on teaching durkheim at the high holidays

Many Septembers I find myself teaching Durkheim right around the Jewish high holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). I’ve often felt a degree of connection between the two: the juxtaposition between ritual and scholarship that characterizes the high holiday services, the emphasis on separating the holy from the ordinary, the sacred from the profane. My point in this post is not to establish that Durkheim’s work is in some way essentially Jewish, but to highlight this affinity. I also want to emphasize that I am no expert in Judaism; these are impressions I’ve noticed.

I’ve been privileged to learn Durkheim from several great teachers, but my approach has probably been most influenced by Karen Fields, whose excellent translation of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life came out as I began graduate school. Her magnificent introduction to the translation is great for explaining the contours of the argument itself and for opening avenues for applying it to the contemporary world. There’s a sentence in her introduction, though, that I have found puzzling each time I’ve read it: “I found little confirmation for my own sense that Durkheim’s religious background mattered in what he said and wrote” (xxxi). In her imagined dialogue between Durkheim and du Bois, she implies that Durkheim’s familial Judaism expressed itself mainly as ethnicity, as in his horror at the Dreyfus Affair. This is the source of a commonality she attributes to Durkheim and du Bois:

Durkheim’s general question is this: How is it that humans come to hold on to beliefs about cosmic nature that cannot possibly be true and that, besides, cosmic nature unceasingly contradicts? He finds the answer in their social being, which is also the source of the most fundamental human capacity: reason itself. Australia’s totemic clans, Durkheim argues, permit study of that social being, and reason itself, in “elementary form” — elementary meaning basic and, in consequence, universal, not meaning inferior or a peculiarity of designated peoples. But that answer raises another question of equivalent import. How it is that humans come to embrace beliefs about themselves that cannot possibly be true and that, besides, their human nature contradicts? In that second inquiry, fundamental to the first, Durkheim studies the collective alchemy by which reason converts bald-faced inventions into external
and constraining facts of nature, capable of resisting individual doubt.

In the ways the High Holidays are marked, even in the ways we demarcate the weekly Shabbat, I find a real affinity with Durkheim’s insights into the sociality of religion and the religiousness of society. (This is particularly highlighted for me this year, as my elder son became a bar mitzvah last month, an experience my whole family found far more meaningful than I would have guessed just a few years ago.)

Let me start with the Havdallah, the prayer that marks the end of Shabbat:

We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe: You distinguish the commonplace from the holy; You create light and darkness, Israel and the nations, the seventh day of rest and the six days of labor. We praise You, O God: You call us to distinguish the commonplace from the holy.

The connection here ought to be clear: the very core of Shabbat is in its separation, its differentness, from the ordinary.

The meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on Shabbat we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world. (Mishkan T’Filah 329)

Similarly, in the Shabbat evening service (MT 148):

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who speaks the evening into being, skillfully opens the gates, thoughtfully alters the time and changes the seasons, and arranges the stars in their heavenly courses according to plan. You are Creator of day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light, transforming day into night and distinguishing one from the other. Adonai Tz’vaot is Your Name. Ever-living God, may You reign continually over us into eternity. Blessed are You, Adonai, who brings on evening.

And: (MT 163)

 We are a people in whom the past endures, in whom the present is inconceivable without moments gone by. The Exodus lasted a moment, a moment enduring forever. What happened once upon a time happens all the time.

Compare that with:

 …what if one tried to imagine what the notion of time would be in the absence of the methods we use to divide, measure, and express it with objective signs, a time that was not a succession of years, months, weeks, days, and hours?… We can conceive of time only if we differentiate between moments…. A calendar expresses the rhythm of collective activity while ensuring that regularity…. Space would not be itself if, like time, it was not divided and differentiated…. (Formes 9-10)

In the T’Filah (MT 344) (Adonai, open up my lips that my mouth may declare your praise) – there is a sense that the holy and the everyday work together; the sacred, Adonai, allows the profane (me) to open up my mouth, allowing for the profane to participate once again in the sacred! This back-and-forth is right at home for Durkheim, for whom at once the social is religious and religion eminently social.

It would be a misunderstanding to conceive the body as a kind of lodging in which the soul resides but with which it has only external relations. Quite the contrary, it is bound to the body with the closest off ties; indeed, it can be separated from the body only with difficulty, and incompletely…. Just as there is something of the body in the soul, … so there is something of the soul in the body. (Formes 245)

In each of these cases, the Jewish liturgy emphasizes the work that is done to distinguish – to make human life different from animal specifically by creating categories, contrasts, differences. The dialectic, too, between human activity (“declare your praise”) and divine will (“open my lips”) invokes a kind of god-society imbrication, though not equation.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

One thought on “on teaching durkheim at the high holidays”

  1. Fun read about boundary-making!

    but religious holidays (and social gatherings they entail) are different from scripture per se–and provide liminal spaces that enhance collective empowerment to act on identity-based beliefs (e.g. http://asq.sagepub.com/content/57/4/625.short
    shameless plug, sorry :P )

    Big Durkheim fan here, but the bridge from scripture to holidays is best made by Victor Turner’s work on liminal spaces (and also Bakhtin to some extent)


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