Tag Archives: Philosophy

Jew of the Week: Émile Durkheim

The Father of Sociology

Émile Durkheim

David Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was born in the French region of Lorraine to Orthodox Jewish parents. His father and grandfather were both rabbis, and Durkheim spent his early years in yeshiva intent on becoming a rabbi as well. Eventually, he decided to switch his career path and break out on his own. He went off to study psychology and philosophy. At 21, on his third application attempt, he was accepted to ENS, the most prestigious graduate school in Paris. Durkheim wanted to apply what he learned to explain society and social behaviour. At the time, however, there were no sociology studies anywhere in France. In 1885 he moved to Germany to work alongside some of the first sociologists. Two years later, Durkheim’s papers had become famous across Europe, and he was invited back to France to teach sociology at the University of Bourdeaux. Durkheim taught the first social science course in French history, and was also asked to reform France’s school curriculum. Over the next few years, Durkheim published a series of manifestos outlining exactly what social science is, and why it is important. He showed how the scientific method could be rigorously applied to this new field, and how it was distinct from related subjects. In 1895, he established the first university social science department, and in 1898 founded the first sociology academic journal. For these reasons, Durkheim is often called the “father of sociology”. His work is also credited with pioneering the field of criminology, and influencing psychology and philosophy as well. In 1902, Durkheim was appointed Chair of Education at the world-famous Sorbonne, and later became the only professor whose courses were mandatory for all students. Meanwhile, he served as advisor to France’s Minister of Education. Unfortunately, World War I had a devastating effect on Durkheim. Right-wing nationalists attacked him for not being “patriotic” enough, for being too liberal, and for being Jewish. Worse, many of his students were conscripted and died in the trenches. The final tragedy was the death of his own son. Durkheim fell terribly ill, and ultimately died from a stroke. Despite abandoning formal religion in his youth, he argued that religion is the most important social institution, and the key to a well-functioning “organic” society. He worried greatly about the rising trend of science and the “cult of the individual” taking the place of religion. Durkheim coined the popular term “collective consciousness” (among many others), and was the founder of the school of structural functionalism. Durkheim’s work has influenced countless thinkers, and still serves as the foundation of sociology today.

Words of the Week

Religion gave birth to all that is essential in the society.
– Émile Durkheim

Jew of the Week: Saadia Gaon

Depiction of the Sura Academy

Depiction of the Sura Academy

Sa’adiah ben Yosef (c. 882-942) was born in Fayum, Egypt. His family moved to Israel while he was still very young, and he began his Torah studies at the famous academy of Tiberias. By the time he was 20, he completed his first work, Agron, possibly the first official Hebrew dictionary. Sa’adiah went on to write over two dozen significant texts in both Hebrew and Arabic, including Emunot v’Deot, thought to be the first Jewish work that blended Jewish teachings with science and Greek philosophy. He also translated the entire Torah into Arabic, and wrote a deep commentary on top of it, together with many other books of the Bible. At the time, the vast majority of Jews in the world lived in Arabic lands, so this translation served a monumental role in helping spread Jewish learning. Sa’adiah also authored a number of legal treatises, and translated the mystical Sefer Yetzirah into Arabic, adding his own commentaries that weaved together both esoteric and scientific explanations. Sa’adiah is credited with being a key force in Judeo-Arabic culture, and inspiring a “renaissance” in Jewish-Arabic literature. Meanwhile, he played an instrumental role in defending traditional Judaism in the face of the rising Karaite sect, a cause he fought for until his last days (at times risking his life). For his great wisdom and tireless work on behalf of the Jewish community, Sa’adiah was appointed “Gaon” in 928. The title Gaon (literally “genius”) was given to the head of the Sura Academy, then the leading body of Jewish scholarship in the world. Sa’adiah Gaon died in Baghdad at the age of 60, having inspired a new generation of Torah scholars. Two hundred years later, the great Maimonides wrote: “Were it not for Rav Sa’adiah Gaon, the Torah would have almost disappeared from the Jewish people, for it was he who shed light on that which was obscure, strengthened that which had been weakened, and spread the Torah far and wide, by word of mouth and in writing.”

Words of the Week

The birds and many of the land animals forbidden [to eat] by the Torah are predators, while the permitted animals are not. We are commanded not to eat those animals possessive of a cruel nature, so that we should not absorb these qualities into ourselves.
– Nachmanides (the Ramban)