthropological theory, when it first developed in the nineteenth century, concentrated on what it called “primitive culture,” “primitive thought,” and so forth, with the implicit notion that certain methods of analysis were especially fitted to those types of society.

Accepting these methods as relevant therefore meant acquiescing to the evaluation of Judaism as primitive. Even when Judaism was placed in a broader historical or developmental framework, as was characteristic of most social theorizing in the nineteenth century, it was often portrayed as representing an early stage of religious evolution, implicitly ignoring its development over the centuries or denying its possible appropriateness as a contemporary religion.

In addition, broad conceptual schemes were often put forth by scholars who did not have the necessary linguistic tools to examine Jewish textual and historical materials first hand, so that specialists in the field, particularly those with an attachment to Judaism, had ample reason to studiously ignore them. It is therefore not difficult to see why various approaches to comparative religion at first evoked a hardened uninterest on the part of students of Jewish tradition.

Studying Symbolic Systems

The lack of attention to advances within anthropology on the part of Judaic scholars had another, more subtle source, this being the difficulty inherent in dealing with the topic of religion.

One of the main contributions of the modern study of Judaism was to show that classic texts, which had been viewed over the centuries as sacred, could be seen as social, political, or economic documents and placed in historical perspective. At the same time that this enabled a more sophisticated understanding of the growth (and decline) of different strands of Jewish civilization, it simultaneously permitted researchers to ignore religious questions per se.

The concentration on topics, such as the dating of texts, determining their authorship, or understanding them in their social-historical contexts, often allowed scholars to skirt around the content of religious life because this was difficult to discuss objectively.

There was a hesitancy to attempt the direct interpretation of ritual and other symbolic systems because they were considered to be intractable to disciplined study.

The study of symbolic systems, however, has become central in the theoretical effort of anthropology during the past generation. While terminology varies among scholars and schools of thought, the word “symbol” is used by many to mean any representation that is important in human life whether the object represented derives from the natural world, intra-psychic dynamics, social processes, or experiences and conceptions of the numinous.

In sharpening its tools for the analysis of systems, including, of course, religious systems, anthropology has borrowed from fields such as linguistics, literary criticism, drama, and so forth, thereby contributing to new approaches known variously as “structuralist,” “semiotic,” “hermeneutic,” and the like.

Insofar as this new theoretical thrust does not ignore the more solid concepts that anthropology shares with other social sciences, and links the realm of symbols and meaning to economic trends, social stratification, or political struggle, the way is paved for a deepened understanding of the historical experiences of all societies, whether tribal, traditional, or modern.

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