Jewish Intellectualism

By Lily Shoulberg

It is no secret that Jews value education.  Just as I was raised with the culture, prayers and foods that have come to define my Jewish heritage, I was raised with the expectation that I would attend college.  In fact, I didn’t even realize, until embarrassingly late in my life, that college was not legally mandatory.  I was further disillusioned upon finding out that less than 30 percent of Americans attend college, while the rate among Jewish Americans is above 60 percent.

To what can this disproportionality be attributed?

The cultural origins of Jewish intellectualism can be traced back to the period from about 800 to 1650 C.E.  Jews in Europe were restricted from many areas of work, and had to turn to the fields of finance and trade, which required more cognitive mathematical abilities than did, for example, farming. There is also rudimentary record of a majority of Ashkenazim during this time in France who made their living in banking.  This almost exclusively Jewish niche was something of a reaction to a Christian belief against the lending of money for return with interest.  In a society where Jews could basically only take up the trade of banking, they had to become masterful.  Obviously this meant that only the most adept mathematicians, shrewdest negotiators and most clever businessmen would be successful. Naturally, Jews who didn’t possess these skills fell between the cracks, not allowed to pursue farming and craft, not allowed to own land and not able to succeed in the one area they were permitted.  Thus began a distinct custom wherein Jews were forced to value education and intelligence over physical strength, endurance or any of the other traits necessary for the work from which Jews had been restricted.

The culture that this phenomenon cultivated is a likely explanation for the disproportionately high rates of wealth, Nobel Prize winners, college attendance and exceptionally high IQ in the Ashkenazi Jewish community. I attribute these statistics to the stigma that has come to surround Jews and education.  I think it is also likely that the immigrant mentality and societal and familial expectations have caused so many Jews to pursue college degrees. Many of the Ashkenazi Jews in America have parents, grandparents or great grandparents who came to America with no money, seeking economic success, and were instilled with the belief that education, intelligence and diligent effort were the way to attain success. These values permeated their families and have been passed along through the ages.  I think many of my Jewish friends who will be applying to college next year alongside me will agree that there is a level of expectation in our families that we attend prestigious universities and go into “intellectual” fields like medicine and law. Though my lovely and supportive parents would never demand this, I know that many Jewish parents do, and I put a certain level of pressure on myself to attain these goals, simply because of cultural expectations.

Of course, because Judaism is a diverse body of people from all walks of life, there are some exceptions and anomalies that seem to run opposite to these assumptions about Jewish intellect.  The highest concentration of Jews, after Israel, resides in New York City, and according to the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011, conducted by the UJA Federation of New York, the fastest-growing group among them is the Haredim (or ultra-Orthodox). According to Haredi custom, secular education ends around age 16, and higher education is not typically pursued. Though this may be a fringe group, the Haredim have a birth rate at least three times as high as that of non-Orthodox Jews, and therefore cannot be overlooked in conjectures about the Jewish population.  That being said, they are a fundamentally isolated and self-contained group.  They inherently do not have a direct impact on the larger Jewish community, and I don’t see their customs posing any kind of threat to the aforementioned expectations about Jewish college attendance.

On the whole, this result of Jewish intellectualism seems to bode well, but there is, of course, a detrimental effect also.  There is a thinly veiled (and distinctly Jewish) notion that intellect precludes utility. The idea of picking up a vocational trade after high school that will be highly useful and likely more financially viable than pursuing higher education is undeniably frowned upon by many Jewish parents.  On a personal level, I find that it encourages a level of competition with my peers, and an amount pressure that can’t be good for a teenager.  There is also the double-edged sword that comes with any “positive” assumptions about people.  The idea that Jews had a particular advantage in educational environments (combined, of course, with old-fashioned anti-Semitism) has historically led to the setting of rigid Jewish quotas at colleges and universities.  Yale, Harvard and McGill, in particular, remain notorious for their discriminatory policies, with Yale’s remaining in place until well into the 1960s.

Despite outliers and adverse circumstances, I see, very clearly, the Jewish mentality about education today. Whether it is a result of a bottleneck effect in the 9th century Ashkenazi gene pool, or simply a cultural phenomenon perpetuated by expectations and stereotypes, there seems to be no denial of the fact that Jews are overwhelmingly high achieving and college educated. And self-righteous? Maybe a little…

8 responses to “Jewish Intellectualism

  1. We jewish folks are very learned people and book smart. Well rounded, well I’m not so sure that we take the gold medal on that. For example, politically we seem to lack smarts and are very single minded or one sided. This i have never understood as an American citizen. There are lots of other examples as well. Intellectually we are no further along than any other western people.
    -Dave / a prowd jewish american

  2. Perhaps this is true, although, to be fair, there isn’t a whole lot of Jewish representation in politics.
    That being said, this post was intended primarily to discuss the lopsided statistics regarding college attendance, not the kind of intelligence that Jewish culture has created. The statistics do show that our college attendance rate is quite high, which I believe to be a result of cultural custom.

  3. Excellent article. I think another possibly detrimental effect in Western culture and common amongst intellectual Jews, similar to the one you touched on, but from a slightly different perspective, is the disconnection between the brain and the body in favor of the brain. We see our brains as separate and above our bodies and tend to give preference for intellectual pursuits over physical. In Eastern cultures they teach that the brain and the body is one and strive for balance and to nurture that connection.

  4. Pingback: Is the New York Times More Jewish than Moment? | InTheMoment

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  8. Interesting article. Of course, there’s one more piece to the jigsaw that might help explain the intellectualism of Jews, and that is the effects of a Judaic culture which since antiquity has been marked by vigorous argument and debate over sacred texts and key doctrines not just among a priestly class but also among ordinary believers. It promotes questioning, challenging and discussing in ways a much less textual culture cannot and this seems likely to nurture a suite of intellectual skills in particular, encouraging them and prizing them. Like the noted emphasis in 16th-century Europe upon education, science and intellectual life in Protestant societies because of the greater role the Reformation gave to men and women reading and arguing about the Bible rather than merely accepting the teachings handed to them by a closed priestly class, it may be that the very nature of Judaism as a religious culture is a significant factor in the heightened intellectualism of the people it has shaped.

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