Judaism and Sociology

Jews today can look to sociology of religion in addressing some of the hard questions facing the Jewish world.

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Sociology of religion is the study of all aspects of religion--beliefs, practices, and organizational structures--using the tools of sociology. Sociologists of religion explore the relationship between religion and society, looking at both religion's effect on society and society's effect on religion.


Many of the founders of sociology of religion came to conclusions that challenge religious faith and, more particularly, the traditional Jewish belief system.

The First Sociologists

Founders of sociology of religion, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber, reacted to the economic and social upheavals of the late 19th and early 20th century, and particularly the effects of industrialization, by exploring the relationship between religion and capitalism. Their approach led them to critique the role of religion in maintaining the social order and to question the relevance of religion in an increasingly rational world.

Marx, most famously, believed that religion could only be understood in its economic and social context. He analyzed the role of religion in upholding oppressive capitalism, and argued that religion was the "opium of the people"; religion enables its followers to express and cope with social inequality, thus maintaining the status quo. According to Marx, religion is a symptom of the alienation that results from capitalism, and would therefore disappear in a classless society.

karl marx founder of sociologyDurkheim, a secular Jew, looked for the basic elements of religious life in all societies, while asserting that the form differs depending on time and place. He argued that religion unites society and upholds social order. People perceive a force greater than themselves--society--and then represent that force through religion.

Durkheim based his view of religion on his study of Australian aborigines, in which a totem represented the clan, the social structure of the aborigines. He argued that the relationship between the individual and the supernatural expressed the relationship between the individual and society.

Unlike Durkheim, who looked for the elements common to all religions, Weber looked at how each particular religion interacts with its unique social and economic context. He believed that religion shapes society, and particularly economics, rather than vice versa, as Marx believed.

Religion, according to Weber, was an important reason for the divergent development of the East and West. Most famously, in Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Capitalism, Weber argued that Protestantism, and particularly Calvinism, played a key role in shaping modern Western capitalism, by motivating its followers to pursue economic gain. He also researched Chinese and Indian religions, as well as ancient Judaism.

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.