Why Jewish Minds Excel in Academics

    August 2011          
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Opinion & Society


Jewish Brains, in demand

By Arthur Rosen

My previous article for the Jewish Magazine seems to have brought with it many questions concerning the propensity of Jews to achieve scholastic excellence. I have been besieged with questions as to my opinion for this phenomena. I would like to present two examples and then explain why I feel that the following is what contributes to the Jewish 'smart' syndrome.

Let me first tell about my experiences when I was young which turned me towards my present opinion.

My father had a friend by the name of Sam who was a refugee from Poland and came to the USA either before WWII or at its commence. As I was growing up, Sam told me about his experiences in the America educational system. He was approximately 14 or 15 when he came to the USA and by law he had to go to public school. Since his English was very weak, the educational system at that time put him in the 8th grade with children much below his age. Sam related to me that he soon tired of sitting and being in boring classes and got permission from the principal to leave early (I don't remember the reason) and he applied and was accepted for a afternoon session in high school. It turned out that in the same day he would go to 8th grade in the morning and then high school in the afternoon and then yeshiva in the evening. He told me that he had only a yeshiva education in Poland but that the study material that he covered in the evening was so much advanced that he doubted that even his teachers in public school could understand it.

I was much impressed with Sam. Besides being an extremely kind and gentle person, he was a business man. He was constantly opening and closing businesses. He joked and said that his business was really going out of business. He and his wife raised a very nice family and I, as a young man, was always impressed by his successes in life. It gave me the desire to try out yeshiva learning when I became a young adult.

By the time I was married, I had been a regular evening-only participant in a local boys yeshiva. My wife and I had many of the boys over to our house for meals and I got to know the boys on a close personal basis. One of the boys, we will call him J told me his story.

J did not come from a religious family and was a very poor achiever in his local public school. His parents worried about him and decided to enroll him in the yeshiva in hopes that he would 'pick-up'. Despite his weak background in Jewish studies, he thoroughly enjoyed the yeshiva life and the learning very much. So much so that he became much too religious for his parents who decided to yank him out of the yeshiva at the end of the school year and put him back in public school. Several months later, J dropped in to our house unexpectedly. During the course of conversation he told me that he had gone from being the low achiever in his class to being the top of the class. When I questioned him as to how this came about, he told me that the skills that he acquired in yeshiva had given him the ability to reason and understand the subject matter much better than his peers.

These two stories are not made up. They really took place as I have described them. Now I shall like to give a short example of how the yeshiva learning works. Below is a portion of a Mishna from the tractate of Brachot. Read both paragraphs and than I shall ask you a few questions to see your skills.

    From what time may one recite the shema prayer in the evening? From the time that the priests come in to eat their t'rumah (food which must be eating in a state of ritual purity) - until the end of the first watch says Rabbi Eliezer; the sages say until midnight; Rabban Gamaliel says until the dawn.

    Once it happened that his sons came home [late] from a wedding feast and they said to him: we have not yet recited the evening shema. he said to them: if the dawn has not yet come up you are still bound to recite it and not only in respect to this alone did the sages say so, but wherever the sages say until midnight, the mitzvah may be performed until the dawn as in the cases of the of burning the fat [on the Altar] and the [sacrificial] pieces, which too, may be performed until the dawn - similarly, all [the offerings] that are to be eaten within one day may be consumed till the dawn. Why, then, did the sages say "until midnight"? In order to keep a person far from transgression.

These rabbis are each giving their opinion of what is the latest time the Torah allows a person to read the Shema prayer. How many opinions do you see in the above two paragraphs?

If you answered two, that is what most say, but if you will re-read it you will see that Rabban Gamliel and the sages both agree that the time that the Torah gives them until the dawn. The sages just add that they are afraid that a person will forget to read the Shema if he is given until dawn as the Torah requires and thereby they have made a decree that he read before midnight.

The next question that I will ask is does everyone agree with Rabbi Eliezer that the time begins at the time that the priests come in to eat their t'rumah? Read back and come to your conclusion before continuing.

This is really a sneaky question because it is not certain that this statement is made by Rabbi Eliezer. What is for certain is that he says that the end time is the end of the first watch. Whether he says that the time begins at the time that the priests come in to eat their t'rumah or some one else says this is open to discussion. The answer in this case is: 'it is possible' because it is not clear – perhaps they agree, perhaps they don't.

These two are just two simple examples of 'thinking' that Jewish students are trained to do. Everything is analyzed and challenged and then weighted and compared before continuing. The learning gets really much more intense than this as we progress into the arguments between Rashi and the Tosephot (they are the students of the academies of learning that Rashi's grandsons set up).

In addition, the style of learning is different. In yeshiva structure, the students learn aloud in pairs for several hours explaining to each other the material. Afterward they enter into the class room with the teacher. As the teacher begins to explain how he understands the material, the students challenge his understanding with their understanding. The class is not a lecture but rather a contest between the teacher and the students, as well as between the students themselves.

Compare this style of highly active learning to that of most high schools and many colleges when the material in the text books is accepted as correct and must only be understood and memorized. The secular style of learning certainly is not one that develops individual prowess in intellectual matters. Rather it suppresses creative thought.

It is my personal opinion, that centuries of traditional learning coupled with the traditional Jewish family's orientation for excellence in intellectual pursuits has given the Jewish student an advantage over the average American student.

See Related Previous Article, "Why are Jews so Smart?"


from the August 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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