Since its inception at the end of the nineteenth century and its popularization in middle of the twentieth, social science has been an obsession of Americans, for better and for worse. The promise of a mirror is undoubtedly seductive, a portrait of prevailing norms can provide a sense of comfort, a “mainstream” remains a captivating political tool, and, of course, all of this offers a chance at self if not societal improvement. From Gallup to Pew, from Durkheim to Lofton, social science has helped describe the contours of our moments and, in some cases, even define them.
While social science has been popular with Jews for just as long as it has been with the “average” American, Orthodox Jews have a somewhat different relationship with the field. Social science became a tool for many Jews to render themselves intelligible to larger American culture. Orthodox Jews, in contrast, were more invested in promoting their specific missions as different, if not entirely counter-cultural. Samuel Belkin, the second president of Yeshiva University, made the useful distinction between a “transplanted” Judaism, which remains rooted to its pasts, and a “translated” Judaism, which is concerned with articulating itself in the present.
Of course, such rhetorical moves sometimes offer more gloss than clarity. At one time, the Conservative movement sought to affirm just such roots. Without a doubt, too, many sections of the Orthodox community have invested in communicating who they are and what they stand for to other Jews as well as non-Jews throughout American history.
The Orthodox Union’s venture into this field, with its establishment of a Center for Communal Research, represents an effort to better understand and to better serve the Jewish community. Though new, this endeavor also reaches deep into the past. It continues our commitment to the enduring and essential principle of communal service, upon which the Orthodox Union’s obligation to the Jewish people rests.