Ben Rothke

Book review – The Jewish Intellectual Tradition

As I was reading The Jewish Intellectual Tradition: A History of Learning and Achievement (Academic Studies Press), I thought of an observation from Rabbi Hershel Schachter. He observed that the Jewish people have long been at the forefront of rational and intellectual thought since the time of Abraham. It then occurred to me that the rise of anti-vaxxers and those engaging in new-age movements within the Orthodox community are completely antithetical to this long intellectual tradition.

It is well documented that Jews have an extraordinarily high rate of Nobel prizes, Fields Medal, amongst other awards, given their meager percentage of the overall popular. In this highly engaging and innovative work, authors Dr. Alan Kadish, MD (Touro College President), Dr. Michael Shmidman (Touro College Dean), and Dr. Simcha Fishbane (Professor of Jewish Studies at Touro College) try to identify what it is from the Jewish intellectual tradition that can be used for the betterment of people and society as a whole.

The authors have isolated these principles, namely: respect for tradition while encouraging independent thinking; a precise system of logical reasoning in pursuit of the truth; and a universal and never-ending education. The book shows how these principles are fundamental to intellectual productivity, leading to making a better society. And the proof is in the Nobel prizes and Fields Medals.

While the term People of the Book is, in fact, an Islamic pejorative referring to Jews, the Jewish intellectual tradition has its base in the Chumash and Talmud, where education and learning are axiomatic.

The book has two parts. In part 1, they detail the history of Jewish intellectuals from Abraham to current times. In part 2, they list 11 recommendations to apply the principles of the Jewish intellectual tradition. Perhaps the most compelling is not to fear innovative ideas but to ground creativity in the mastery of prior research. This is a similar idea Nathaniel Deutsch, and Michael Casper make in A Fortress in Brooklyn: Race, Real Estate, and the Making of Hasidic Williamsburg (Yale University Press). That notion of innovation grounded in tradition is what enabled the Satmar Rav to change without changing. Furthermore, this change without changing enabled Satmar to completely reinvent themselves in the golden medina of America.

Other recommendations include an appreciation of the written word, training with a master mentor, acquiring regular study partners, insisting upon the highest possible formal education standards for children, and more.

As Covid rages on, the Internet is ablaze with anti-intellectuals spouting nonsense. This is not the Jewish intellectual tradition that the authors discuss, nor the tradition we expect from a nation long-steeped in the rational approach. In The Jewish Intellectual Tradition: A History of Learning and Achievement, the authors discuss the tradition that has long sustained us and certainly can use a boost today.

The three authors, all scholars in their own right, have detailed this amazing intellectual tradition that should be a source of immense pride not to just every Jew but every human being. This intellectual tradition is under fierce attack today. And those who do not appreciate this intellectual tradition and strive for the truth it promotes will be victims to those who should have.

About the Author
I’m a senior information security and risk management professional, based in New York City. I speak at industry conferences, and write on information security, social media, privacy and technology. My book reviews are on information security, privacy, technology, and risk management. My reviews for the Times of Israel focus on Judaism, Talmud, religion and philosophy.
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