Interview with Prof. Samuel Heilman

Whenever there is a story about Orthodoxy in the newspapers, we have grown accustomed to the article including a quote or two from Prof. Samuel Heilman giving his viewpoint on the event. For many readers, his understanding or evaluation of Orthodoxy has become the lens into Orthodoxy. Yet within the community, many do not agree with his assessments -to put it mildly.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, under the direction of Erving Goffman. He became the first full time sociologist of Orthodoxy. Here is his website.


First, a little background. The father of American Jewish sociology was Marshall Sklare whose studies on Jews in suburbia defined a generation . Sklare documented the 1950’s concern of Jewish identity despite the lack of Jewish religious observance.. Sklare’s most relevant book for this discussion was his 1955 classic, Conservative Judaism: an American Religious Movement. In the book Sklare described Orthodox Judaism in America as a “case study in institutional decay.”  Orthodoxy was associated in most people’s minds with the teaming masses of non-American immigrants who were mostly poor and illiterate. Sklare devote a section to the large number of unobservant Orthodox.

Sklare focuses on the acculturation of Jews based on place of settlement and considered synagogue an ethnic church acculturation. Decades ago, the sociologist Nathan Glatzer commented about Sklare “And this gives rise to sociology’s special weakness—what to do about ideas, what to do about what people think they believe?” This remains the question for many believers when they read sociology.

The first serious sociology work on Orthodoxy was the 1965 essay by  Charles Liebman, Orthodoxy in American Life which showed that Orthodoxy was still alive. Liebman used the sociological distinction between a Church attitude, which fosters a broad leeway of practices of beliefs, as opposed to the sectarian approach, which prescribes consistency and isolation. For Liebman, modern Orthodoxy of the post-WWII era, was a Church form of religion; Ultra-Orthodoxy was inward focused as a sect. As a sociologist, he was weak in religious ideology and openly thought it counted little.

Both Sklare and Leibman followed Seymour Martin Lipset who set our American approach of surveys and predictions for political races and both followed the Chicago school of sociology that focused on urban acculturation. The Chicago school followed Mead, who coined the term “symbolic interactionism” to describe how people act toward things based on social interaction and then modified through interpretation

Prof. Samuel Heilman adds to this an anthropological element based on the work of Erving Goffman, who in 1959 published The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman  also uses symbolic interactionism but also introduced the theory of dramaturgical analysis which asserts that all individuals aim to create a specific impression of themselves in the minds of other people Goffman holds that when an individual comes in contact with another person, he attempts to control or guide the impression that the other person will form of him, by altering his own setting, appearance and manner. At the same time, the person that the individual is interacting with attempts to form an impression of, and obtain information about, the individual.

Prof. Heilman’s first book  Synagogue Life: A Study in Symbolic Interaction (1976) portrayed the noisy social camaraderie. at the core of an Orthodox synagogue. The book consciously avoids ideology and texts study and is not social history. Many confuse sociology with social history, if one wants the later then people had to wait 25 years until  Etan Diamond’s 2000 book. Already in his early work, Heilman assumes that combining modernity and Orthodoxy is a hybrid and the approach leads its members to compartmentalize the two halves. It definitely described correctly the modern Orthodox synagogue of the 1960’s and 1970’s, but it did not describe the swirl of debates about synthesis by those who taught at YU or in the pages of Tradition.  In the book, Torah study is done for social interaction, not for cognitive or lumdanut reasons. Here is Heilman’s fine article Constructing Orthodoxy (1981), which shows how a sociologist looks at reinterpretation, synthesis, transformation and ignoring of data by the community.

A very clean example of Heilman’s sociology is “The Importance of Residence” (2002). He shows that whereas most of American Jewry  is weakening its ties to residence, Orthodoxy in contrast is creating strong ties to neighborhoods. However, the article is about residence patterns not the social media gossip and hock about different neighborhoods.

Samuel Heilman and Steven M. Cohen wrote a very good book Cosmopolitans and Parochials: Modern Orthodox Jews in America (1989) about Modern Orthodox congregations, of which an except is available as “Ritual Variation among Modern Orthodox Jews in the United States” (1986). The article shows that “Ritual practices which inhibit integration and are perceived to be of low religious / symbolic importance” are more likely to be neglected. In short, that ordinary people will skip minor fasts or be lax in observance. Torah uMadda types were up in arms questioning the choice of congregations and the method involved, and instead limited Modern Orthodoxy to a strictly observant heroic philosophic Modern Orthodoxy that excludes actual demographics. However, sociology and ideology are not the same thing.

Sliding to the Right:The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy (2006), however, was too broad in considering YU, Centrism and even older views of Rav Soloveitchik as sliding Haredi, a unified fundamentalist mindset spanning from YU to Williiamsburg, The book was influenced by the mid-1990’s Fundamentalism project (see below in interview). It did not see the stronger religion of Centrism as its own unique entity that does not slide to Belz or Satmar.  It was also problematic in still using a 1970 criteria by seeing college as a sign of Modern Orthodoxy when what I term “Engaged Yeshivish” had rates of college not much lower than Modern Orthodox neighborhoods. A Lakewood graduate who goes to law school does not become old-time modern. The frame analysis was cast too broadly.  (Personally, I view much of the recent changes using insights drawn from the study of Evangelicals who live modern Evangelical lives).

Finally, Heilman’s recent continuing work done together with Menachem Friedman on Chabad in The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson is about self-presentation and social interactions. It discussed the life of the Rebbe and the sociology of shlichus. It did not provide what people wanted in terms of engagement with ideas and ideology, or the insider baseball, or the broader social history. The recent Chabad sponsored hagiography with footnotes, as if to show the account is factual or even possible, is clearly rejected by the book.  Speculation on minor details in the book, especially of the Rebbe’s early life, does take away from the book. It leaves the Chabad critics ample room to dismiss the book by arguing about the smaller points. Once again, the goal was not theology or even a biography based on publications and speeches. In addition, the reception of his recent books is deeply connected to the  tone of his op-eds, responses to critics, and social media comments.

These interviews resulted from the Oxford Summer Institute for Modern and Contemporary Judaism, convened by Dr. Miri Freud-Kandel of Oxford and Prof. Adam Ferziger of Bar-Ilan.

1)     What is your sociological method?

I do not use a single methodology.  When I work as a social anthropologist and ethnographer, I tend to favor participant-observation: learning by watching while doing, a method I learned from my teachers, the late Erving Goffman and Renee Fox, both of whom largely taught me while I was at the University of Pennsylvania how to turn myself into an instrument, a kind of living camera.  This is better than simple observation and recording for it allows one also to share in the subjective experience of the people I am learning about, and it often enables me to ask more informed questions or notice things I would otherwise miss.  To be sure there are limits on any researcher’s participation but because I am a Jew and to some extent Orthodox and many of those I have been studying share some of that culture, I bring a degree of cultural competence and insider’s understanding – verstehen, as Max Weber called it – to my task that other researchers might not.

I have written about this process in a paper and later turned it into an afterword in the second edition of my Synagogue Life, in which I explore the role of native-as-stranger (the insider or partial insider looking at the world reflexively) in contrast to the more common social anthropological approach of stranger-as-native.  I argue that it is easier to learn the disciplines of social science than to become a cultural insider and therefore the idea of a Jew studying other Jews (and an Orthodox one among other Orthodox) might offer more or at least different insights  than a New Yorker studying the people of Samoa (as for example Margaret Mead did).  Still, I realize there are limits to participation as well as to reflexivity and therefore I write copious field notes, inscribe my understanding of what I observe and participate in and then –constantly re-read my account of what I have seen and look for patterns, juxtapositions, themes, etc.  Often I realize much later the significance and full character of what I earlier witnessed.

My teachers Goffman and Fox, who were largely ignorant of their Jewish heritage and did not know a lot about Jews, taught me all this; I contributed the Jewish cultural understanding.  Their questions about some basic Jewish things I examined taught me to always try to decipher and articulate what I took for granted and to look at the familiar in a new way.  In that sense their lack of knowledge about the Jews I studied was precisely what forced me to look more deeply and I have done that ever since, imagining I am still explaining things to them and people like them.

I note as many details as I can – for these are not trifles.  In the process, I learn about myself as well as the people I observe. I try to suspend my own values – put them on the shelf – in order to see things from the perspective of the people I am among.  It is all a complex business, and it takes time, lots of time.  I also consult with others, interview, use archival materials, press reports (where available), and examine material artifacts, use recordings, photos.  But as I have pointed out elsewhere, I agree with the late Clifford Geertz, understanding a culture is more like reading a poem, with ellipses, and often undefined words than it is like reading a set of instructions.

When I do other sorts of sociology, I may use surveys (as I did for my books Cosmopolitans and Parochials as well as Portrait of American Jewry), interpret demographic materials, read press reports, and do more classic social science.  Then the job is turning this sort of material into a narrative that is comprehensible to a broad audience but still informed by hard data.  I may do secondary analysis of the work of others, informed by history and guided by new perspectives.

2)     What is the difference between sociology and the amateur shul or blog schmoozing?  

The difference between sociology and shul schmoozing I suppose is the difference between composing music and whistling a tune.  Both are musical efforts but one is structured, practiced, informed by a discipline and modeled on other work, while the whistler just repeats something heard, and often only in the most simple way. To whistle the tunes of Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony is not to play it as written, though there is some similarity.  To be sure, Dvorak built the symphony around folk tunes that people sung or whistled (and maybe that’s why it is much loved) but he added complexity and saw connections between such tunes and the symphonic form.   A good composer can make the complex seem simple and effortless, but anyone who looks at the score and understands what went into it knows how much work it was.

In that way, I can take shul anecdotes and behavior (and did in my Synagogue Life) or the conduct of shul lernen (as I did in The People of the Book or The Gate Behind the Wall) and contextualize and interpret these behaviors in order to see and explain how they fit together and what they say about people that they themselves may not realize (as the whistlers of the folk tunes may not have seen the symphonic possibilities that Dvorak did) and build a narrative structure and explanatory framework.  But in the end,as Dvorak and I both hope, people can appreciate and learn from what we have done without seeing the hard and complex work that went into making it.  So what I write may seem simple to insiders (and often it is) but there’s a complex scaffolding that holds it all together and frames it so that I am often making the strange familiar for outsiders and the familiar strange for insiders. Making the difficult look easy is the art I try to practice.

Many of the native “Samoans” I study believe that they alone understand best the entire meaning of their behavior.  Moreover, as Orthodoxy has flirted with fundamentalism and its insistence on seeing things in black and white rather than more nuanced ways, it often assumes that you have to be one to know one, and that one is either ‘with us or against us.’  That makes the kind of work I do very hard to explain to contemporary Orthodox Jews of all stripes.   Again and again I am asked to ‘prove’ my orthodoxy or simply defined as ‘anti-Orthodox,’ usually by the more fundamentalist elements who believe that regardless of who I am and how I do my work, I must be either for or against them.  Or, as an article about me in a haredi magazine was entitled, “Professor Samuel Heilman, the Man who Loves to Hate Us.”  In these criticisms, the line between studying and boosting Orthodoxy seems to be lost.

3)     Have you integrated any of the new methods in your work?

Anyone who has read my work can see a development and change over time.  My Defenders of the Faith, which adapted the work of Levi-Strauss in his Triste Tropiques to my own travels into the heart of haredi ‘darkness’  is certainly a huge change from the way I organized my first book around the work of Clifford Geertz and his Interpretations of Culture.  My work in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences project on fundamentalism, which included a number of scholars of other religions, was a group effort to find ‘family resemblances’ among different religious fundamentalisms clearly informed my Sliding to the Right.  My work on death in When a Jew Dies and Death, Bereavement and Mourning, drew on a broad and developing literature of death studies and anthropological views of death applying these to Jewish custom and practice as well as my own experiences as a bereaved son.  That book that blended autobiography with social anthropology was extremely innovative – maybe that’s why it won a National Jewish Book Award.

4) Do you still use the concept of Fundamentalism that drove the 1990’s Fundamentalist project?

Anyone who has read my work in the Fundamentalist Project knows that I spent much time explaining how that term did not really perfectly characterize the Jews about whom I was writing.  But their behavior and beliefs did display ‘family resemblances” with those who have been characterized by this term.  They all responded to rapid change and uncertainty by fighting against that change, which they see as history having gone awry and see themselves as trying to put history right again.

They all argue modern society and culture, particularly secular and modern Western culture, are corrupting and have failed to deliver on their grand promises of a better life. They all reject the modern west’s assertion of its supremacy and see Western influence as an ingested toxin. They all tend toward a Manichean or dualistic stance, asserting there are good and bad ways to live. You are with us or against us. If you are with us, we share a real solidarity and if not, we are ready to fight against you.

They argue in favor of absolute truths, often drawn from what they view as a sacred and inerrant text, and seek to impose these on the public square: everyone must do it our way. They are often apocalyptic or messianic, seeing an end to history whose character they claim to know and which they believe will favor them.  They tend to be intolerant and anti-pluralist, commonly anti-democratic. Our way and truth must be everyone’s truth and way. They generally reject the supremacy of personal autonomy and rationality in favor of received authority. They tend to subordinate women to men, and engage in selective retrieval from the tradition according with their ideological and political needs of the culture war against adversaries.   Call it fundamentalism or something else, these are common elements and characteristics of some of those on the religious right whom I have studied and written about.

5) Why are you singled out with being anti-frum and out to attack Orthodoxy more than other scholars of Orthodoxy?

I think I am singled out because many in the media turn to me and I tend to be quoted more often.  I also may be more outspoken in having written editorials than some of the other scholars. Generally, however, the criticism comes from those who are fundamentalist-like for whom the world is Manichean.

Although those who know me realize that I am quite observant personally it is easier for those who don’t to simply mark me as one who is the enemy.  It is too complicated for those in the fundamentalist world to see that someone can be personally religiously observant but still view one’s world reflexively and even critically.  The native-as-stranger approach necessarily means that in some sense one does become estranged from one’s native habitat, one has stopped completely ‘going native’.  Yet to my critics, they assume wrongly that estrangement and a critical distance means hatred and opposition.

This is the same attitude taken by those who opposed the people and questioned the patriotism of those who protested war or the lack of civil rights for all in the American 1960s or those who question policies of the political right wing in Israel today.  They are called names, defined as anti-patriotic and enemies. Of course they are not.

6)     How do you respond to the criticism of Marvin Schick of your book Slide to the Right?

Marvin Schick admitted he never read the book before he criticized it.  Marvin Schick is impossible to explain.  I think he is trapped in Manichean thinking.  I have told him this.  But mostly I see him in shul in Jerusalem at the daily minyan where we daven next to each other, and in spite of the way I gathered information for my Synagogue Life, I don’t like to talk in shul or during the davenen .

7) Why do Chabad followers get so upset about your book on the Rebbe? How do you respond to their critiques?

In writing The Rebbe, my co-author Menachem Friedman and I tried to take a man whose followers had turned him into a false messiah and turn him back into a real human being.  We did not write a hagiography or a book that cited the ‘miracles’ that many of his followers attribute to him.  We tried to show how he changed his life and orientation and in the process rebuilt Chabad into an outreach machine, in the process radically reforming it.  The Hasidim believe their Rebbe is special and was always destined to be a Rebbe.

We see him as someone who remade himself and turned what was once a very cerebral, even Litvish, Hasidism into a movement which has dumbed down its message in order to be the form of Judaism-lite that all Jews can practice, to make Judaism all about joy and goodness, and easy.  I think they don’t like that insight.

But people who have actually read our book (and unfortunately most Chabadnik’s have not) come away with a very positive view of the Rebbe and Lubavitchers.  They are impressed that a man who lead a relatively small sect and was for at least twenty-five years in many ways peripheral to Hasidic life and concerned during the first half of his life with his own career and sought privacy could reinvent himself and his movement in such a way that even people who know nothing about Hasidism or Orthodoxy have heard of him and Chabad. And those who follow him are slowly but steadily seeking to become the inheritors of Judaism and its definitive protectors.

Our readers think we have demystified the Rebbe and his movement (and I think that’s why the book won a National Jewish Book Award). To the Manicheans, however, one either praises him or damns him. Since our book is not a paean of praise, they believe it must be a book of falsehood and calumny.  It isn’t.  I value Chabad; the shluchim do wondrous things out of a sense of mission.  But they are real people and their Rebbe was too.  For those who think he was Messiah, such a conclusion is heresy.

8)  What role does the Holocaust play in your thinking about contemporary Jewish life?

I am the only child of two Holocaust survivors.  My parents never ceased to talk about their experiences, and it shaped them and me.  I am a survivor of survivors, and feel it every day of my life.  My parents were Schindler Jews, but they – and especially my mother – had reservations about Schindler.  God saved them, she said, not Schindler.  But of course that raises the question of who was responsible for the evil.  Still if my parents’ religious faith survived the Holocaust, my own would have to survive the post-Holocaust.  As a child of survivors, I tend to expect catastrophe and also feel a personal responsibility for Jewish continuity.  I expect that is part of the reason I have focused on understanding Jews.  It has also made it important for me to be a Zionist and live as much as possible in Israel.  But the Holocaust is still too fresh for me to fully understand how it has influenced me.  I can say that my four sons, two of whom live in Israel and have served in the Israeli army and wife think it is built into the fabric of who I am. But you’d do better asking them how it has affected me.

9)  What is most important for the future of Jewish identity?

Jewish identity is dependent on Jews being among, living with, and sharing the destiny of Jewish people.  Those who don’t share this existential neighborhood and consciousness do not play a significant role in Jewish identity.  So the most important thing is creating and enlarging the Jewish street, the Jewish community.  I see that as the essential contribution of Israel and other smaller Jewish communities and it is why I believe the future of Jewry will be mostly written there not in the wider Diaspora.

That is not to say I believe the Diaspora has nothing to offer.  Indeed, the real contribution of Diaspora life is its ability to allow Jews to borrow and adapt elements in their host cultures for Jewish use.  That is where non-insular and contrapuntist modern Jewish life (from the Reform and Reconstructionist to the modern Orthodox) has a contribution to make.  Still as a minority, all Jewish culture and identity will always be a hybrid.  Even in Israel, that great concentration of Jewish life, kibbutz galuyot, the outside world seeps in and affects Jewish identity.  Jews, however, who live surrounded only by non-Jews will not adapt their surroundings into Jewish identity; they will inevitably assimilate.

10)  As a sociologist, you look at community and practice, not texts and theology. Can they be separated in the case of Orthodoxy?

Most Orthodox Jews have never really figured out their theology.  In all events, as a social anthropologist, I look at what people do and infer their beliefs from what they do.  I claim no particular expertise about the texts or the theology.  From what I’ve read, for example, the theology of Maimonides as expressed in the Guide for the Perplexed seems pretty far from the religiously right wing Orthodoxy I’ve observed, except for his creationism.  In any case, I am a believer in the Talmudic dictum, “puk hazi” Go out and see what the people are doing.  It’s too bad most of the rabbis don’t do that.  They could use a little more sociology to add to their textual knowledge.

4 responses to “Interview with Prof. Samuel Heilman

  1. Be sure to read the rules for comments. And please try and read Leibman and the three Heilman essays before commenting. Attacks without real content or data will not be posted. Just saying “you dont hold of it because someone posted something” is not content.

  2. Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:
    An interesting interview and a very thorough introduction to the sociology of American Judaism going back to Marshall Sklare.

  3. Most Orthodox Jews have never really figured out their theology. In all events, as a social anthropologist, I look at what people do and infer their beliefs from what they do.

    Would he therefore also disagree with the self avowed non belief of the Social Orthodox, and deduce beliefs from their actions?

  4. “Anyone who has read my work in the Fundamentalist Project knows that I spent much time explaining how that term did not really perfectly characterize the Jews about whom I was writing.”

    So why does he keep using that term for Jews who happen to have a more rightist outlook than Dr. Heilman?

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