Durkheim and the Jews of France

Durkheim and the Jews of France

Durkheim and the Jews of France

Durkheim and the Jews of France

Synopsis

Ivan Strenski debunks the common notion that there is anything "essentially" Jewish in Durkheim's work. Seeking the Durkheim inside the real world of Jews in France rather than the imagined Jewishness inside Durkheim himself, Strenski adopts a Durkheimian approach to understanding Durkheim's thought. In so doing he shows for the first time that Durkheim's sociology (especially his sociology of religion) took form in relation to the Jewish intellectual life of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century France. Strenski begins each chapter by weighing particular claims (some anti-Semitic, some not) for the Jewishness of Durkheim's work. In each case Strenski overturns the claim while showing that it can nonetheless open up a fruitful inquiry into the relation of Durkheim to French Jewry. For example, Strenski shows that Durkheim's celebration of ritual had no innately Jewish source but derived crucially from work on Hinduism by the Jewish Indologist Sylvain Leacute;vi, whose influence on Durkheim and his followers has never before been acknowledged.

Excerpt

In these days of sensitivity to ethnic and religious roots, gender difference, and the like, we often want to link membership in a particular group to the way people think. Many attempts of this kind have, accordingly, been made to fix Émile Durkheim's thought in what amounts to an 'essential' Jewishness. By an 'essential' Jewishness, I mean the claim that Durkheim's thought is really a secularized form of Jewish thought, and necessarily so. Thus, Durkheim's affection for justice, and justice over charity, or his tolerance of other religions is supposed to point to his deep Jewishness. Durkheim's penchant for analysis is likewise felt to indicate an ineradicable and typically Talmudic sensibility; his aversion to miraculous brands of messianism shows him to be in his heart a modern Maimonides; his use of language indicates his continued employment of "the vocabulary of Jewish mysticism"; his dynamic direction of the équipe certifies his leadership as self-consciously 'prophetic' in the classic Jewish sense. His orientation to the social domain, to ritual, to symbolism, to religion itself likewise reveals the indelible marks of "his Jewish intellectual heritage." Thus, because Durkheim was born and raised a Jew, he remained 'essentially' and eternally Jewish in a significant sense; since Durkheim's thinking must have been Jewish from the start, it likewise forever continued to be Jewish, his own disaffiliation from things . . .

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