Jewish Families: From Babylon to Brooklyn and Back Again – By Kimberly Arkin

Kimberly Arkin on Jonathan Boyarin’s Jewish Families

jewish families
Jonathan Boyarin, Jewish Families, Rutgers University Press, 2013, 206pp., $25.95

A central tension haunts contemporary Jewish studies. Historically, the discipline both presupposed and documented Jewish peoplehood — how Jews in various parts of the globe were Jewish and therefore distinctive from the non-Jewish populations with whom they lived. More recently, as Jewish studies has adopted some of the methods and theories used more widely in the social sciences, scholars have also become interested in what Jews in any one particular place shared, and still share, with their non-Jewish neighbors. In other words, instead of focusing on what made French, German, and Israeli Jews Jewish, scholars began looking at what made them French, German or Israeli. These two approaches are hardly mutually exclusive. The problem is that when scholars stop assuming a unified Jewishness that cross-cuts historical and national boundaries, it is difficult indeed to identify what Jonathan Boyarin calls Jewish “uniqueness” across time and space. And yet addressing Jewish sameness-despite-difference remains crucial; otherwise, why have a discipline called Jewish studies when Jews can, and are, studied through the lenses of history, sociology, religion, anthropology, or literature?

In some ways, this is precisely the problem that Boyarin tackles in Jewish Families. He uses the question about Jewish sameness-despite-difference to control an otherwise impossibly unruly topic: scholarly approaches to the Jewish family. The Jewish family is a key site for, on the one hand, studying how Jews become Jewish, and, on the other, examining the theoretical and even political stakes of particular understandings of Jewish difference. Families more generally, and Jewish families in particular, are viewed as primary sites for the transmission and production of tradition; as battle grounds between states seeking public homogeneity and minority groups attempting to reproduce religious, ethnic, and/or racial difference; and as central to conflicts between individual desires for autonomy and pressures to preserve group identity.

Boyarin warns readers in the preface to “hold on tight and keep your head.” So many big ideas in such a short book makes Jewish Families a rather wild ride. Boyarin jumps across time and space, between analytic and ethnographic perspectives, and between text and practice, all the while raising a series of ever more complex and open-ended questions. And since this is really a book about questions, it’s worthwhile to rehearse a few of them here.

Jewish Family, Kavajë, Albania, 1942
Jewish Family, Kavajë, Albania, 1942 – Image via Wikimedia Commons

Is there a form of traditional Jewish family that can be traced from antiquity to the present? If so, where might we find this tradition? Is it to be found in the biblical texts that refer to Jews as a certain kind of family or nation? Can we see it in the simultaneous practice of two different kinds of endogamy — one that cultivated Jewish/non-Jewish difference and another that polices internal Jewish boundaries, between Hassidic lineages, for example, or Jews of different geographic origins? If, however, there is no definable traditional Jewish family, what about the family forms found among Jews in various times and places is particularly Jewish? Are there, for example, unique gender dynamics in Jewish households because Jewish law and practice did not conform to prevailing norms, like the Roman empire’s insistence on monogamy, the Catholic church’s rejection of divorce, or industrializing Europe’s preference that respectable women occupy the private sphere? Are Jewish genes — because of centuries of the carefully practiced endogamy mentioned above — different? Or is there something much more subtle going on that distinguishes Jews from non-Jews? Perhaps something like what the historian Ivan Marcus calls “inward acculturation,” a process that gives practices that are borrowed from non-Jewish neighbors a Jewish twist? And what might be happening to any or all of these forms of distinctiveness given recent changes in marriage patterns, household structures, and religious observance? Do Jewish families face unique challenges to social and physical reproduction in a context where not only marriage partners but also religions and identities are choices to an unprecedented extent?

Boyarin answers “yes and no” to all of these questions. Or rather, he gives examples that illustrate different approaches to thinking about such questions and explores the political and theoretical implications of pursuing, following, or adopting any one of them. Here is an example. Boyarin summarizes a number of approaches to thinking about haredi, or fervently Orthodox families. He cites scholars who see some Torah-observant Jews replacing traditional biological families with yeshivah communities; in the process, these observant Jews withdraw from the non-Jewish and differently Jewish world in order to preserve what is in fact a new form Jewishness. Boyarin juxtaposes this kind of scholarly account with others that focus on Torah-observant Jews’ sustained engagement with secular forces, including everything from shopping to slang. Such engagements are seen as part of the process by which Torah-observant families maintain traditional understandings of gender and marriage. After laying out these two very different ways of thinking about haredi families — new or old, separate from or connected to secular modernity? — Boyarin moves to thinking about how haredim function in mainstream Jewish discourse. In particular, he is interested in the anxieties haredi family forms create within Jewish institutions, many of which are convinced that the Jewish family is in demographic crisis. On the one hand, haredi Judaism’s refusal to see most social roles or identities as a choice means that the Torah-observant are very good at reproducing Jewish bodies and practices. On the other, non-haredi Jewish organizations are uncomfortable with forms of Jewishness rooted in a lack of individual autonomy.

This series of leaps — “hold tight and hold your hat” indeed — allows Boyarin to return to one of the larger theoretical debates that undergirds his work: the tension between liberal and illiberal understandings of morality and the good life. How can embodied religious traditions like Judaism be maintained if social roles and identities are individual choices? To what extent can or should choice be sacrificed for group identity and cohesion? What happens to religious traditions if and when individual choice trumps group concerns? These questions divide Jews, separate (some) Jews from (some) non-Jews, and color Jewish institutional and academic approaches to writing about embodied religious traditions. Boyarin thus returns us to the problem of Jewish sameness-despite-difference, showing the complex ways in which different kinds of Jews simultaneously share worldviews with both otherly Jewish Jews and non-Jews. And this is hardly the only time that Boyarin uses contradictory scholarship to offer interesting political and social commentary.

He looks at the idea of Jewish racial difference in a similar fashion. After highlighting scholarly discomfort with the idea of Jewishness as biology and the problems with identifying “Jewish genes,” Boyarin nonetheless suggests that a focus on Jewish bodies and genealogy might be usefully iconoclastic in (post-)Christian contexts that elevate belief over practice, and the “spiritual” over the “carnal.”

This quick foray in Boyarin’s material is intended to show how fascinating and thought-provoking Jewish Families is. But given that it was intended as an introductory text, I wonder what readers new to Jewish studies and contemporary debates within the social sciences will get out of it. It moves between so many different registers so quickly — from questions of fact to epistemology, from biblical texts to contemporary practices, from medieval Europe to late colonial North Africa, from particular research questions to the theoretical stakes of asking such questions — that a novice might well lose her sense of direction, or her hat. But that probably was Boyarin’s intention. Why answer a question when it is more interesting pedagogically and morally to think about why it was asked in the first place?

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