To share/sharing/shared/a share of/to share with. What do we create when we share objects, embodied experiences, languages, or ideas with others? Intimacy? Ties of obligation? A sense of belonging to something despite differences of investments and position? In this special section, Hillewaert and Tetreault experiment with reimagining the notion of ‘sharedness’. They have assembled a set of articles that use the term when describing less hegemonically spiritual and religious communities from a variety of places, traditions, and social formations. Some contributors focus on communities marginalized by more dominantly recognized state or institutional religiosity (Riley, Cochrane, Tetreault). Others ask what constitutes the grounds for defining religious/spiritual communities at all (Hillewaert, Elisha). The majority of the communities discussed probably fit most comfortably in scholarship on new religious movements or New Age scholarship (Elisha). What links these contributions is a focus on processes by which participants’ sharedness is achieved despite their differences of belief, practice, or both, which might seem to threaten their existence as a collectivity. That is, the authors consider how difference rather than sameness becomes the grounds for creating a sense of joint purpose. They also emphasize that sharedness is a jumping-off point, a category for ethnographic investigation specifically through attention to language, materiality, and embodiment. This contrasts to assumptions that community of any sort necessarily relies on or emerges from participants’ sameness.

To share/sharing/shared/a share of/to share with. What do we create when we share objects, embodied experiences, languages, or ideas with others? Intimacy? Ties of obligation? A sense of belonging to something despite differences of investments and position? In this special section, Hillewaert and Tetreault experiment with reimagining the notion of ‘sharedness’. They have assembled a set of articles that use the term when describing less hegemonically spiritual and religious communities from a variety of places, traditions, and social formations. Some contributors focus on communities marginalized by more dominantly recognized state or institutional religiosity (Riley, Cochrane, Tetreault). Others ask what constitutes the grounds for defining religious/spiritual communities at all (Hillewaert, Elisha). The majority of the communities discussed probably fit most comfortably in scholarship on new religious movements or New Age scholarship (Elisha). What links these contributions is a focus on processes by which participants’ sharedness is achieved despite their differences of belief, practice, or both, which might seem to threaten their existence as a collectivity. That is, the authors consider how difference rather than sameness becomes the grounds for creating a sense of joint purpose. They also emphasize that sharedness is a jumping-off point, a category for ethnographic investigation specifically through attention to language, materiality, and embodiment. This contrasts to assumptions that community of any sort necessarily relies on or emerges from participants’ sameness.

I read this special section as a provocation from the margins of the anthropology of religion. Drawing on linguistic anthropology, the authors ask readers to stretch and experiment with what constitutes the religious as an analytical category and how to study it. The development of the concept of sharedness as co-constructed in discourse, on bodies, and in material culture offers us comparative accounts of the complicated ways that spiritual commitments of different kinds intersect with the political, the economic, and other processes of world-building. Simultaneously, by prompting investigation about what constitutes communal boundaries and their definitions, and by examining a range of non-traditional spiritual communities, this collection of articles furthers scholarship on more conventional communities/traditions. As someone whose own research engages just such a conventionally traditional community, ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York, I found that the assembled articles raise interesting questions and topics, particularly ones that ask us to rethink dynamics between religious belief and practice, religious authority, and difference as a social achievement (cf. Goodwin and Heritage 1990).

The collected articles resonate with current trends in the anthropology of religion that strive to account for a wider range of individual investments, rather than focusing exclusively on aspirations for piety, religious study, or a relationship with divinity. Recent work reminds us that membership in religious/spiritual movements, institutions, or other kinds of groupings includes less transcendent desires, uncertainties or ambiguities, doubt, and rejection altogether (see, e.g., Mittermaier 2010; Newfield 2020; Pelkmans 2013). Further, moments of chaos, failure, or perceived crises of authority may be times when people—individually, in families, or in institutions—explicitly debate or clarify belonging and beliefs drawing on diverse linguistic and cultural resources (Haeri 2020). Similarly, this special section looks to sites where participants hold differences of belief, practice, or both, asking how these differences become grounds for sharedness.

Insights from linguistic anthropology offer both methodological resources and implications for social theory building to approach how sharedness is achieved (Hillewaert and Tetreault, this volume). Staking out space in the relatively scattered landscape of scholarship on language and religion, the contributions build on and push approaches to semiosis, especially language and materiality (Keane 2018; Shankar and Cavanaugh 2012) and language as social practice (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992). The linguistic anthropological perspective proves especially useful in unifying the contributions that cross such distinctive traditions, spaces, and scales. In the individual articles, we see how people with diverse projects, desires, or dreams nevertheless participate in shared linguistic registers, forms of interaction, and material and embodied signs, sometimes for competing purposes.

A key insight gleaned from a linguistic anthropological perspective, argue Sarah Hillewaert and Chantal Tetreault in the introduction to this section, is that the concept of sharedness must be approached as emergent, learned with others through interaction, lived, and, of course, always potentially ruptured or changed. Implicit in this insight but not invoked is the foundational work of ethnomethodologists (e.g., Garfinkel 1967), sociologists whose phenomenological approach informs scholarship in conversation analysis: the micro-analysis of the social organization of conversation, especially turn-taking between speakers, as a ‘social achievement’, something participants had to work at together (e.g., Schegloff 1986). Extending this insight to religious and spiritual communities, we see how participation in the socially organized co-construction of discourse and semiosis by participants with different commitments can become the grounds for the social achievement of sharedness.

The articles offer a fascinating set of case studies to unpack the implications of sharedness as an approach to the study of religious/spiritual communities. Some analyze communities that share practice but not beliefs. Hillewaert, for example, describes the participants in “yoga safari” tourism in East Africa. She argues that the yoga retreats are successful because of, not despite, the different goals of the Western expat owners, the Euro-American tourists who participate, and the local (Muslim) practitioners. Considering a range of discourses (e.g., narratives) and signs on the body (e.g., cupping practices, improved posture), she shows how participants make claims to science or religion as authorizing discourses for their participation, effectively erasing “the seemingly neo-colonial nature of interactions,” and legitimizing the endeavor itself.

Similarly, Laura Cochrane describes two Sufi Muslim rural religious communities (daaras) in Senegal where there is shared practice but not shared belief. The daaras conflate spiritual and environmental cultivation, with students and volunteers, including non-Muslims, who work the groundnut fields for the shaykhs. Cochrane shows how state-sponsored discourses of tolerance provide justification for the range of participants’ commitments, which includes non-believers who participate in the daaras for economic reasons or commitment to the environment. The shared language, metaphors, and physical labor nevertheless create a sense of shared purpose despite the acknowledgment of divergent beliefs.

In contrast, Emily Riley, working with the Layene community of Dakar (also Sufi Muslims), explores the ways that shared belief and practice can resignify a civic concept and make it the grounds for shared piety. In her analysis of “radical sharedness,” Riley examines ritualized displays of hospitality (teraanga) in song (sikr) and the sharing of material and linguistic objects such as wealth, names, and distinctive white clothing. These practices co-construct sharedness through the critique of Wolof caste hierarchies—that is, a critique of the wider Wolof society provides the grounds for self-definitions of being Layene.

Having differences of belief while sharing practice raises provocative questions about authority and the politics of difference. How much, we might ask, does each group know/care about the competing reasons and understandings for their joint endeavors? Do, for example, the yoga tourists know that the local Kenyans frame yoga as exercise and employment rather than a spiritual practice, as Hillewaert relates? We might further ask how differences of belief are hierarchized or prioritized and why. Are there moments or spaces where differences challenge the formation of joint purpose? How do emergent interaction, embodiment, and material culture (e.g., the white clothing Riley describes, or the laboring bodies in Cochrane's article) mediate conflict if or when differences of belief threaten sharedness?

Competing ideas about authority, including ambivalence to the very project of sharedness, shapes contributions where participants share neither belief nor practice. For example, Tetreault describes a Reconstructionist synagogue where congregants hold a diversity of beliefs about God and religious practice in terms of adherence to Jewish law (Halakhah). What congregants do share is a commitment to discursively “wrestling with tradition” in a variety of ways and spaces, from board meetings about religious leadership and practice to ritualized worship idiosyncratically rather than normatively fulfilled. Even so, this congregation has chosen to create an institutional space that becomes a de facto synagogue, so that the very materiality of infrastructure contributes to sharedness, as do debates over the role of a rabbi in the structure of a synagogue. Co-construction here is not about cooperation, but rather emerges from talk about those differences, including who has the right to make claims about how sharedness is expressed and lived.

Omri Elisha's analysis of professional astrologers similarly touches on ambivalence about sharedness and authority, including whose definition of sharedness prevails. Elisha investigates how the “astrology community,” which has no institutions, collective rituals, or central authorities, exists in the tension where the only shared belief is in the authority of a non-arbitrary universe. This tension is evident in the “the language of astrology,” the linguistic register that draws on the temporality of celestial bodies to indexically interpret the mundane world. Enacting this register is an act of emergent sharedness even as it allows for idiosyncratic differences. Elisha's analysis also reminds us how important it is to listen to what participants themselves recognize as sharedness. Scholars of New Age spirituality have often described these movements as overly individualistic. Elisha's analysis shows us a much more complex picture, one that moves beyond normative notions of community as sameness to instead account for difference as a social achievement, one that may lead us to broader notions of what constitutes a religious community at all.

One of the pleasures of reading a group of articles like this is the potential for thinking through possibilities for creating new kinds of conversations more broadly. What if, for example, we extended the concept of sharedness to religious communities who are not on the margins? Who are hegemonically religious? I experiment with this below in three quite different North American Jewish communities, suggesting how generative the ideas here are for further discussion, especially around the key topics I opened with: religious belief and practice, religious authority, and the social achievement of difference. In Hidden Heretics (Fader 2020), for example, I describe a starkly different dynamic between belief and practice and authority, one that required problematizing belief to include its other, doubt. Hidden heretics are ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and women who experienced a loss of belief, what I call “life-changing doubt,” but who kept publicly practicing ultra-Orthodoxy, even as they broke Jewish laws and explored the secular world around them with fellow-travelers. For hidden heretics or those living what they called “double lives,” religious belief and practice were disaggregated, and yet most remained in their communities even as they strained at the boundaries of religious and cultural acceptability set by religious authorities.

This situation sparked a crisis of authority among the ultra-Orthodox, where rabbinic authorities became increasingly concerned that there were “imposters” among them, as one rabbi described it. In response, ultra-Orthodox leadership began to discuss belief and doubt as requiring new forms of discourse, from psychotherapy to rabbinic counsel. Not all changes to religious belief or doubt threaten religious authorities. Religious doubt that stays in individual interiors and relies on continued religious practice defines and refines faith (Luhrmann 2012). It is an expected part of any religiously orthodox community. However, the life-changing doubt of hidden heretics was different because it provoked what religious leaders began calling a “crisis of faith.” Life-changing doubt refused to stay in individual interiors, and it disrupted religious practice.

Here the notion of sharedness might be usefully put into conversation with the idea of ‘publics and counterpublics’ (Warner 2000). We might further think about the social achievement of difference as a process that creates publics and counterpublics. Mobilizing the concept of publicity with sharedness would encourage engagement with anthropologists of more conventional religions who have attended to the circulation of languages (Handman 2018) and media and mediation (Eisenlohr 2011). The life-changing doubt of hidden heretics was so troubling exactly because it was intersubjective, anonymously public, and shared in that it was lived out loud with others, expressed in language, on bodies, and through material culture. Hidden heretics broke Jewish laws (e.g., using their phones on the Sabbath), gave subtle cues to their families and communities that they were changing (e.g., donning shorter skirts, trimming beards, or speaking better English), and immodestly met with like-minded men and women to sing Yiddish Sabbath songs, eat Jewish foods, and discuss ultra-Orthodox politics. What made these hidden heretics so threatening to religious authorities ultimately was that their discursive and semiotic practices online and in person came to form a heretical counterpublic, one that critiqued the ultra-Orthodox religious public, instigating the crisis of authority. Attention to publicity, circulation, and mediation thus accounts for competing processes of sharedness within the same religious community, amplifying opportunities for creating greater dialogue across and within religious and spiritual communities of many kinds.

The contributors’ focus on the material, embodied, and linguistic resources that participants marshal to co-construct a sense of joint purpose out of difference is equally useful for thinking through processes of social change, including within our own disciplinary frameworks and epistemologies. If the authors trace how spiritual and religious communities become legible to participants, we can easily imagine other times when those same material, embodied, and linguistic resources might be contested and debated, as some of the authors note in this special section. If we take Jewish studies as a scholarly community, we see that there are currently debates as to who and what ‘counts’ as being Jewish. For example, anthropologist Michal Kravel-Tovi (2016) analyzes the discourse of a North American Jewish social science that defines Jewishness through appeals to normative Jewish religious law. She shows that metaphors of dryness and wetness, through numeration and the emotional language of continuity, form a biopolitics that counts only some Jews as Jews, using a hegemonic definition of Jewishness that focuses on gendered Jewish bodies, reproduction, and matrilineality. The discursive metaphors of wetness and dryness undergird what has been labeled a ‘continuity crisis’ by some Jewish studies scholars, with all kinds of political and economic implications for funding, scholarship, and activism.

However, there are other Jewish studies scholars challenging the so-called continuity crisis, and they attend to different discursive and semiotic practices that yield a very different sense of Jewish sharedness (Berman et al. 2020). For example, religious studies scholar Rachel Gross (2021) argues that instead of counting gendered Jewish bodies and definitions of Jewish belonging defined by religious law, we might think about practices clustering around what she terms ‘Jewish nostalgia’. This would entail paying attention to the discursive and semiotic ways that many American Jews participate in Jewishness rather than using sociological categories that are politically shaped by scholars with their own investments and agendas. Gross asks what we learn about contemporary American Jewishness if instead of focusing on who prays in synagogues, who has a Jewish mother, or who keeps kosher, we shift the scholarly gaze to practices such as going to a Jewish museum, ordering from a Jewish deli, or exploring Jewish genealogy. The key is to query who is asking, who is answering, and ultimately whose understanding of religion, spirituality, and community counts and why. Directing attention to the co-construction of sharedness, to the social achievement of difference through discursive and semiotic practice, is an important provocation for scholarship that studies the constitution of religion or spirituality. Ultimately, this special section asks us to consider how our own investments as scholars may be reproduced by the analytical choices we make.

References

  • Berman, Lila Corwin, Kate Rosenblatt, and Ronit Y. Stahl. 2020. “Continuity Crisis: The History and Sexual Politics of an American Jewish Communal Project.” American Jewish History 104 (2–3): 167194.

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  • Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1992. “Think Practically and Look Locally: Language and Gender as Community-Based Practice.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 461490.

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    • Export Citation
  • Eisenlohr, Patrick. 2011. “Introduction: What Is a Medium? Theologies, Technologies and Aspirations.” Social Anthropology 19 (1): 15.

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  • Fader, Ayala. 2020. Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

  • Goodwin, Charles, and John Heritage. 1990. “Conversation Analysis.” Annual Review of Anthropology 19: 283307.

  • Gross, Rachel B. 2021. Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice. New York: New York University Press.

  • Haeri, Niloofar. 2020. Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Handman, Courtney. 2018. “The Language of Evangelism: Christian Cultures of Circulation beyond the Missionary Prologue.” Annual Review of Anthropology 47: 149165.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Keane, Webb. 2018. “On Semiotic Ideology.” Signs and Society 6 (1): 6487.

  • Kravel-Tovi, Michal. 2016. “Wet Numbers: The Language of Continuity Crisis and the Work of Care among the Organized American Jewish Community.” In Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Contemporary Jewish Life, ed. Michal Kravel-Toviand Deborah Dash Moore, 141164. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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    • Export Citation
  • Luhrmann, T. M. 2012. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Knopf.

  • Mittermaier, Amira. 2010. Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Newfield, Schneur Zalman. 2020. Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

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    • Export Citation
  • Pelkmans, Mathijs, ed. 2013. Ethnographies of Doubt: Faith and Uncertainty in Contemporary Societies. London: I.B. Tauris.

  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1986. “The Routine as Achievement.” Human Studies 9 (2–3): 111151.

  • Shankar, Shalini, and Jillian R. Cavanaugh. 2012. “Language Materiality in Global Capitalism.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 355369.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Warner, Michael. 2002. “Publics and Counterpublics.” Public Culture 14 (1): 4990.

Contributor Notes

AYALA FADER received her PhD in Anthropology from New York University and is currently Professor of Anthropology at Fordham University. She is the author of the award-winning book Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn (2009). The National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities supported her most recent book, Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age (2020). She is the co-founder of the Seminar on Jewish Orthodoxies at Fordham's Jewish Studies Program and was recently named a Fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research. E-mail: fader@fordham.edu

Religion and Society

Advances in Research

  • Berman, Lila Corwin, Kate Rosenblatt, and Ronit Y. Stahl. 2020. “Continuity Crisis: The History and Sexual Politics of an American Jewish Communal Project.” American Jewish History 104 (2–3): 167194.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1992. “Think Practically and Look Locally: Language and Gender as Community-Based Practice.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 461490.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Eisenlohr, Patrick. 2011. “Introduction: What Is a Medium? Theologies, Technologies and Aspirations.” Social Anthropology 19 (1): 15.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fader, Ayala. 2020. Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

  • Goodwin, Charles, and John Heritage. 1990. “Conversation Analysis.” Annual Review of Anthropology 19: 283307.

  • Gross, Rachel B. 2021. Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice. New York: New York University Press.

  • Haeri, Niloofar. 2020. Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Handman, Courtney. 2018. “The Language of Evangelism: Christian Cultures of Circulation beyond the Missionary Prologue.” Annual Review of Anthropology 47: 149165.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Keane, Webb. 2018. “On Semiotic Ideology.” Signs and Society 6 (1): 6487.

  • Kravel-Tovi, Michal. 2016. “Wet Numbers: The Language of Continuity Crisis and the Work of Care among the Organized American Jewish Community.” In Taking Stock: Cultures of Enumeration in Contemporary Jewish Life, ed. Michal Kravel-Toviand Deborah Dash Moore, 141164. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Luhrmann, T. M. 2012. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Knopf.

  • Mittermaier, Amira. 2010. Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Newfield, Schneur Zalman. 2020. Degrees of Separation: Identity Formation While Leaving Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pelkmans, Mathijs, ed. 2013. Ethnographies of Doubt: Faith and Uncertainty in Contemporary Societies. London: I.B. Tauris.

  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. 1986. “The Routine as Achievement.” Human Studies 9 (2–3): 111151.

  • Shankar, Shalini, and Jillian R. Cavanaugh. 2012. “Language Materiality in Global Capitalism.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 355369.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Warner, Michael. 2002. “Publics and Counterpublics.” Public Culture 14 (1): 4990.

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