The synagogue – a deeply symbolic cultural space – is a place where feminist congregants are increasingly seeking equality. These women wish to read from the Torah (a sacred text within Judaism) during services, typically something only men are allowed to do. Orthodox feminists argue that there exist halakhic (relating to Jewish law) grounds which justify women engaging in this ritual; there is simply a lack of rabbinical willingness to interpret the law in this way.
Anthropologists sometimes study sensitive topics and it is therefore not uncommon for ethnographic work to attract serious criticism along such lines. In a recent social media thread, I encountered one such critic whose principal argument was, that both I the ethnographer and the academic study of religion in general had no business writing about religious traditions (Shaligrams, in my case), should not be participating in rituals or engaging with sacred objects. What should the ethnographer’s response to this be then? What is our role in all this?
As Rama becomes more and more the icon of “virile Hinduism” and the symbol of a new kind of hegemonic, patriarchal, masculinity, so Krishna is held up as the counterpoint: masculine but not man; gendered but fluid; and sexual but not bound by cultural or even biological norms.
One of the most popular jokes among anthropologists is how often our work is mistaken for palaeontology. Almost every one of my colleagues and even a few of my students can relate an anecdote involving a situation where they were asked if they “dug up dinosaurs.” Imagine the difficulty I now face in my own work where the answer is effectively, “Yes, but not for the reasons you’re thinking.”