Jewish Studies Anthropology of the Jews
Marcy Brink-Danan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0070


Anthropology of the Jews encompasses a modern intellectual tradition of ethnographic study of Jews, resulting in the collection and representation of behaviors, languages, and customs of a dispersed and diverse subject. Anthropologists of Jews regularly enter into dialogue about how the study of Jews calls into question accepted disciplinary boundaries, methods, and practices. Across Europe, Israel, and Argentina, for example, sociology and anthropology are often housed in one department under a broad umbrella of “social sciences.” As such, anthropological studies of Jews have taken place under many disciplinary headings: folklore, ethnography, linguistics, sociology, and cultural studies, just to name a few. Another central theme in anthropological studies of Jews takes on the issue of how Jewishness itself is defined, contested, negotiated, transmitted, and transformed. Anthropology of the Jews necessarily begins with the question of how Jewishness, in all its varied expressions, takes on meaning in the world. Anthropologists have resisted, in general, accepting a priori definitions of Judaism emanating from rabbis or community elites, looking instead to the variety of ways people relate to (or reject) tradition and change. Anthropologists allow these categories of belonging to surface from their informants, which sometimes leads to decidedly nonelite (especially non-rabbinic) definitions of Judaism and Jews. Anthropological representations of Jews have taken the form of popular literature, theatrical and museum exhibitions, and scholarly publication in ethnographies and academic journals.

General Overviews

Overviews of this topic, such as a collection edited by Harvey Goldberg (Goldberg 1987), a leading anthropologist of Jewish life, regularly begin with a consideration of how the modern scholarly discipline of anthropology long ignored the Jewish subject and how the Jewish Studies canon once overlooked the value of anthropological contributions. Overviews sometimes consider the relationship between anthropology and Judaism from a different angle. Goldberg 1998, for example, addressed the question of how Jewish studies might better integrate anthropological methods and theories in dealing with Jewish subjects. Most major collections make the question of disciplinarity an explicit concern. The disciplinary bridge between anthropology and history, for example, has been widely promoted as necessary for the study of Jews, as explored in Boustan, et al. 2011, a recent essay collection that resulted from a yearlong dialogue between historians and anthropologists under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. When studying Jews, one cannot describe them as a people “without history” (as many early anthropological studies imagined their subjects to be). Another intellectual and methodological challenge to anthropological approaches to Judaism took up the question of how to integrate text study into ethnographic projects and the Jewish culture as historical literacy of (elite) Jews as opposed to the non-literacy of most early anthropological subjects. The absence of anthropological studies of Jews in the early years of the discipline has been attributed to the modern discipline’s early focus on non-literate peoples. Boyarin was among the first to offer an in-depth scholarly examination of the assumptions of anthropological thought as they relate to the study of Judaism, especially as they relate to assumptions about orality and literacy (Boyarin 1991). Recently, in order to bridge religious studies and anthropological approaches, Marcy Brink-Danan, who chairs the American Anthropological Association’s Committee of the Anthropology of Jews and Judaism, with Matti Bunzl, provided an introduction (Brink-Danan 2008) to the topic of the anthropology of Judaism for a wide audience.

  • Boustan, Raʿanan S., Oren Kosansky, and Marina Rustow, eds. Jewish Studies at the Crossroads of Anthropology and History: Authority, Diaspora, Tradition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

    The introduction highlights issues of post-disciplinarity and the intellectual questions that arise when considering Jewish authority, Diaspora, and tradition; geared toward a scholarly audience. Some essays are more clearly “anthropological” than others and so may be used selectively, especially for graduate pedagogy.

  • Boyarin, Jonathan. “Jewish Ethnography and the Question of the Book.” Anthropological Quarterly 64.1 (January 1991): 14–29.

    DOI: 10.2307/3317833

    This essay explores reasons for the marginality of Jewish subject matter in anthropology as rooted in the Christian theological heritage of anthropological thought, an overemphasis on area studies, and inadequate tools to deal with the textual aspects of Jewish culture.

  • Brink‐Danan, Marcy. “Anthropological Perspectives on Judaism: A Comparative Review.” Religion Compass 2.4 (2008): 674–688.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1749-8171.2008.00092.x

    Offers a brief overview of the variety of approaches the discipline has taken toward the subject of Jewish religion, society, and culture; written with a general (i.e., non-anthropologically trained) audience in mind.

  • Goldberg, Harvey E. “Coming of Age in Jewish Studies, or Anthropology Is Counted in the Minyan.” Jewish Social Studies 4.3 (1998): 29–64.

    DOI: 10.2979/JSS.1998.4.3.29

    Describes how the inclusion of structural anthropology in the study of Jewish life in historical settings infused analyses of past practices, with a new emphasis on understanding everyday experience.

  • Goldberg, Harvey E., ed. Judaism Viewed from Within and from Without: Anthropological Studies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

    The introduction, especially, argues that shifts in anthropological theory toward a focus on symbols, combined with a reflexive turn of the 1980s American anthropology, created an opening for a productive reevaluation of Jewish themes through an anthropological lens.

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