PSCO Presentation: 17 November, 2010

“From Heterogeneity to Hegemony: The Limits of Pluralism in the Study of Early Judaism”

Ra‘anan S. Boustan (UCLA)


Over the past forty years, the field of Jewish studies in general has been characterized by a phenomenological approach that embraces all varieties of Judaism rather than privileging certain dominant ones. This tendency also characterizes the study of early Judaism, which has rejected an excessive reliance on normative definitions of Jewish thought and practice in favor of a more inclusive stance toward the study of Jews. Such pluralistic approaches typically emphasize the heterogeneity of Jewish “cultures,” “societies,” and “identities,” often rendered in the plural. (Jacob Neusner’s championing of the term “Judaisms” is merely an extreme variant of this broader impulse.)

While recognition 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 best response to the dangers of essentialism is not the historiographic celebration of diversity. What is required, rather, is to develop analytical categories that not only make room for Jewish heterogeneity, but that also account for hegemony in determining the relative scope and substance of what has historically been incorporated into the Jewish tradition. The heterogeneous elements of Jewish civilization can then be studied as the products of asymmetrical social relations, global political forces, and instituted textual practices. It is only then that scholars can grasp 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.

This presentation will explore perspectives that the speaker has developed through close collaboration with Oren Kosansky (Lewis and Clark College) and Marina Rustow (Johns Hopkins University) and which form the basis for their forthcoming essay “Anthropology, History, and the Remaking of Jewish Studies,” in Jewish Studies at the Crossroads of Anthropology and History: Authority, Diaspora, Tradition, ed. R. S. Boustan, O. Kosansky, and M. Rustow (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 1–28 (notes, pp. 335–45).


Ra‘anan Boustan is an associate professor in the Departments of History and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he also serves as Director of the Center for the Study of Religion. His research and teaching explore ancient Jewish literature, culture, and society in dynamic interaction with their wider Mediterranean contexts, with a special emphasis on Jewish-Christian relations in Late Antiquity. His publications include From Martyr to Mystic: Rabbinic Martyrology and the Making of Merkavah Mysticism (2005) and a number of coedited volumes, including Violence, Scripture, and Textual Practice in Early Judaism and Christianity (2010) and Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions (2004).

Meeting and Dining

All are welcome! Those wishing to dine together before the seminar will meet at 6:00 pm in the Cohen Hall Second-Floor Lounge to go next door to the food court in Houston Hall.

Suggested Reading

David Biale, “Preface,” Cultures of the Jews: A New History (New York: Schocken, 2002), xvii–xxxiii.

M. Satlow, “Defining Judaism: Accounting for ‘Religions’ in the Study of Religion”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74 (2006): 837-60.

Daniel Boyarin, “Beyond Judaisms: Metatron and the Divine Polymorphy of Ancient Judaism,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 41 (2010): 323–65.

PDF copies of these articles are available on request.