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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Major Themes

These few examples point to several interrelated themes which appear to be central in any anthropological attempt to come to grips with the special features of Judaic culture. One theme is the centrality of texts. While other great traditions relate themselves to sacred texts, the widespread influence of the text in daily life has been a notable feature of traditional Jewish societies.

Secondly, there is the question of performance, the realization of rules, tied in mulitplex strands to texts, in actual practice. This question becomes particularly significant in a tradition that often has been defined as based on orthopraxy, rather than orthodoxy.

Finally, there is the question of change in the light of the first two features mentioned. How has Jewish society viewed its own texts and ongoing performances in changing historical circumstances, while claiming to be faithful to the basic rules of the Pentateuch and its rabbinical interpretations?

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