Anthropology, history, and the remaking of jewish studies

Ra'anan S. Boustan, Oren Kosansky, Marina Rustow

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingForeword/postscript

13 Scopus citations


This volume is organized around three terms - authority, diaspora, and tradition - that have exerted a tenacious hold on the field of Jewish studies. The centrality of these terms reflects their analytical utility for the study of the Jewish past and present: Jews from antiquity onward have made use of competing sources of legitimacy, followed patterns of geographic dispersion, and lodged claims to historical continuity; print capitalism, the existence of a Jewish state, and post-Enlightenment secularism have not rendered these terms outmoded in the least. The rough correspondence between these concepts and "native" Jewish ideas such as masoret (authoritative tradition) and galut (exile) further helps to explain their enduring status in the field. Indeed, the terms authority, diaspora, and tradition refer not only to conceptual tools derived from modern social philosophy and postcolonial theory, but also to domains of discourse within Judaism itself. The seductive congruence between analytical and indigenous categories signals the fundamental problem that the present volume addresses. One major challenge of Jewish studies in the twenty-first century is to rethink these governing categories of inquiry and their relationship to the historical phenomena they are meant to capture. This challenge, as the field is already taking it up, begins with the recognition that analytical categories provide neither natural nor neutral frameworks of inquiry and that they can distort Jewish historical experience as much as illuminate it. It is clear enough, for instance, that the reduction of Judaism to a matter of private conscience and personal faith, following the Protestant model, risks obscuring the institutional forms and embodied practices that have created Jewish tradition from the ground up. Analytical categories derived from normative Jewish discourse are equally limiting: for instance, paradigms of diaspora that unequivocally valorize a sacred center can hinder an appreciation of the ways Jews have sanctified certain places in diaspora; approaches that see Jewish law as the reflection of actual behavior, or even as a set of authoritative ideals, often fail to account for the fact that authority is not an imminent property of canonical texts but rather an emergent effect of the social institutions and practices in which they are embedded.1 The field's most important response to an excessive reliance on normative categories has been to take a more inclusive stance toward the study of Jews. Over the past forty years, Jewish studies has been characterized by a phenom-enological approach that embraces all varieties of Judaism rather than privileging certain dominant ones. At its best, this particularizing approach hesitates to favor any single Jewish variant (e.g., rabbinic authority, Zionist conceptions of diaspora, Ashkenazi tradition), and thereby avoids the analytical pitfalls of anachronism, teleology, and ethnocentrism. Such pluralistic strategies have been especially evident in comparative projects organized around Jewish "traditions," "diasporas," "cultures," "societies," and "identities," now typically rendered in the plural.2 The multicultural turn in Jewish studies is the culmination of developments that reach back to the mid-twentieth century. The "new Jewish studies," as one commentator has dubbed this pluralist trend, is characterized by increasing emphasis on several forms of heterogeneity. First, pluralists have turned to a much wider assortment of texts, including previously overlooked genres and authors (qabbalistic and Hasidic writings, women's prayer manuals), newly uncovered sources (the Dead Sea Scrolls, documents from the Cairo Geniza), and recently exploited archives in Europe and its former colonies. Second, scholars are now looking beyond the text to other modes of expression, including ritual practices, spatial arrangements, artistic production, and oral performances. Third, numerous studies now pay attention to previously neglected social groups: the study of women, children, magical practitioners, tradesmen, peasants, and laborers indicates the extent to which social heterogeneity has moved to the center of Jewish studies. Finally, the field now attends more systematically to temporal and geographic heterogeneities, focusing increased attention on periods and regions previously relegated to its periphery.3 While recognition of these types of heterogeneity productively challenges essentialist conceptions of Judaism, the regnant pluralistic framework has its own potential limitations. Nominalist views that judge a phenomenon as Jewish according to whether some Jews recognize it as such re-essentialize the boundaries of Jewish tradition by adopting a monothetic approach, in which inclusion in the category rests on a single criterion - in this case, what Jews recognize as Jewish. Polythetic approaches to "Judaisms" and "Jewish traditions" avoid this problem by refusing to rely on any single criterion. But they just as often fail to attend adequately to the historical processes that have led to the domination of certain traditions over others, suggesting instead that each bears equal importance. The chapters in this volume put power at the center of analysis by demonstrating how the heterogeneous elements of Jewish civilization can be studied as the products of asymmetrical social relations, global political forces, and instituted textual practices. Embracing certain aspects of pluralism but also moving beyond it, the authors gathered here foreground the practices that authorize texts, artifacts, beliefs, customs, places, and populations as Jewish in the first place, and then transmit them as such throughout their historical duration.4 Our claim is that the best response to the dangers of essentialism is neither to give up on the potential of analytical categories such as authority, diaspora, and tradition nor to treat them merely as catchments for the empirical study of Jewish diversity. What is required, rather, is to rethink these categories in a manner that not only makes room for Jewish heterogeneity, but that also accounts for hegemony in determining the scope and substance of what has historically been incorporated into the Jewish tradition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationJewish Studies at the Crossroads of Anthropology and History
Subtitle of host publicationAuthority, Diaspora, Tradition
PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
Number of pages28
ISBN (Print)9780812243031
StatePublished - 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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