Judaism and Anthropology

Jews and Judaism have influenced--and have been influenced by--modern anthropological inquiry.


Rooted in the exploration of other cultures made possible by imperial conquest during the 19th century, anthropology has evolved into a qualitatively-based method for interpreting and understanding all aspects of culture–from food and fashion to family structure and sexuality. Whereas once anthropologists had to travel to remote areas of the world to find undiscovered native tribes, nowadays, an ethnography can be written about nearly any cultural phenomenon. 

The Early Years

The story of Jews in anthropology begins in France with the work of Emile Durkheim, who, despite four generations of rabbis in his family, chose to live a secular life. Nevertheless, Durkheim’s Jewish background gave rise to some of his most important investigations into society.

In one of his most notable works, The Division of Labor, his references to the Torah outnumber references to any other text, and it is clear that his early Jewish education, at the behest of his rabbi father, greatly influenced his understanding of social relationships.

Durkheim, along with Herbert Spencer, was one of the first scholars to apply the scientific method and scientific reasoning to social phenomena. In addition to outlining a system of labor under capitalism, Durkheim authored texts on suicide, religion, and the importance of social institutions–like synagogues–in the cohesion of societies.

He also trained a large number of Jewish social scientists, and is now considered to be the founder of Sociology, though his methods and theories also form part of the intellectual inheritance of Anthropology.

One of Durkheim’s more promising students was Marcel Mauss, a Jewish scholar whose most significant work explained the ritual of gift giving, focusing specifically on evidence from “uncivilized peoples.” Mauss’ work with non-Western cultures paved the way for his student Claude Levi-Strauss to embark on several research trips that would profoundly impact the practice of anthropology.

Claude Levi-Strauss

Levi-Strauss also came from a long line of French rabbis, and his family was renowned for their illustrious collection of antique Judaica. Like Durkheim and Mauss before him, Levi-Strauss was much more drawn to questions of culture at large, and not questions of Jewish cultural tradition.

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Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.

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