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Mary Douglas Memorial Lecture 2021

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Living Together When We Cannot Agree On How to Live: Sectarian Factions in Ancient Judaism by Professor Albert I. Baumgarten

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How can people live peaceably together, when they have come to be ordered in sectarian factions which disagree radically about how one should live? Our contemporary struggles with this challenge have a very long history. To understand this problem, sometimes we can do a kind a ethnography in rich bodies of ancient texts.

After a brief introduction to sectarianism as a social phenomenon and the ancient Jewish sects that flourished from the mid second century BCE until at least the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70CE, the focus will turn to the presence of factions in virtually all ancient Jewish sects. That these factions were sometimes in conflict with each other may not surprise us. What is more interesting is that despite their disagreements on points of law and practice they often lived together side by side. What united them seemed more important than their disputes in an age in which conflicting laws on how life should be lived were hugely important.

The lecture will explore this aspect of Ancient Jewish sectarian factionalism from a historical perspective, using anthropological theory. How these Jewish groups reached this degree of mutual understanding has implications for many similar situations today.

Albert I. Baumgarten is Emeritus Professor of Jewish History at Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan, Israel. He specializes in the study of Judaism in antiquity with a particular focus on understanding the experience of Jews of the past from a social scientific perspective. He is author of Elias Bickerman as a Historian of the Jews: A Twentieth Century Tale (2010) and The Flourishing of Jewish Sects in the Maccabean Era: An Interpretation (1997, reprinted 2005).

The annual lecture, in memory of Dame Mary Douglas (1921-2007), is sponsored by the Royal Anthropological Institute, the School of Anthropology & Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford, and UCL Anthropology.

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