|The Secrets of Jewish Genius|
It’s not about having higher I.Q.s.
By Bret Stephens
Dec. 27, 2019
An eminent Lithuanian rabbi is annoyed that his yeshiva students devote their lunch breaks to playing soccer instead of discussing Torah. The students, intent on convincing their rav of the game’s beauty, invite him to watch a professional match. At halftime, they ask what he thinks.
“I have solved your problem,” the rabbi says.
“Give one ball to each side, and they will have nothing to fight over.”
I have this (apocryphal) anecdote from Norman Lebrecht’s new book, “ Genius & Anxiety,” an erudite and delightful study of the intellectual achievements and nerve-wracked lives of Jewish thinkers, artists, and entrepreneurs between 1847 and 1947. Sarah Bernhardt and Franz Kafka; Albert Einstein and Rosalind Franklin; Benjamin Disraeli and (sigh) Karl Marx — how is it that a people who never amounted even to one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations?
The common answer is that Jews are, or tend to be, smart. When it comes to Ashkenazi Jews, it’s true. “Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average I.Q. of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data,” noted one 2005 paper. “During the 20th century, they made up about 3 percent of the U.S. population but won 27 percent of the U.S. Nobel science prizes and 25 percent of the ACM Turing awards. They account for more than half of world chess champions.”
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But the “Jews are smart” explanation obscures more than it illuminates. Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose. One can apply a prodigious intellect in the service of prosaic things — formulating a war plan, for instance, or constructing a ship. One can also apply brilliance in the service of a mistake or a crime, like managing a planned economy or robbing a bank.
But as the story of the Lithuanian rabbi suggests, Jewish genius operates differently. It is prone to question the premise and rethink the concept; to ask why (or why not?) as often as how; to see the absurd in the mundane and the sublime in the absurd. Ashkenazi Jews might have a marginal advantage over their gentile peers when it comes to thinking better. Where their advantage more often lies is in thinking different.
Where do these habits of mind come from?
There is a religious tradition that, unlike some others, asks the believer not only to observe and obey but also to discuss and disagree. There is the never-quite-comfortable status of Jews in places where they are the minority — intimately familiar with the customs of the country while maintaining a critical distance from them. There is a moral belief, “incarnate in the Jewish people” according to Einstein, that “the life of the individual only has value [insofar] as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful.”
And there is the understanding, born of repeated exile, that everything that seems solid and valuable is ultimately perishable, while everything that is intangible — knowledge most of all — is potentially everlasting.
“We had been well off, but that was all we got out,” the late financier Felix Rohatyn recalled of his narrow escape, with a few hidden gold coins, from the Nazis as a child in World War II. “Ever since, I’ve had the feeling that the only permanent wealth is what you carry around in your head.” If the greatest Jewish minds seem to have no walls, it may be because, for Jews, the walls have so often come tumbling down.
Continue reading the main storyThese explanations for Jewish brilliance aren’t necessarily definitive. Nor are they exclusive to the Jews.
At its best, the American university can still be a place of relentless intellectual challenge rather than ideological conformity and social groupthink. At its best, the United States can still be the country that respects, and sometimes rewards, all manner of heresies that outrage polite society and contradict established belief. At its best, the West can honor the principle of racial, religious and ethnic pluralism not as a grudging accommodation to strangers but as an affirmation of its own diverse identity. In that sense, what makes Jews special is that they aren’t. They are representational.
The West, however, is not at its best. It’s no surprise that Jew hatred has made a comeback, albeit under new guises. Anti-Zionism has taken the place of anti-Semitism as a political program directed against Jews. Globalists have taken the place of rootless cosmopolitans as the shadowy agents of economic iniquity. Jews have been murdered by white nationalists and black “Hebrews.” Hate crimes against Orthodox Jews have become an almost daily fact of life in New York City.
Jews of the late 19th century would have been familiar with the hatreds. Jews of the early 21st century should recognize where they could lead. What’s not secret about Jewish genius is that it’s a terribly fragile flower.