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By Andrew Seligson,
July 22, 2015
If you type into Google Search “Why are Jews so _________”, the main response you get in the fill-in section is, “Why are Jews so smart?” Great question! So glad you asked. We are in fact an intelligent people. I can testify to this myself: I am smart.
In all seriousness, this is a very interesting question to address. While it’s never a good idea to generalize across a group of people, love of learning, ideas, debate, seem to be ingrained into the Jewish culture. Where does this ingraining come from? Surely, it’s not just from our nagging Jewish mothers and grandmothers: “When are you becoming a doctor?” “Congratulations, you got your Ph.D. Big deal. are you teaching at _______ yet?”
Ok. Seriously. Where does it all come from? To answer that fully, I’m going to take you on a brief trip through Jewish history.
The current leaders of the Jewish people are known as Rabbis. They are our spiritual and religious teachers. The thing is, that’s not always how it used to be. Rabbis have been around for about half, that is, two millennia, of Jewish history. The Rabbinic sect was essentially created after the destruction of the second temple and in the wake of the Bar-Kokhba rebellion, a war between the Jewish people and Rome that resulted in a complete decimation of the Jewish population. Judaism ceased to be a religion of space (centered around worship at the temple) and began to be a religion of the time. That is to say, hopes for a rebuilding of the temple and the classic hope for redemption were cast into an infinitely distant future.
In the meantime, Jewish leaders had to find a way to almost completely re-invent their belief system. Most of the Hebrew Bible centers around the notion of the temple and sacrifices and dutiful life occurring within the temple. How would Jewish leaders be able to keep everyone together and organized around central beliefs if there was no temple? The solution was completely innovative!
No longer, they argued, did the Jews need a temple. Instead, Jewish life was to be centered around learning in the synagogue and Yeshivas. If there was to be a radical re-interpretation of the Torah, then everyone must take place, the culture must be reorganized in light of this need for innovation. Thus, Jewish life began to be centered around learning and interpretation of Jewish texts (at least, for the literate who could engage in this activity). The Oral tradition centered around the temple tradition was crystallized into the Mishnah, and the interpretation of the Mishnah and the Torah was crystallized into the Talmud.
If you know anything about Talmud study, it’s all about the debate. There are no right answers. For every one single bible verse, there are pages and pages of arguments between the great Jewish thinkers about some of the most seemingly minute details. But to the Rabbis, this was a matter of completely renovating Jewish law and duty to fit these new circumstances. This tradition of oral re-interpretation and codification in the Talmud, the Tanakh, and various other Jewish texts lasted throughout the centuries of oppression until the present day. I won’t go too far into that side of it, as it’s a very long story.
Now, although many American Jewish people are relatively assimilated into mainstream culture, we retain the sense that being learned is a sign of Jewish integrity and morality, of being able to contribute to society through intellectual labor. So that’s a very short and very simplified version of how Jews like me became so smart. I’m sure if this was a paper for a Jewish history course I’d get a B- or something from one of my Ph.D. Jewish professors.