Judaism and Social Sciences

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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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