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The sociology of Jewry involves the application of sociological theory and method to the study of the Jewish people and the Jewish religion. Sociologists are concerned with the social patterns within Jewish groups and communities; American Jewry, Israeli Jews and Jewish life in the diaspora. Sociological studies of the Jewish religion include religious membership, ritual and denominational patterns. Notable journals include Jewish Social Studies, The Jewish Journal of Sociology and Contemporary Jewry.
Sociology of Jewry initially emerged in the United States in the 1930s beginning with the 1938 publication of Jewish Social Studies, sponsored by the Conference on Jewish Relations. The Journal's mission was "to promote, by means of scientific research, a better understanding of the position of Jews in the modern world." And the later publication of The Jewish Journal of Sociology in 1958 was due to the "few opportunities... for publishing academic and scientific studies of the sociology of Jews."
In 1955, sociologist Seymour Lipset noted that the discipline was underdeveloped, stating that there were far more "Jewish sociologists" than "sociologists of Jews". However, the subfield began to grow in the late 1960s and 1970s. A professional organization was formed, namely the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry (ASSJ). In 1975, a new academic journal was founded as well, Contemporary Jewry.
Contributing to this growth was the work of Marshall Sklare, now considered one of the founding figures in the sociology of Jewry. Marshall Sklare and Joseph Greenblum’s 1967 study of Jewish identity in “Lakeville” is considered one of the most notable works of its kind. The sociological study of intergroup relations and the theories proposed by Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan is also thought to have contributed to the growth of the sociology of Jewry.
The idea for the formation of a professional organization for scholars specializing in the sociology of Jewry first surfaced in 1966; the concept was discussed by Werner J. Cahnman and Norman L. Friedman at an American Sociological Association (ASA) conference. The association was informally launched by Norman Friedman and Bernard Lazerwitz in 1970; the event, titled "The Sociological Study of Jewry" took place at the ASA annual conference. Sociologists Solomon Poll, Mervin Verbit and Arnold Dashevsky submitted a motion to establish a formal group; the motion was voted upon and accepted. The new group, the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry (ASSJ or ASSSJ) was launched and formally met the following year. The group has since organized annual conferences, established the academic journal Contemporary Jewry, founded the ASSJ Newsletter and honors exceptional scholars in the field with the Marshall Sklare Award.
While the ASSJ and Contemporary Jewry are dominated by sociologists and sociological studies - all but one of the organization's presidents earned a doctorate in sociology, the other received a doctorate in psychology - the focus has not been restricted to sociology alone. Studies involving other social sciences and history are included as well, and professionals from those disciplines have joined as members, contributors and honorees.
According to sociologist Samuel Heilman, there are three major theoretical approaches in studying the sociology of American Jewry in particular:
While other theoretical approaches have been advanced they have not majorly impacted the discipline's research agenda.
Samuel Klausner, a former president of the ASSJ, noted that the sociology of Jewry is more an applied social science than a theoretical one. For Klausner, theories developed in sociology may help explain any society, not just a Jewish one. The contribution of the sociology of Jewry therefore is the application of the science, such as its methodology. Others, however, stress that the subfield is a part of general comparative sociology.
In 1946, Kurt H. Wolff, a student of Karl Mannheim, published “An Elementary Syllabus in the Sociology of the Jews” in Social Forces, a notable sociology journal. Wolff's aim was to provide an aid to including material on Jews in courses on race relations, social disorganization, minorities, and/or introductory sociology. Wolff's syllabus focused on three topics:
Later scholars have noted that Wolff's syllabus on the Sociology of Jewry sought to study external structures but ignored the internal dynamics of the Jewish community.
In 1992, Rabbi Jack Nusan Porter edited the first syllabus collection and curriculum guide on the Sociology of Jewry. The collection was published by the American Sociological Association (ASA). The collection included individual syllabi on the sociology of Jews from 34 colleges and universities. However, Porter found that many of the syllabi focused exclusively on Jewish life in America. And only 10 out of 34 syllabi were from sociology departments.
Paul Burstein of the University of Washington compiled an updated collection of syllabi on the sociology of Jewry. This collection was published by the American Sociological Association (ASA) in 2007. In his work, Burstein focuses on the following themes:
Burstein notes gaps in specific areas. For example, while Black-Jewish relations in the U.S. is covered in the syllabi, relations between Jews and other groups is not. Also, there are few areas covered outside of American and Israeli Jewry.