Beyond the Synagogue Walls
For most of the twentieth century, the study of religion in the United States has focused on institutionally and denominationally based religious groups, behaviors, and beliefs. By keeping institutional religion at the center of our research, students of religion have limited the understanding of the various meanings that individuals may attribute to their religious practices. An institutional focus marginalizes the diverse and syncretic nature of individual religious behavior. Recently, sociologists and anthropologists of religion have begun to recognize that religious practices and expression are not limited to the sanctioned forms and loci provided by the major traditions and denominations. Nor are they fully encompassed by the studies of “new religious movements” that dominated the sociological study of religion in the 1970s and 1980s. Recent volumes edited by Robert Orsi (1999) and David Hall (1997), for example, direct attention away from institutional religion to the study of “lived” religion, and religion outside of institutions, that is, the various and complex ways that people act to create meaning and new practices within the fabric of their everyday lives. By adapting a radically empiricist methodology, the study of lived religion focuses on those subtle ways that people “in particular places and times, live in, with, through and against the religious idioms available to them in culture – all the idioms, including (often enough) those not explicitly 'their own'” (Hall 1997: 7).
The practice of religion is not fixed, frozen, and limited, but can be spontaneous, innovative, and assembled by cultural bricolage (Orsi 1997). To put this otherwise, prescriptive texts don't tell the whole story, or even a very accurate story. Learning about the many imaginative ways individuals create the sacred and construct meaning in their everyday lives requires us to expand our understanding of what religion is and what it means to be “religious.” The concept of lived religion is not necessarily only about practices per se but also about how people understand and live out their identities as members of a religious/ethnic community on an everyday basis. As David
I gratefully acknowledge the financial support this research received from the Lucius Littauer Foundation, the Salomon Research Grants at Brown University, and the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. The chapter has benefitted considerably from careful readings by Shelly Tenenbaum, Larry Greil, and the religion and culture workshop at Princeton University in the Fall of 2001. I gratefully acknowledge the superb work of my research assistants, Elaine Farber and Judith Rosenbaum.