People Of The Book

How Education Shaped Jewish History and Success

By Lynn Wexler

Jewish culture has valued education dating back to biblical times.

Their tradition holds that Moses ascended Mt. Sinai some 3,300 years ago, where G-d taught him the Written and Oral Torah (the Old Testament or Bible), seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt.

Entrusted with G-d’s words, Moses was instructed to teach them to his brother Aaron, followed by Aaron’s two sons, and the seventy members of the Sanhedrin (ancient Jewish court); who in turn were to teach them to the 600,000 adult men - plus women, children, and the elderly - gathered at the base of the mountain.

It was in those moments that Jewish education found its beginnings. Its subsequent transmission through the millennia was consigned to Jewish parents in the most important prayer in Judaism, the Shema (the Hebrew word for hear).

“And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk, when you lie down, and when you rise.”

In more modern times, Jewish clergy – Rabbis – have additionally undertaken the revered responsibility of educating the community in Jewish practice, history, prayer, law, and theology.

Numerous references on the importance of education are found throughout Jewish texts. The Book of Proverbs says, “My [children], do not forget my teaching, but let your mind retain my commandments; for they will bestow on you length of days, years of life and well-being.”

The Book of Deuteronomy encourages children to seek education from their elders, stating, “Consider the years of many generations; ask thy father, and he will declare unto thee, thine elders, and they will tell thee.”

The main purpose ascribed to the Torah is to know, and to know how, to worship the Creator. Author Nathan H. Winter, in his book Jewish Education in a Pluralistic Society, adds “Torah has been described as that dealing with the whole existence of the human being; that which touches life at every point. It connotes learning, instruction, and guidance. Jewish education is concerned with the transmission of this cultural heritage to the individual Jew.”

It’s been that way since the beginning. A Greek geographer, during the reign of Alexander the Great, chronicled the movements of remote countries coming into being at that time. He noticed an interesting people who lived to the south of Syria – all of them philosophers who inquired after wisdom for wisdom’s sake.

“What a remarkable people,” he concluded, “who seek knowledge in the service of truth and meaning.”

Maristella Botticini, in her book The Chosen Few, writes “Jews are a nation of education. This is the one thing that kept it a nation for so long.”

She explains that while the word “education” is not specifically mentioned in the Scriptures, emphasis is placed throughout on teaching, learning, and knowledge.

Rabbi and author Naftali Rothenberg takes this a step further, suggesting in his lecture The Democratization of Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition that the Jewish people are the only culture to prescribe education, intellectual openness, and debate for the masses.

“With knowledge comes great power,” he says. “That is why, prior to America, those in power prevented the masses from access to knowledge. Keep them ignorant! This ensured their control and position.

“Even with the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century,” he continues, “only those with money could access education through institutions of higher learning.”

Judaism, to the contrary, says Rothenberg, views education from a democratic perspective. All Jews (and all peoples for that matter) – rich or poor, child or adult, male or female – are required to learn. One’s community stature is equal to one’s acquired knowledge.

“The poor bastard who is a Torah scholar must be more respected than the high priest (at one time the most noble person in the Jewish nation) who is not a scholar,” explains Rothenberg.

Rothenberg adds to the notion of democratization the freedom to challenge and interpret learning – within limits.

“When Moses joined G-d atop Mt. Sinai, G-d revealed a future moment with Rabbi Akiva as he taught Torah to his students,” says Rothenberg.

Moses was shocked that he did not understand any of Rabbi Akiva’s lesson… relieved only by the Rabbi’s admission that the source of the lesson derived from Moses at Mt. Sinai.

From this, Rothenberg says, “…we learn that the Jewish people – as long as they remain connected to the original source of knowledge – are free to consider, reflect, debate, discuss, and arrive at various interpretations of the Scripture.”

He adds that each individual interpretation is an intellectual inquiry resulting in a truth unto itself. As such, Jews have been studying and interpreting the Torah in millions of ways over the last 2,000 years, yielding volumes of philosophical and critical thought concerning one’s relationship with G-d and one’s purpose in all aspects of life and death. The number of classes and lectures available in an observant Jewish community cannot be compared to anything that happens in any other place.

Jewish success is also attributed to closely held family and community traditions and observances, along with what noted lawyer, academic, and political commentator Alan Dershowitz calls “The Tsuris Theory of Jewish Survival” (Tsuris is Yiddish for troubles, suffering, grief). Under this theory, Dershowitz suggests that “the Jews need external troubles to remain successful as Jews.”

Albert Einstein agreed: “It may be thanks to anti-Semitism that we are able to preserve our existence as a race.”

French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, a non-Jew, argued that the “sole tie that binds [the Jewish people together] is the hostility and disdain of the societies which surround them.”

In Europe, in past centuries, Jews were denied access to many professions, the most common of which was agriculture and land ownership. Using their culture of education, they instead persevered to become doctors, lawyers, bank owners, and merchants. Thus the Jewish approach to education is believed to be the primary basis for the disproportionate success of Jews in the world that continues to this day. 

The number of Jewish Nobel Prize recipients since 1901 stands as further evidence. Nobel Prizes have been awarded to 881 individuals to date, of which 201 (23%) are Jews, who comprise less than .2% of the world’s population. Jews have been the recipients of all six award categories: 41% of economics, 28% of medicine, 26% of physics, 19% of chemistry, 13% of literature, and 9% of all peace awards.

“Our history of victimization,” writes Dershowitz, “has contributed to forging Jewish successes as a defense against those who would destroy us out of hatred.”

Many American Jews today are assimilated into mainstream culture, yet the sentiment for being learned remains, for the most part, and is a measure of Jewish integrity with respect to education.

Philo of Alexandria wrote, in the 1st century A.D., that “since the Jews esteem their laws as divine revelations and are instructed in the knowledge of them from their earliest youth, they bear the image of the law in their souls,” denoting why Jews are known as the “People of the Book.”

The biblical and historical context within which the value of education and debate thrives has provided Jews throughout the ages with the impetus to aspire to high levels of achievement and success.

When Isidor Rabi, the 1944 Nobel Prize recipient for physics, was asked to what he attributed his great achievements, he credited his parents. “When I came home from school, they never asked me what I learned. Rather, they wanted to know, ‘Did you ask a good question today?’”

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