The Quest for Jewish Assimilation in Modern Social Science

By Ash, Mitchell G. | Shofar, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Quest for Jewish Assimilation in Modern Social Science


Ash, Mitchell G., Shofar


The Quest for Jewish Assimilation in Modern Social Science, by Amos Morris-Reich. Routledge Studies in Social and Political Thought, Vol. 54. London: Roudedge, 2008. 193 pp. $95.00.

In this short but interestingly conceived volume, Amos Morris-Reich presents a systematic study of the role of the Jews and Jewish assimilation in the thought of Franz Boas and Georg Simmel. The two thinkers are of obvious interest, because both were of Jewish background but themselves assimilated into German-Jewish culture, albeit in different ways, and because their thinking was formative for social and cultural anthropology (Boas) and theoretical sociology (Simmel), respectively. The volume's clearly stated thesis is that the concept of the Jews and Jewish assimilation played a central role in the thinking of both authors, and therefore in the intellectual construction of modern social science. That this thesis is correct seems obvious; new are the comparative approach and the way Morris-Reich goes about his analysis.

Although Morris- Reich offers some biographical details, historical context takes second place here to a history of ideas approach. Here, the relevant linkages are to other thinkers (for example, to Kant, Moritz Lazarus, and Dilthey in the case of Simmel), more than to othet formative influences, such as the social context of academic scholarship. This emphasis is appropriate, ironically, even from a social historical viewpoint, because the milieu in which both thinkers learned what scholarship is encouraged precisely such philosophical groundings and intellectualized self-conceptions. As Morris-Reich notes, however, his authors paid a price for taking such an approach; in their work, "the Jews" constitute a conceptual entity related to, but not necessarily identical with, actual Jews; nor did either author actually engage in extensive empirical research on Jews.

In the first part of the book, Morris-Reich presents a carefully nuanced and illuminating analysis of Franz Boas's shift from physical to social and cultural anthropology (from "race" to "culture") after his move from Germany to the United States, and the impact of that shift on his thinking both about "race" and about "the Jews." Surprisingly, however, as Morris-Reich shows, Boas's representations of Jews did not actually result from his turn to society and culture, but "derived from the principles he developed for the study and representation of physical differences among populations" (p. 45). Geography was central among these principles; "the Jews" initially represented for Boas variations within an Oriental type," who assimilated easily into the surrounding populations. It was precisely on the basis of such thinking on this account, that Boas could later argue that the category of "race," understood as a fixed physical type, had no scientific standing; and it was on the basis ofthat claim, based in part on his views on "the Jews," that Boas became one of the leading anti-racist scholars in the United States from the 1920s through the 1940s. …

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