Why are Jews so Smart?
By Arthur Rosen
First of all let us admit that there are some pretty stupid and dumb Jews. Just because some one is Jewish does not insure that they will possess some sort of mental power or intellectual abilities above that of the average. I have unfortunately met many of below average mentality in Jews.
But when looking as a group on the average, Jews seem to be able to succeed quite beyond their small number to become successful achievers in all aspects of business and are found amongst the more successful students in many universities. What is it that makes Jews smarter to the point that they are so well represented in all forms of successes beyond proportion to their number?
There are several theories to which we will list first here and then go into each. The first is that smartness is hereditary – that there is something in one's DNA or genes that carry the propensity for intellectual endeavors. An other theory states that the soul of a Jew is different than that of a gentile and for that reason his intellectual capabilities are greater. Another reason given is that since Jews were constantly being discriminated against by their host countries they had to develop their minds in order to cope; this is similar to the theory that it was only their ability to reason and read that enabled them to be able to move from place to place. Jews have a history of having high value on education; reading and writing have be standards in Jewish society of three thousand years whilst other cultures and lands came to literacy relatively recent in history. This theory is similar to that that declares that for centuries the intellectual Christians were the monks and priest who take vows of celibacy and therefore do not reproduce; only the ignorant masses continue the Christian tradition.
The above stated are all just theories, nothing proven, but are good fodder for arguments. Nothing can not be proved conclusively. However we can see a pattern in all of them and that points to the propensity for education and understanding.
First let us point out that there is a difference between traditional Jewish learning and non Jewish learning. This clear contrast is most apparent when comparing the traditional Jewish yeshiva learning to that of college learning. Both are considered the 'highest' institutions of education that the cultures possess but there the comparison ends. College education is a more intense continuation and usage of basic skills learned earlier in high school and grammar schools, to first understand the material and then commit it to memory. The material in the text books are absorbed as facts to be actively committed to the students memory. Based on this memory, the student can pass a test and build up and enlarge his base of facts to add to his ability to understand more material of the subject matter.
Yeshiva education is different in this manner. Whereas memory is certainly important, the mere committal to memory is a by product of seeking a deeper understanding of the material presented. Rather than work on mere memorization, the student is encouraged to understand the rationale and reason for a particular legal opinion. Generally the Talmud text is one legal opinion or deduction based on a Biblical text versus another. It is the job of the student to reach the depth of the sages' minds to fathom the sage's rationale. Often the teacher's opinion is challenged by energetic students who try to bring their own refutes to the teachers opinions. All of this is not to sharpen one's oratory skills but rather to arrive at the truth of the matter but in doing so it does sharpen the student's personal skills at reaching depth in understanding. By virtue of the students personal involvement in the various Talmud texts of the material being studied, the material is automatically committed to memory. Facts are important, but the reasons that under lie the facts are even more important.
There was an interesting article in the Ynet about a group of Koreans who decided that studying the Talmud was an important step for becoming smart and so they instituted a program of Talmud study in their schools. According to the article, South Korean Ambassador to Israel, Young Sam Ma, who was a guest on Channel 1's "Culture Today" show, stated that the Jews have a high percentage of Nobel Prize laureates in all fields. They tried to understand the secret of the Jewish people and they reached the conclusion that one of the secrets is studying Talmud.
Although there have been many Jews who have excelled in sports, they are a minority inside a minority. In years gone by the typical Jewish parents would want their son to become a 'Talmud chacham', a man wise in the Talmud and a rabbi. Similarly, they would want their daughters to marry the son of the village rabbi. Since the emancipation of Jews from their ghettos, the emphasis on learning has moved from the religious arena to secular successes, that the son should become a doctor, a lawyer, accountant or reach some other success (and monetary status) in another field rather than a rabbi.
When a Jew begins his secular pursuit he become totally immersed in it. It is not just a means to making a living, but something that he finds terribly interesting. This pulls him into trying to understand the material with a depth beyond that which is required for merely passing the course. It seems that more Jews are naturally curious about the subject that they have chosen to study. We see here that Jews view their future and security closely tied up with learning.
There are those who learn with difficulty because they know that their future depends upon it – that the learning is only a means to get a degree which is really a means of getting a good job and there are those who study because they enjoy it. I believe that they will both succeed, but the second will gather more understanding in the subject than the first.
There is a method by which we can determine who is really into his studies and who is just doing it as a means. By observing what the person thinks about in his spare time we can determine where the person 'really' is at. If when he closes his books his mind turns to other things, then we can be certain that the learning is not the students real desire. If after he closes the book, his mind lingers on the lesson or subject matter, it shows that it is important to him. If when doing nothing the mind wanders back to the lesson then we can be absolutely certain that this person really finds his studies fascinating.
Where as games, sports and entertainment seem to be a important facet of modern society, it does not really promote the intellectual achievements like study. Rather games, sports and entertainment are a rest from studying, which could mean that the studying is not entertaining or fun. Once a person shows a strong preference to games, sports and entertainment to deep understanding, he/she is already a second rate student.
The real student derives an enjoyment from the discovery of new information in the sphere of study that he enjoys. Study is in itself enjoyment. If one needs a break from learning that is indicative that perhaps the learning is not enjoyable.
We could ask why is it then that Jews succeed beyond their numbers and we could conjure up one of the above theories. Perhaps the Jew's soul is different than that of the non Jew's soul. Perhaps this gives him better impetus to inquire in an intellectual fashion. But since we can not apprehend the various facets of the soul, we have no way of proving this theory in any qualitative manner and therefore it remains to us merely conjecture.
Is intellectualism hereditary? It seems somewhat so. A father, mother or both parents who have attained a relative success in some education system, college or yeshiva, will encourage their off springs to continue in learning and give them prizes as rewards for their small success, setting the path towards rewards via education. But who can not bear witness that even intelligent parents can have a child who is not blessed with a 'good head'?
The theory that Christians basically committed intellectual suicide since the intellectuals were monks and priests who did not procreate seems good on the surface, but it really says that non Jews are as smart as Jews. Our witness is the monks and priests who were able to reach intellectual levels, but they decided to commit progeny suicide (which does not really impress me as smart). The priest and monks may have been the intellectual chosen amongst the Christians in the dark and middle ages, but they were a decided minority (and that they chose to believe the dogma of the church only impresses me with their intellectual lacking).
The theory of needing to have quick wits to escape from one bad host city after another in medieval Europe also does not make sense. If so, now that we Jews have found stability in America, we should have let go of intellectualism as an unneeded crutch in our new land. It could be that the Jew was made to learn, albeit the Torah, but this desire extends into other fields also.
What we do see is that the Jew has a history of over three thousand years of literacy and this literacy is a national entity. The average white European and American can only count several hundred years of national literacy, while the blacks have even less. Will this make any difference? Perhaps and perhaps not. It does not take into account the individual mind as measured by national or cultural groups.
My personal conclusion is, yes, Jews do succeed in intellectual achievements beyond their numerical proportion, but I believe that it is their enjoyment of investigation and understanding that gives them the lead. I truly believe that education is not just a means to getting a job that attracts the Jew, but also there is an enjoyment and satisfaction in questioning and getting a deeper understanding than before that drives a Jew. That perhaps it is a cultural heritage together with a three thousand year yearning for intellectual excellence that is imparted in the national gene.
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from the July 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine