Anthropological Studies of Judaism

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

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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 crosscultural 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.

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