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.

Erich Fromm, another important psychoanalyst, received a traditional Jewish education in Germany. In You Shall Be as Gods (1966), Fromm applied his humanistic psychoanalytic viewpoint to a reading of the Bible and Jewish tradition. For example, Fromm invokes his notion of “incestuous ties”–relationships that bind us and impede our freedom–in interpreting the story of Abraham‘s journey from his father’s home in the book of Genesis.

In recent years, a specific Jewish branch of psychology has emerged. The best known figure in this camp is Rabbi Abraham Twerski, a psychiatrist who has published numerous books that merge traditional Torah teachings and popular psychology.

But the social sciences can conflict with traditional Judaism, as well.

Free will is essential to a religious system with commandments and a belief in reward and punishment. The Freudian notion of the unconscious, the contemporary focus on the physiological foundations of mood and behavior, and other notions of “psychological determinism,” challenge the degree to which humans act freely.

Peter Berger, a sociologist, has shown how religious rituals and systems establish and perpetuate certain ways of seeing the world. Like all realities, religious realities–and thus religious truths–are socially constructed. Berger’s ideas threaten the traditional belief that truth was divinely revealed. In traditional Judaism, rituals are not thought of as man-made ways of reaffirming a humanly constructed world, but rather actions mandated by God.

But sociology and anthropology also help us understand our communities better. Sociological and anthropological studies have been conducted on many subgroups of Jews, including women and the ultra-Orthodox. Some of this academic work has had influence beyond the Ivory Tower.

Steven M. Cohen‘s sociological research on American Jewry, its patterns of assimilation and intermarriage, has helped shape communal outreach and funding priorities. Cohen’s work may have started in the university, but it has affected the way Jewish philanthropies have distributed millions of dollars in the real world.

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