Friday, January 26, 2007

Emile Durkheim, the sociology of religion, and Sefer Shmos

I have been meaning to do a post on this for about three weeks, but have not had time to finish reading up on the topic to be completely coherent. Since I will be taking a break for a few days next week and the narrative in Sefer Shmos is rapidly coming to the point of the Exodus, here goes my incoherent rambling anyway. Thinking about Sefer Shmos got me interested in Emile Durkheim, considered the father of sociology, a field I never bothered with (trying to change that by working through Steven Lukes’ book) and know nothing about (knowing nothing never stopped me from writing before, so it won't now : ) I see a fundamental difference between the religious experience of Sefer Braishis, which primarily devotes itself to the individual - the personal relationship of Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, with G-d - and the religious experience reflected in Sefer Shmos. True, Moshe as an individual plays a key role, but the book is not about Moshe, but about the Jewish people as a nation, as a society, having a relationship with G-d. Durkheim is one of the first who defined religion as a social phenomenon - not just a means to worship G-d, but a force that reinforces the shared values of the social unit. Durkheim was not a believer himself, and thought that the totality of religion was no more than this collection of shared social values, but one need not go that far to accept the fundamental idea. The words “sociology of religion” that Durkhein used make no sense in the context of Sefer Braishis; the theme becomes relevant only from Sefer Shmos onward. Perhaps the focal point of mattan Torah only emerges in Sefer Shmos because it only makes sense in a social framework.

What Durkheim wrote a work called “Division of Labor in Society” in which he contrasts the unity created by mechanistic societies, where everyone does the same task and lives within the same social framework, e.g. a community of self-sustaining farmers, and the “organic unity” created by modern society where there is a division of labor with different people doing different jobs. I can’t help but wonder if this is also part of the undercurrent of Sefer Shmos – the solidarity of the Jewish people as a nomadic family in Sefer Braishis transformed to the solidarity of a simple mechanistic slave society, transformed yet again to the hope of an organic society in the Land of Israel. Durkheim further contrasts the nature of law in a mechanistic society, which serves to punish wrongdoing, with law in an organic society, where law exists to govern the relationships that exist between the different roles people take on. Coincidence or not that the transformation of the Jewish people out of the mechanistic slave role is accompanied by G-d’s revelation of a new set of laws?

I feel like a kid who has found a new set of toys for his (intellectual) sandbox, but I may be playing rough with fine ideas. Any sociologists out there who care to comment or point me in the direction of more reading?


  1. I think your point is 100% on target, and is even alluded to by the Ramban in the beginning of Shemot, as well as Seforno in his introduction to the Torah.

    A similar transition takes place after the mabul - society shifts from being an every-man-for-himself situation to an organized, cooperative (albeit idolatrous) model of civilization. Hence the introduction of the 7 mitsvot of Bnei Noach, and the story of the Migdal Bavel, which illustrates the potential dangers inherent in solidarity, i.e., group think and the rise of demagogues who manipulate the masses in line with their personal agendas.

  2. I had not considered migdal bavel in that light - makes a lot of sense!

  3. Great insight in the comment by Rabbi M.

  4. Anonymous10:15 PM

    tu bshvat?

  5. If you want to pursue this line of thinking further, it is noteworthy that there are several parallels between Noach and Moshe, many of which are highlighted by Hazal in Midrashim. Both Noach and Moshe are saved from the water in a "teva", both are isolated for forty days and forty nights, and both are "lawgivers" who establish covenants with Hashem based upon human responsibility to fulfill a corpus of commandments.

  6. yehuda R10:45 AM

    Rav Saadya Gaons well known saying of "We are a nation only because ot the Torah" seems to preclude understanding religion in a sciological manner.
    Although I'm completly not on the same wave length and will probally never meet a yid living in Morroco or Iran my identity and bond with him is a lot stronger and more eternal then then it is with my Irish catholic coworkers who I interact with daily.

  7. Anonymous3:02 PM

    Great site, I am bookmarking it!Keep it up!
    With the best regards!

  8. anonymous, see Rabbi Brown's dvar Torah on Tu B'Shvat on the homepage at

  9. Anonymous11:38 AM

    Emile Durkheim was Jewish and from a traditional family in French Alace Loraine.

    A Story I have heard orally, with no quality confirmation involves Durkheim' visit to his mother. While Durkheim was not himself particularly observant his mother persuaded him to go to shul with her. Once there, the Rabbi noted his presence during the sermon by saying something to the effect of "Some say religion does not matter to modern minds- but look! today we have the great modern sociologist, Emile Durkheim, and of course he attends shul.

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