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.

His initial field studies involved native tribes in the Amazon, and when World War II forced him into exile from France, he also lived among native populations in Puerto Rico and wrote up his research at the New School for Social Research in New York.

In the Ordeal of Civility, John Murray Cuddihy advances the notion that Jewish American immigrants from Western and central Europe transformed their reflections on their ambiguous status in society as persecuted outsiders into critical observations on race, culture, and society. Levi-Strauss is one of Cuddihy’s primary subjects, for Levi-Strauss frames much of his discovery of other cultures in the light of his own cultural circumstance, which lead to his traumatic escape from Vichy France in 1941.   

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.

He and his student, David Mandelbaum, who wrote the first ethnography of the Jewish community in Cochin, India, would often discuss the particularly Jewish nature of the anthropological quest. In a tribute to Sapir, Mandelbaum wrote that Sapir had remarked that Jews are “natural ethnologists,” by virtue of the cultural sensitivity they must develop from belonging to both the Jewish nation and the nation in which they reside.

In his work in India, Mandelbaum studied the syncretism between Hindu religious belief and the caste system with Jews who arrived in India after the destruction of the second temple in 72 AD. His research added to Landes’ quest to broaden common understanding of the cultural background of the Jewish people.

Other prominent Jewish anthropologists of the 20th century include Marshall Sahlins, a student of Levi Strauss, and now emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and Sol Tax, who founded the academic journal, Cultural Anthropology, and pioneered the study of differences between Ashkenazic and Sephardic culture. Tax was also instrumental in studying the culture of assimilation among American Jews, and he was also the first to document the cultural practices of Jews living in Algeria.

In Recent Years

Because of the political controversy surrounding anthropological theories of race and culture, the discipline has had two positions with regard to Jews and Judaism. While many of the founding anthropologists were interested in the Jewishness of their intellectual predecessors, they were not amenable to studying Judaism and Jewish communities, partially because the discipline had a tradition of studying the far-away, remote “Other.”

Thus, until the 1970s, anthropological studies of Jewish communities were relatively rare. However, with the publication of Barbara Myerhoff’s ethnography about retired Jews in a Southern California beach community, many more Jewish ethnographies have been produced.

Notable studies include Jack Kugelmas’ The Miracle of Intervale Avenue (1986) about Jews in the Bronx, and Jonathan Boyarin’s Polish Jews in Paris (1991). In the 1990s, the discourse about Jews in anthropology focused more on questions of power and Jewishness, Israeli social analysis, and the hybridizations of Jewish culture created as a result of various progressive social movements: civil rights, feminism, and queer studies.

Jewish representation and memorializing the Holocaust also have become key areas for anthropological investigation, as seen in Jonathan Webber’s “The Future of Auschwitz” (1992) and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s “Destination Culture” (1998). Karen Brodkin’s How Jews became White Folks and What that says about Race in America (1998) has extended Franz Boas’ research on Jewish assimilation into the present day.

What anthropology has brought to the understanding of contemporary Judaism is an appreciation of the marginalized and often unrecognized cultural groups that claim to either be Jewish or to practice Jewish law and ritual. From the Jamaican Rastafarians to the Jews of Ethiopia, India and China, to the modern American sects of Jews for Jesus and the international phenomenon of Chabad, anthropologists who describe and analyze the social practices of these groups grant them a voice that broadens our notion of what it is to be Jewish today.

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