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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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?

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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.