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.

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 post-biblical, 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.

An examination of the content of this prayer, however, reveals various problems about its meaning and its validity in terms of Jewish law. Deshen follows the development of the prayer from the early medieval period, and shows how the Day of Atonement, as defined from a formal legal perspective, was complemented by an infusion of popular religiosity containing magical elements which often form part of calendrical rituals.

In this case, rabbinic authority was forced to accommodate a widespread religious sentiment, although halakhic legitimacy for the prayer always remained somewhat doubtful. Deshen’s study consists of a complex interweaving of an appreciation of halakhic evolution with a sensitivity to folk religion growing out of anthropological study.

Purity Laws

Another example, this time by an historian, relates to Douglas’s work on the purity laws of Leviticus, and seeks to examine the ideas of purity in ancient Judaism. While purity laws, as outlined in the Bible (mainly in Leviticus and Numbers), relate primarily to the sanctity of the Temple, which was destroyed in 70 C.E., these laws continue to be important in the Mishna (compiled about 200 C.E.), a product of Pharisaic Judaism, and in other contemporaneous groups.

Neusner (1973) compares several ways in which the purity rules were interpreted, referring to the New Testament, the Qumran community (as known to us through the Dead Sea scrolls), and rabbinic Judaism. He does not provide a structural analysis of the mishnaic laws themselves, as Douglas (1973, 138, 140) points out in her comments to his monograph, but shows how the same set of text-based rules, which contribute to the definition of group boundaries, acquired different meanings in different periods, and by different groups in the same period, establishing patterns which were important in Judaism and Christianity for centuries thereafter.

Mimuna Celebration

The application of anthropological insights to a more recent period is found in Goldberg’s discussion of the mimuna festival among the Jews of Morocco (1978). Celebrated on the night which terminates the Passover holiday, this popular festival clearly resembles other springtime celebrations described for the Mediterranean area from antiquity through the present.

The Jews, of course, do not view the festival in these terms, but work to interpret it in terms of Jewish tradition, while anthropological concepts such as “rituals of reversal” and “the power of the weak,” utilized by Turner in his exploration of the ritual process (1969), underline the logic of this interpretation.

At the same time, structural analysis reveals masked links between the mimuna and a Muslim celebration that takes place at approximately the same period of time. The mimuna, which carries meanings relevant to family life, communal solidarity, and relations with non-Jews, is delicately balanced between the forces of popular religion, Jewish tradition, and local Muslim influence.

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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