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A Rabbi of One’s Own? Navigating Religious Authority and Ethical Freedom in Everyday Judaism

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Taragin-Zeller, Lea  ORCID logo


This paper examines the varying ways religious devotees utilize, negotiate, embrace and reject religious authorities in their everyday lives. Ethnographically exploring the ways that Orthodox Jews share reproductive-decisions with rabbinic authorities, I demonstrate how some sanctify rabbinic rulings, while others dismiss them, or continue to “shop around” until they find a rabbinic opinion that resonates with their personal desires. These negotiations of religious authority and ethical freedom are worked out across a biographical trajectory, opening new possibilities to explore how religious authority fluctuates and changes over the life-course. I argue that analysis of engagement with rabbis without attention to the inner-diversity of interpretations and practices perpetuates a hegemonic and over-harmonious picture of religious authority. Highlighting these variations, I show how the process of consultation was more significant than mere submission to religious rulings. Religious consultation, in itself, then constitutes a significant node for making an ethical Jewish life. Attending to these aspects of religious authority has great potential to further develop and contextualize the field of ethical freedom while complicating binary models of submission versus resistance. My approach demonstrates the need to broaden our anthropological tools to better understand the ways individuals share everyday decisions with mediators of authoritative knowledge.



4401 Anthropology, 44 Human Society

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American Anthropologist

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Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Israeli Democracy Institute