Judaism and Sociology

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

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.

Durkheim, 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.

Weber saw ancient Judaism as the source of Christianity, which in turn shaped the Western world. According to Weber, the prophets in the Hebrew Bible taught that people should live their lives according to divinely mandated moral, rational law, and this emphasis shaped Western consciousness. Weber also discussed secularization, the possibility that religion someday may no longer play a key role in society as it does today.

Marx, Durkheim, and Weber argued that religion can be explained in social terms; we do not need to look to the supernatural as the source of religion’s power. By reducing religion to its social function, they opened up the possibility that religion is replaceable and may one day become obsolete.

Marx and Durkheim also raised questions for anyone who believes in a particular religion, by pointing out the common elements in all religion. Weber, by focusing on the unique aspects of each religion, did not pose as much of a threat to traditional religious faith in this aspect.

New Directions

Today, sociology of religion has developed in new directions that pose new questions for the Jewish tradition. As more and more people embrace fundamentalisms of various kinds, and religion plays an increasingly apparent role in world politics, sociologists no longer predict secularization. Instead, they strive to understand the role of religion in a world of increasing globalization.

For Peter Berger, reality is socially constructed and the “reality” of religious communities is no different. This approach to religion–like that of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber–contradicts traditional understandings of religious truth and would be problematic for all “orthodox” forms of religion, including Judaism.

Berger, one of the most prominent sociologists of religion, also explores how religious individuals and organizational structures respond to a world where religion is no longer a given, and people choose between numerous religious and secular options.

Similarly, sociologists who focus on American Jewry explore how American Jewish communities respond to the challenges of maintaining a religious identity in the United States today, where Jews can choose between many options both within and outside the Jewish world. While some communities choose to isolate themselves, others choose to accommodate the secular world.

Samuel Heilman, a leading sociologist of American Jewish life, discusses how the ultra-Orthodox and modern Orthodox American Jewish communities provide different models of approaching the modern secular world; the ultra-Orthodox more isolationist, the modern Orthodox more accommodating.

Lynn Davidman also explores the differences between these communities, focusing on women’s roles in these communities and particularly secular women who choose to join these communities. In a world where so many options are available to them, she asks, why do secular women choose to enter the often male dominated world of Orthodox Judaism?

Sociologists who look at Conservative Judaism, similarly, explore why individuals choose Conservative Judaism among the many options available to them. In the recent volume, Jews in the Center: Conservative Synagogues and Their Members, edited by Jack Wertheimer, sociologists look at why the largest number of synagogue affiliated American Jews join Conservative synagogues. How does Conservative Judaism negotiate the balance between maintaining tradition while accommodating the secular world? 

In Israel

While the sociology of American Jewry continues to develop, sociology of Israeli Jewry is much more limited. Sociologists of religion in Israel tend to be either foreign born or Orthodox, and they often do not make use of concepts and frameworks from the wider field of sociology of religion.

Ezra Kopelowitz and Yael Israel, two Israeli sociologists, explain that sociology of religion mostly looks at religion as part of the private sphere, inquiring into the ways individuals make religious choices in their everyday lives. The concepts of sociology of religion, they argue, are less helpful in Israel, where religion is so tied up with the public sphere. Sociology of religion in Israel needs to develop new concepts and frameworks to address the unique challenges facing the Jewish religion in the Jewish state.

As sociology of religion continues to develop, it can provide helpful insights into the different options Jews face today. Sociology of religion can help Jews explore the implications of increasing isolation or increasing openness to the secular world.  

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