Judaica Online Exhibitions
Challenging Boundaries

History and Anthropology in Jewish Studies

An Online Exhibition from the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies 2003-2004 Fellows at the University of Pennsylvania

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This year's seminar focused on the interface between history and anthropology in the study of Jews and Judaism. The central question this year's group addressed was the relationship between the prescriptive traditions mandated by the many strands of Judaism, and the actual practices of Jews. Historians were no more likely to assume that a single, normative Jewish tradition existed than anthropologists were, but the research questions, the methodologies, and the sources of evidence varied significantly from one researcher to another. We asked how to integrate them in order to have a more dynamic understanding of Judaism and Jewish culture.

One of the key questions of the year was how to understand the relationship between sacred texts and practices, and as a corollary, under what social conditions texts become authoritative, to which communities and why. These questions allowed the seminar to focus on a particularly broad spectrum of Jewish life in both time and space: work was conducted on Jews in both the West and the Near East, in virtually every time period, and in Christian, Islamic, and secular societies, as well as in the modern State of Israel. We also reflected on an equally wide range of formulations of Judaism, which included, for example, mysticism, Sephardic saint veneration, Karaite and rabbinic rituals, pilgrimage, magic, Renewal, and nationalism.

These conversations led us to challenge some of the boundaries in the field that separated elite formulations from popular expressions, texts reflecting visual, oral, or embodied practices, and competing expressions of Jewish identity. We asked if an anthropology of Judaism could exist in the way that histories of Judaism do, and in so asking problematized the notion of a single Judaism or the dominance of text and history. The documents in this exhibition will reflect our rethinking of authority, textuality, and representation in the many expressions of Judaism that we study.

Riv-Ellen Prell, University of Minnesota