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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A number of reasons may be advanced for this isolation. Stated rather directly, the new approaches were often not complimentary to Jewish religion and culture. Anthropological theory, when it first developed in the nineteenth century, concentrated on what it called "primitive culture," "primitive thought," and so forth, with the implicit notion that certain methods of analysis were especially fitted to those types of society.

Accepting these methods as relevant therefore meant acquiescing to the evaluation of Judaism as primitive. Even when Judaism was placed in a broader historical or developmental framework, as was characteristic of most social theorizing in the nineteenth century, it was often portrayed as representing an early stage of religious evolution, implicitly ignoring its development over the centuries or denying its possible appropriateness as a contemporary religion.

In addition, broad conceptual schemes were often put forth by scholars who did not have the necessary linguistic tools to examine Jewish textual and historical materials first hand, so that specialists in the field, particularly those with an attachment to Judaism, had ample reason to studiously ignore them. It is therefore not difficult to see why various approaches to comparative religion at first evoked a hardened uninterest on the part of students of Jewish tradition.

Studying Symbolic Systems

The lack of attention to advances within anthropology on the part of Judaic scholars had another, more subtle source, this being the difficulty inherent in dealing with the topic of religion.

One of the main contributions of the modern study of Judaism was to show that classic texts, which had been viewed over the centuries as sacred, could be seen as social, political, or economic documents and placed in historical perspective. At the same time that this enabled a more sophisticated understanding of the growth (and decline) of different strands of Jewish civilization, it simultaneously permitted researchers to ignore religious questions per se.

The concentration on topics, such as the dating of texts, determining their authorship, or understanding them in their social-historical contexts, often allowed scholars to skirt around the content of religious life because this was difficult to discuss objectively.

There was a hesitancy to attempt the direct interpretation of ritual and other symbolic systems because they were considered to be intractable to disciplined study.

The study of symbolic systems, however, has become central in the theoretical effort of anthropology during the past generation. While terminology varies among scholars and schools of thought, the word "symbol" is used by many to mean any representation that is important in human life whether the object represented derives from the natural world, intrapsychic dynamics, social processes, or experiences and conceptions of the numinous.

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