We all are aware that Jews have been exceptionally prominent in shaping modern culture. While they are only 0.2% of the world’s population, Jews comprise 22% of all Nobel Laureates. Israelis are only .1% of the world population, yet Israel is a global leader in nearly all areas of high-tech, like cybersecurity, biotech, AI and agro-tech. Jews are only 2% of Americans, yet they are 19% of university professors. And of the four great creators of modern thinking, Darwin, Marx, Freud and Einstein, only Darwin was not Jewish — which led the late Jonathan Sacks to playfully consider whether Darwin was a genetic mutation!
How can we explain this Jewish achievement out of all proportion to their numbers? Echoing the medieval Yehuda Halevi, some kabbalists, rabbis and chauvinists resort to a racial theory that Jews possess a unique superior genetic code. For them, it’s all about DNA and nature. Other more rationalist and scientifically oriented thinkers ascribe this disproportionate accomplishment to Jewish marginality, cultural values and education.
A new book, The Jewish Intellectual Tradition by Alan Kadish (cardiologist and President of Touro College), Michael Shmidman (Jewish philosophy scholar at Touro) and Simcha Fishbane (professor of Jewish Studies there) comes down solidly on the side of nurture over nature. The book analyzes our intellectual heritage as the source of Jewish cultural achievement, emphasizing the tradition’s breadth and culling its essential principles. All of this is not to boast or showcase Jewish bona fides for acceptance into gentile society, but to unpack the tradition’s principles so they can be applied broadly to life, education and wider society. It is scholarship serving the noble goal of promoting universal human flourishing, what is generally termed, tikkun olam.
I see this tradition particularly important today when fake news and loopy conspiracy theories abound, when “narratives” have replaced truth, when growing polarization has destroyed nuance, and when higher education is increasingly synonymous with professional training.
The book takes us into the libraries (sometimes factual, sometimes inferred) of a number of famous Jewish personalities spanning the centuries: the statesman Shmuel Ha-Nagid in 11th-century Spain during the “Golden Age”; the mystically inclined rabbinic commentator Nahmanides in 13th century Barcelona; the intellectual and compulsive gambling rabbi, Leone Modena in 16th century Venice; Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in 19th century Frankfurt during the Enlightenment and Reform; famed Harvard professor Harry Austryn Wolfson in the last century; and Jerusalem’s own Nobel Laureate in Economics Robert Aumann today. Along the way we also meet a host of other famous Jews like the talmudic rabbis, Hasdei ibn Shaprut, Rashi and the Tosafists, Moses Maimonides, Rabbi Joseph Karo, Azariah de’Rossi, Moses Mendelssohn, reformer Abraham Geiger, the Vilna Gaon, Niels Bohr, the father of modern sociology Emile Durkheim, Solomon Schechter, Albert Einstein and S.Y Agnon. The scope of their libraries and intellectual achievements is staggering: Bible, Talmud, law, philosophy, science, poetry, mysticism, history, theology and literature culled from scrolls, manuscripts, codices, books, and today’s internet.
The book later explains the Jewish intellectual tradition’s essential values: respect for precedent combined with creative “disruptive” thinking, logical reasoning in the pursuit of truth, the primacy of education, and pursuing a purposeful life. These four ideals guided the lives of Jewish leaders throughout our history — from the rabbis of antiquity to Jewish scientists, jurists and thinkers in our day.
The lasting influence of these values helps explain why some modern Jews who left traditional Jewish life and belief have been so prominent in high Western culture. These include the great American jurist, Louis Brandeis, who exhibited the same simultaneous conservatism and boldness as did the talmudic rabbis and Maimonides. The combination of respect for past authority with creative genius is also obvious in the works of Einstein and Durkheim (who was the son of an Orthodox rabbi).
Logical reasoning and the pursuit of truth characterized talmudic rabbis and modern Jewish savants alike — from Spinoza to the Vilna Gaon to Carl Sagan to the father of cybernetics, Norbert Weiner, who freely acknowledged the Jewish legacy he received from his father. All these thinkers worked in the spirit of Maimonides’ guiding principle, “Accept truth, whatever its source.”
More than 2,000 years ago, Jews were the first to advocate universal literacy. “You shall teach your children,” is a biblical commandment that our people came to deeply internalize over the centuries. The political philosopher Michael Walzer and the great Jewish historian Salo Baron are only two of the outstanding sages of our time who noted the profound respect Jews have always held for teachers and teaching. Because of this love affair with learning, it is easy to understand why Jews are overly represented in all levels of Western education.
For the Jewish intellectual tradition, education is a life-long endeavor serving the goals of leading a purposeful life, attaining enduring happiness, and promoting human advancement. Crucially, these Jewish principles have significance transcending Jews and Jewish society.
The authors emphasize that these Jewish values are almost universally exportable to other contexts and cultures — which brings us to the wonderful paradox of the book. Written by three publicly identified Orthodox scholars who lead Orthodox Touro, the book’s thesis goes against the grain of today’s increasingly insulated Orthodox and Haredi culture and its narrowing education horizons that are too often limited to the study of Talmud and halakhah alone.
In contrast, The Jewish Intellectual Tradition paints a robust picture of the Jewish intellectual life, insisting that high Jewish culture should extend beyond the ghetto walls and that to be true to tradition, serious Jews need to keep their eyes on all humanity. If only for that, this book would be a must-read. Yet it is more, since it makes a vital contribution to understanding Jews, Judaism, and Jewish tradition’s proper role in the world.