Elchanan Poupko

Why So Many Jews Win The Nobel Prize

The 2020 Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine are announced during a news conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, Monday Oct. 5, 2020. The prize has been awarded jointly to Harvey J. Alter, left on screen, Michael Houghton, center, and Charles M. Rice for the discovery of the Hepatitis C virus. (Claudio Bresciani/TT via AP)

Since the Nobel prize’s inception, the presence of Jews among its leading recipients has been nothing short of an extraordinary miracle. The only nation in the world which valued most recognition of its wisdom and scholarship got just that. “And you shall keep [them] and do [them], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes and say, “Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people. “(Deuteronomy 4). More than 22% of the recipients, 36% of American recipients, and 28% of the women who received the prize have been Jewish. 

What is the secret to the disproportionate presence of a nation constituting less than 1% of the world’s population, taking almost one-quarter of Nobel prizes? The answer can be found in the biblical book of Daniel (2:4) “He grants wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who know to understand.”

The Talmud (Brachot, 51) learns from this the following lesson: “Rabbi Yochanan says: “God only gives wisdom to the wise, as it says “He grants wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who know understanding.” (ibid). The rabbis learn from this that for God to give someone wisdom, that person needs to value wisdom. God will not waste wisdom on those who value it. It is with the placement of scholarship and the top of one’s priorities that God can grant that wisdom. 

The appreciation of wisdom as a gift from God dates far back, before the days of Daniel; it goes to the days of the young enslaved Joseph, far from his family and any hope, called on to solve Pharaoh’s dreams. “And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it, but I have heard it said of you [that] you understand a dream, to interpret it.” Moreover, Joseph replied to Pharaoh, saying, “Not I; God will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41)

Even when in his most vulnerable position, when standing as a foreign prisoner at the mercy of Pharaoh, Joseph credits his wisdom not to himself but as a gift from God. 

This humility and recognition of the Divinity of wisdom has allowed Jews to place scholarship and intellectual achievement at the helm of our dreams and aspirations. 

Nowhere is the placement of wisdom and the peak of our dreams and aspirations as apparent as it is in the dreams of the wisest of all—King Solomon. 

When asked by God to wish for anything he would like, King Solomon does not ask for power, wealth, or dominion—he asks for wisdom. “Give (therefore) Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and bad; for who can judge this Your great people?”

All King Solomon can ask for is for God to give him wisdom. 

God’s response? 

“And the speech pleased the Lord, that Solomon had asked this thing. And God said to him, “Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked for yourself long life; neither have you asked riches for yourself, nor have you asked the life of your enemies; but have asked for yourself understanding to discern judgment. Behold, I have done according to your word; behold, I have given you a wise and understanding heart; so that there was none like you before you, nor after you shall any arise like you.” 

(Kings I, chapter 3). 

Placing wisdom at the very top of our priorities is the key to God gifting wisdom to us. As we will see while exploring the lives of Jewish Nobel winners, the pursuit of wisdom can be second to nothing when pursuing it. 

As king Solomon states in his book of proverbs: “Fortunate is the man who has found wisdom and a man who gives forth discernment, for its commerce, is better than the commerce of silver, and its gain [is better] than fine gold; it is more precious than pearls, and all your desirable things cannot be compared to it.” 

It is this perspective and more that led the great Greek historian Megasthenes (320 BCE) and other later Greeks to speak of the Jews as “a nation of Philosophers. Jews did not limit knowledge and education to one class or creed—everyone had to be knowledgeable. The first people in the world in oblige every father to teach their child, the first nation in the world to institute publically funded schools where each and every child can receive a Torah education, and the first nation in the world to value its books and scripture more than its personal possessions, would surely produce some of the wisest the world has ever seen. 

And yet, with all of the value, respect, and adoration we have towards scholarship and knowledge, there is no respect we have had as a people towards the study of Torah. In a most unique way, Jews were able to show our utmost and highest respect to the study of Torah, without diminishing the respect we have towards scientists, physicians, philosophers, and innovators. When wisdom is at the epicenter of your national ethos, there is enough respect to go around for every aspect of wisdom. 

Yet it is not just our religious experience that brought Jews to the forefront of science and discovery; it is also our lived experienced. A nation expelled time after time, with only its mind and body allowed to come with it to its new location, a people who needed every talent they had to survive the intolerance of the dark ages, and people whose ticket to survival has been, among other things, the ability to make ourselves as resourceful as can be, would surely excel in exactly those fields. A Jew always knew that no matter what would happen, they might need to arrive in a new land no wealth and transferable skills. When I once asked my grandmother why it was that so many Jews excelled in playing violin, she said—part humorously, part seriously—” because when there is a pogrom, it is much easier to grab your violin and run, that it is to grab a grand piano.” 

Finally, the belief in the need to perfect God’s world, to leave this world better than it was when we came here, is at the core of who we are as Jews. These values have inspired many generations of Jews, including those who went on to win Nobel prizes and change the course of history. 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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