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Comparative Perspectives on Judaisms and Jewish Identities

Stephen Sharot

Publication Year: 2010

In Comparative Perspectives on Judaisms and Jewish Identities author Stephen Sharot uses his work published in journals and collected volumes over the past thirty-five years to examine a range of Jewish communities across both time and geography. Sharot’s sociological analyses consider religious developments and identities in diverse Jewish communities from Imperial China and Renaissance Italy to contemporary Israel and the United States. As Sharot examines these groups, other religions enter into the discussion as well, not only as major elements in the environments of Jewish communities but also with respect to certain religious phenomena that too have been present in Judaism. The book is divided into four parts: the first compares religious developments in pre-modern and early modern Jewish communities; the second focuses on Jewish religious movements, especially messianic-millennial and antinomian, in the pre-modern and early modern period; the third examines Jewish religious and ethnic identities in the modern period; and the fourth relates developments in Judaism in the modern period to theoretical debates on secularization, fundamentalism, and public religion in the sociology of religion. The afterword sums up the findings of the previous sections and compares the boundaries and boundary shifts among Jewish communities. As the plural “Judaisms” in the title indicates, Sharot discusses extensive differences in the religious characteristics between Jewish communities. Scholars of religion and sociology will appreciate this informative and fascinating volume.

Published by: Wayne State University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

The Jewish communities included in this book range widely over space and time, from Imperial China and Renaissance Italy to contemporary Israel and the United States. The plural Judaisms in the title denotes the extensive differences in the religious characteristics of the various communities that are considered. In some chapters...

Part 1: Wide Comparisons, Within and Without

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Introduction to Part 1

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pp. 3-9

The absence of a strong comparative dimension in Jewish studies has been noted by both historians and sociologists. When Jewish historians make comparisons, they generally highlight the uniqueness of a particular community on which their studies are based rather than demonstrate and explain similarities and differences among a number of communities. Comparative studies of Jewish communities by...

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1. Religious Syncretism and Religious Distinctiveness

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pp. 10-41

Judaism became identified with a particular people who sought to uphold their religion’s boundaries from other religions, but Jews migrated to societies with religions that differed considerably in their permeability or insularity and in their tolerance or intolerance toward other religions. These religious differences were likely to affect the extent to which Jews maintained or strengthened their religious distinctiveness...

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2. The Kaifeng Jews: A Reconsideration of Their Acculturation and Assimilation in a Comparative Perspective

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pp. 42-57

The premodern Chinese Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, is of particular interest because, although it ceased to function as a viable community in the second half of the nineteenth century, it had survived for centuries in relative isolation from the rest of the Jewish Diaspora. The most likely time of the formation of the Kaifeng community was the early Sung dynasty, the end of the tenth century or...

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3. Elite Religion and Popular Religion: The Example of Saints

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pp. 58-79

I noted in chapter 1 that Jews and non-Jews shared many magicoreligious beliefs and customs, even in those societies, such as medieval western and central Europe and early modern eastern Europe, where religious and social boundaries between Jews and non-Jews were strongest. Although the major beliefs, values, and ritual of what might be called rabbinic, official, or elite Judaism differed greatly from those...

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Afterword to Part 1

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pp. 80-82

The analyses in the chapters of part 1 can be situated within the subdisciplines of comparative-historical sociology and the sociology of religion. Comparativehistorical sociology is distinguished by its concerns with causal analysis, processes over time, and systematic and contextualized comparisons. An interest in causal explanations might be considered part of any social-scientific endeavor, but interpretative...

Part 2: Religious Movements

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Introduction to Part 2

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pp. 85-90

In part 2 I revisit and revise my analysis of the Jewish religious movements that were the subject of my book Messianism, Mysticism, and Magic (1982). The revision incorporates the conceptual framework of religious action that I formulated in my Comparative Sociology of World Religions (2001). I focus on two broad categories...

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4. Jewish Millenarian-Messianic Movements: Comparisons of Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Italian Jews

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pp. 91-104

The development of millenarian beliefs in ancient Judaism was conditioned by the experience of conquest and exile.1 Although the prophecies before the Babylonian conquest of Judea and the destruction of the First Temple were based on supramundane premises, they did not present a view of the future as an essentially different order from that of the present. The dualistic conception of two worlds, in...

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5. Millenarianism Among Conversos (New Christians) and Former Conversos (Returnees to Judaism)

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pp. 105-122

Three large waves of Jewish conversions to Christianity occurred in Spain: (1) at the time of the riots against Jews in 1391, (2) in 1412–14 as a result of the campaign of the preacher Vincent Ferrer and anti-Jewish legislation, and (3) after the expulsion decree in 1492. Scholars differ widely in their estimates of the number of converts. David Gitlitz evaluated the various estimates and concluded that about 225,000 converted...

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6. The Sacredness of Sin: Antinomianism and Models of Man

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pp. 123-138

Following the conversion of Sabbatai Zvi to Islam in 1666, a number of his followers interpreted Lurianic concepts to support an antinomian position: Only the descent of the messiah into evil would exhaust the full potential of evil and lead to its collapse. Scholem wrote, “Once it could be claimed that the Messiah’s apostasy was in no way a transgression, but was rather a fulfillment of the commandment...

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Afterword to Part 2

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pp. 139-142

As in part 1, I began part 2 with “internal” comparisons of Jewish communities and then widened the discussion to include “external” comparisons of a particular religious phenomenon in Jewish and other religious contexts. In chapter 4 I compared millenarianism in the medieval and early modern Jewish communities of central and western Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, and Italy. The focus in chapter 5 on the...

Part 3: Jewish Identities

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Introduction to Part 3

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pp. 145-150

From the focus on premodern and early modern Jewish communities in parts 1 and 2, in this part I move to an analysis of modern and contemporary Jewish communities, especially the two largest: the United States and Israel. With respect to the analytical focus, we move from comparisons of religious practice to Jewish identities...

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7. Formulations of Ethnicity and Religion Regarding American Jews in the Writings of American Sociologists

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pp. 151-166

A common argument among American Jewish sociologists has been that Jewish ethnicity is the major basis of the religious behavior of American Jews. This argument was particularly persuasive when religious pluralism was far more legitimate in American society than ethnic pluralism. In his classic work, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, Will Herberg noted that the considerable increase in church and synagogue...

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8. Judaism and Jewish Ethnicity: Changing Interrelationships and Differentiations in the Diaspora and Israel

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pp. 167-182

One feature of what many call postmodernism and what others call late modernity is that cultural identities are no longer structured and regulated by the constraints of descent but are structured and transformed by the freedoms of consent. The language of descent—of hereditary qualities, liabilities, and entitlements—is being replaced by the language of consent—of agents who freely choose not only...

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9. Jewish and Other National and Ethnic Identities of Israeli Jews

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pp. 183-196

Jewish identity in Israel, like Jewish identity elsewhere, is an ethnic identity. It is an identity with a people that meets the criteria of most recent definitions of an ethnic group. These criteria are distinctive cultural and symbolic characteristics (in the Jewish case the major element is religion) and a sense of kinship and community, the “we” feeling that relates to a belief in a common ancestry and group history....

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Afterword to Part 3

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pp. 197-198

All three chapters in part 3 focused on the interrelationships in the modern era between the religious and ethnic components of Jewish identity. Chapter 7 was a critique of those American sociologists who have interpreted the religiosity of most (mainly non-Orthodox) American Jews as an expression of their ethnicity. At first, religion was seen to express an ethnicity anchored in the continuing strength...

Part 4: Judaism in the Sociology of Religion

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Introduction to Part 4

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pp. 201-205

In part 4 I deal with subjects that have been prominent in the sociology of religion: secularization and fundamentalism (or, the term I prefer, neotraditionalism) (chapter 10) and public religion (chapter 11). If secularization and neotraditionalism occur together, polarization, a process I discuss in chapter 10, is possible....

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10. Secularization, Neotraditionalism, Polarization

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pp. 206-231

The debate on secularization has been confined mainly to the Christian context, and there has been disagreement on whether the term secularization is useful as a cross-cultural concept.1 I extend the debate in this chapter by showing how secularization can be conducted within the Jewish context, and I suggest that differences among religions should be brought into the discussion of the effects of modernity...

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11. Public Religion, Privatization, and Deprivatization in Israel

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pp. 232-252

Few Israeli sociologists who have written on religion in Israel have attempted to apply concepts and theories from the sociology of religion. They have tended to analyze religion from the perspectives of other subdisciplines, such as ethnicity and political sociology. In an attempt to explain why the sociology of religion has not developed in Israel, Ezra Kopelowitz and Yael Israel-Shamsian argued that American...

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Afterword to Part 4

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pp. 253-256

The debate on secularization has been confined largely to Christian contents, and in chapter 10 I extended the discussion to Judaism. I made comparisons between the Jewish and Christian contexts and between Jewish communities, particularly those of the United States and Israel. Privatization of religion has been part of the larger secularization debate, and the focus in chapter 11 on public religion in Israel...

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A Final Afterword—Boundaries: Comparisons and Shifts

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pp. 257-262

In a number of chapters in this book I have compared Judaism with other religions with respect to particular religious phenomena and processes: saints, millenarianism, antinomianism, and secularization. I also made a number of brief comparisons with respect to the ethnicity of Jews and other ethnic groups or categories. It could be argued that these external comparisons have been limited because no other people...


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pp. 263-312


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pp. 313-318


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p. bc-bc

E-ISBN-13: 9780814337011
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814334010

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2010

Edition: 1
Volume Title: N/a