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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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.

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