Judaism and Anthropology

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

Print this page Print this page

In his analyses of kinship structures and ritualized behavior, Levi-Strauss built upon linguistic theories to arrive at Structuralism--a theory that posits the underlying mental structures that all human cultures share.

His theory, while ultimately challenged by later anthropologists and cultural scholars, was one of the more radical ideas of the 20th century. While in the US, Levi-Strauss became acquainted with the American anthropologists, and became very close with its founding figure, Franz Boas.

Franz Boas

Franz Boas was a German Jewish immigrant whose secular humanism and cosmopolitan ideals engendered his specifically non-racist vision of human difference. Boas grew up in an Orthodox household and came to the US in the late 19th century. He founded the first department of Anthropology at Columbia University after completing fieldwork with Native Americans in the Northwest. Yet he was also intrigued by non-native culture.

Boas' ground-breaking research, "Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants" (1910), used ethnographic and medical evidence to deny the prevalent conception that the Jews made up a separate race. Furthermore, he showed how quickly Jewish communities assimilated into mass society and provocatively suggested that they were better at integration than other white ethnic groups.

"Perhaps because the Jews have fewer national characteristics," he wrote, "they are more plastic and have a greater aptitude for adaptation to a new environment." Because his research into the subtlety and variety of human difference across cultures directly refuted Nazi theories about racial purity, they burned his books in Germany in the 1930s.

Boas also served as curator of the American Museum of Natural History's ethnology department, founded the American Anthropological Association, and established the "four-fold" approach to anthropology in which the discipline is divided into cultural, linguistic, physical, and archaeological inquiry. In his position at Columbia, Boas trained most of the prominent early 20th century anthropologists, many of whom were Jewish.

Emergence of Jewish Ethnographies

His student Ruth Landes was one of the first female ethnographers, whose study of the black Jews of Harlem paved the way for the understanding of diversity within Jewish communities. She delved into the connection between Marcus Garvey's pan-Africanism and a latent belief in some black communities, that the original Jews were black.

Her work was somewhat hindered, however, by competition with Melville Herskovitz, another star student of Boas', who became the founder of the field of African-American studies.

Edward Sapir was perhaps Boas' best student and arguably the most influential thinker in the field of linguistic anthropology. Born to Orthodox parents in Germany, he studied at Columbia and went on to explain how language acquisition affects the way speakers think. Later in his career, he became an activist for the preservation of Yiddish language and worked with YIVO in Lithuania.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Jessica Kraft

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