Judaism and Social Sciences

In 1974, John Murray Cuddihy published The Ordeal of Civility, a study of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Claude Levi-Strauss, three secular Jews who founded disciplines that shaped new, modern ways of thinking. 

What do Marxism, psychoanalysis, and structural anthropology have in common? According to Cuddihy, they each posit a human psyche that has something “uncivil” about it (Freud’s id, for example). By putting forth these theories Marx, Freud, and Levi-Strauss were, in a sense, apologizing for the “uncivil” characteristics that Jews were thought to have.

Cuddihy’s theory is by no means straightforward, but whether you find it convincing or not, it highlights the role Jews played in the formation of the social sciences.

Indeed, most of the psychologists associated with psychoanalysis and the gestalt school were Jews. Emile Durkheim, considered a founder of both sociology and anthropology, was a descendant of four generations of rabbis. Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology, was a German Jew, and the majority of his students were Jewish.

The question, of course, is: So what? Was the Jewishness of these characters significant or merely coincidental?

Cuddihy certainly believed it was significant, and others have, too. Some have suggested that Jews got involved in psychology because, culturally, they were used to solving problems verbally and had a tradition of seeking help from rabbis who served as proto-therapists. Others have tried to isolate mystical themes in psychoanalysis. Franz Boas’ anthropological research debunked theories of race, which presumed that some groups–including Southern Europeans, African Americans, and Jews–were racially inferior. Boas’ Jewishness, undoubtedly, played a role in this influential work.

Most of these early Jewish social scientists were affirmatively secular, but Boas and his students did research Jewish subjects. While Freud generally distanced himself from Judaism, in 1939, he published Moses and Monotheism, in which he presented a psychoanalytic reading of biblical history. According to Freud, Moses was actually an Egyptian who was murdered by his followers because he advocated monotheism too vigorously. According to Freud, guilt for this crime has lingered as a motivating force in the Jewish consciousness.

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