Major Themes in Anthropologies of Judaism

Anthropological studies of Judaism come to grips with some of the big themes in Jewish culture: the centrality of texts, the question of performance, and historical change.

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

There have been many attempts by anthropologists and other social scientists to apply their concepts to Jewish civilization. The Bible, widely available in translation, has been approached from many different perspectives, and theorists continue to utilize it to try out new ideas.

Studies in Biblical Religion

Materialists, such as Harris (1974), have sought to explain why the ancient Hebrews avoided pig meat (for one critical reply see Diener and Robkin, 1978), and Douglas (1966) has attempted to show the logic of animal categories in Leviticus that explains why some meat is to be considered an abomination.

Stimulated by the founder of anthropological structuralism, Leach (1969) published "Levi-Strauss in the Garden of Eden" in 1961, and since then the number of analyses in this genre has increased rapidly.

Most of these studies are carried out by scholars unfamiliar with the Hebrew text, or with contemporary professional literature written in Hebrew. This does not automatically disqualify their essays, of course, but acquaintanceship with a broader fund of writings would most likely reveal cases where structural analysis has rediscovered insights which were reached by earlier authors and commentators.

It should also be mentioned that in a number of instances important contributions have been made by biblical historians who have found social-anthropological ideas congenial to their material, such as Ben Dor's (1982) analysis of the lineage (utilizing Fortes's (1969) work) and Demsky's (1976) study of literacy in ancient Israel (building on Goody (1968)).

Rabbinic Judaism

It is less common to find an anthropological perspective applied to postbiblical, or rabbinic writings, although this too, is beginning to appear in scholarly work. Fredman (1981) has attempted a generalized (timeless, see Prell 1983) analysis of the Passover seder with many examples from contemporary America, while Bokser's more recent historical study based on early rabbinic sources (1984) illuminates the experience of the ancient seder with Turner's notion of communitas (1969).

This section shall mention several attempts on the part of researchers familiar with Judaic texts to enrich the understanding of these texts through the utilization of anthropological points of view.

Kol Nidre

In recent papers Deshen (1979; 1980) has called on anthropological concepts to help solve the Kol Nidre enigma. Kol Nidre is a prayer that inaugurates the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day of the Jewish liturgic year, and signifies a ritual moment when the individual reaffirms connections with the Jewish people and heritage, while recognizing one's own frailty at the turn of the year.

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Harvey E. Goldberg is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.