The first sociological experiment was done by a French Jew named Emile Durkheim. Durkheim wanted to prove that the one thing that everyone was SURE was psychological was in fact social, specifically suicide. Durkheim was SURE that it was in fact caused primarily by social surroundings and situations. In 1897 he published his study “la Suicide,” where he concluded that those most integrated in society were the least likely to kill themselves. He went into many different reasons and how they relate to different causes of suicide, but one concept always stuck out to me.
Between Protestants, Catholics and Jews, the Protestants had the highest suicide rate, then the Catholics and last the Jews. Why? Durkheim’s theory (simplified to a ridiculous degree, so please forgive me) was that those who had aggressive community involvement did not kill themselves, and of those three religions Jews had the most social and community based activities. Jews were the most involved in community therefore less likely to be suicidal. In a social theory class I once took, the professor explained it in even more simple terms. “Jews just have too much going on to have time to kill themselves.”
In the Jewish year there is always something going on. One is tethered to their community at every point in the life cycle. At birth, becoming a teenager, marriage, having a child of one’s own, dealing with the loss of a loved one, and involvement in other community members’ simchas are all community based events that to some extent require the participation of many other people in the community. The Jewish community always has something going on. If it’s not Shabbos, it’s Yom Tov. If it’s not Yom Tov, it’s a fast, if there are no fasts, there are weddings….no weddings, brises, on and on and on.
Then there are the certifiable holidays, that one would think should induce suicide rather than be a deterrent. One such Holiday in my book has just passed, Pesach. But that’s not what happens. We just stick together, trudge along, make life worth living day after day after day. And many of us take that for granted. Even in our largely assimilated society, Jews are generally very connected to their community. Today, though, I realized that American Jews are getting closer and closer to that isolated danger zone Durkheim talked about. I have seen this in my own family. My siblings and I are all very close at heart, but not in location or religious practice. However, recently our father passed away and we realized that we could no longer allow our locations to hinder our time together. My sister and I were talking today about how to make sure we all get together more often. I said that I would love everyone to come to me for Seder next year. “Thats a great idea!” my sister said, “That can be our thing! The thing we have been looking for, what we do every year together, we can all come to you for Seder!”
“That is a brilliant idea!” I said. Of course we should base our annual gathering around a holiday.
“Well it’s not like we are reinventing the wheel here, for thousands of years families have gotten together for Seders. We aren’t exactly making some brilliant discovery here,” my sister responded.
So maybe there is a bigger point to the insanity of the last week, maybe there is something that is deeper and stronger than what we see on a superficial level (lots of cleaning and shlepping). The strings that bind the Jewish tradition together are tight and strong and create a net that our friend Emile found while sifting through records and biographies of French depressed departed. In the statistics of 19th century France, he found something in our crazy traditions (and don’t tell me that at one point in the past month of cleaning and eating cardboard that you did not sit there and think, “We, as a people, are honestly, truly insane”) really make a web that keep us all individually together and going. They allow us to be safe, they have consistency but not redundancy (trust me, you never find the same thing behind the couch two years in a row), like a small child felling secure in a routine. It is hard not to see the hundreds of Shabbos chickens, or the countless Shavous cheese cakes, or the walks to shul in the rain as a security system as well as a safety blanket. There are many things in Torah we do without knowing why, there are many things we know why but do not understand, there are mysteries beyond us, but one that might have been uncovered by a social scientist during the industrial revolution might be a small vision into what is keeping us, as a people, from the brink of oblivion.