ABSTRACT

Like other fields defined by a geographical area or cultural group, Jewish Studies has developed primarily through the disciplines of history and literature, with contributions from sociology and demography. With a few notable exceptions, anthropological perspectives have been largely absent from the discussion. This lacuna is in part an effect of the way that area studies emerged within the academy, and partly it is a reflection of the interests and materials available within the field of Jewish Studies in particular. It is also an index of the way in which anthropology has developed. The history of anthropology, especially as it has developed in the United States, has long been entangled with Jews and the study of Jewishness and Jewish cultures. However, it is only at the turn of the twenty-first century that anthropology has directly embraced the study of Jews and with full recognition of the contributions that the study of Jewishness can make to a variety of subfields within anthropology. The resulting theoretical developments also have insights to offer the interdisciplinary field of Jewish Studies. The foundations for this mutually beneficial relationship between anthropology and Jewish

Studies were laid as anthropology emerged in the United States, and in the singular persona of Franz Boas. There is little doubt that Boas became attuned to the social consequences of cultural difference though his experiences as a Jew in his native Germany. Trained in physics, Boas came to anthropology by way of questions that eventually came to be known as “cultural relativism,” which in its broadest sense means that cultures need to be understood on their own terms, and not through the lens of another culture. The significance of this often misunderstood concept for the understanding of Jews really only came to full fruition in the later part of the twentieth century, as anthropologists undertook research on Jewish cultures around the world; prior to this time, Jews were not considered a fully legitimate object of study, partly because the historical legacy of anthropology meant that scholars tended to study primarily foraging and tribal peoples and those who had come to the attention of core nations through colonial and expansionist initiatives. While often accused of conducting “salvage anthropology” in order to create a record of rapidly disappearing cultures, Boas’ research agenda was far more complex than a frantic attempt to catalogue cultural variation. As a methodological stance, cultural relativism insists that there are worldviews that are not fully knowable from the outside, and that they consist of more than a set of distinctive practices and knowledge of local flora and fauna. Boas’

approach encompassed broader questions about the human mind and the nature of humanity. As such, the anthropological study of Jews and Jewishness must be understood as an endeavor to comprehend the full range of human experience within which individual research projects do not simply represent one more chapter in the catalogue of human variation, but shed light on larger questions about humanity as a whole. As anthropology expanded in the post-war period, scholars took it upon themselves increasingly

to research industrialized and familiar people. With the political upheavals in the U.S. and worldwide during the 1960s and 1970s, anthropologists began to study urban peoples, ethnic groups, and those who could read and respond to what they had written. This forced greater accountability on the part of anthropologists, both in terms of the substance of what they wrote, and also in terms of the significance of their research questions and the outcomes for the study population. Changes in anthropology also required that anthropologists justify their research visà-vis the contributions to be made to our collective knowledge about humanity as a whole, a fundamentally comparative project. As such, the increasing emphasis on the study of Jews in anthropology is rooted in the recognition that these scattered populations who consider themselves to be related genetically, historically, culturally, and religiously, offer us a rich example of the tremendous adaptability of humans, as well as the power of ideology.