Jewish Genius, the Times Op-Ed Controversy, and the Talmud
Updated: Jan 5
Brett Stephens’ recent Op-ed on The Secret of Jewish Genius generated much discussion and controversy. I believe the most important but overlooked point of his article was a brief one-line comment. Stephens is asking not why Jews are more intelligent (The Times removed his discussion of a study of the intelligence of Ashkenazy Jews), but why they have “such bracing originality and high-minded purpose” and are “prone to question” and “think differently.” After brushing aside the significance of Jewish intelligence, Stephens in one statement makes brief mention of the religious causes for the special characteristics of Jewish thought. He says “There is a religious tradition that, unlike some others, asks the believer not only to observe and obey, but also to discuss and disagree.” He was undoubtedly alluding to the impact of Torah study, and particularly the study of Talmud on Jews’ intellectual makeup and their way of thinking. The Talmud is the written corpus of oral traditions of Jewish law and teachings that explain and give practical applications of Jewish law. For those who are not familiar with the Talmud, it is difficult to convey the extent of the impact of not just its laws and content, but the process and the dedication to studying the intricies of the text as well.
This week there will be numerous ‘siyum hashas’ (conclusion of the Talmud) events going on in the US, Israel, and in Jewish communities throughout the world. These events mark the completion of the study of the entire corpus of the Talmud. This cycle is referred to as Daf Yomi, a page a day. If one studies a page a day, which can be done in 45-60 minutes if an individual is already proficient in Talmud, one can finish the cycle in approximately seven years. While all of the 100,000 people who gathered in MetLife Stadium on January 1st will not have finished the Talmud, there are tens of thousands of Jews throughout the world who have. This achievement and this gathering is a testimony to the centrality of Talmud study in orthodox Jewish life, and of the dedication to that study. The mainstay of study in Yeshiva (Jewish school) for boys and men is Talmud, to the extent that 90% of the yeshiva student’s curriculum centers on Talmud. Many orthodox Jews dedicate a year (sometimes two or more) post high school to full time study of the Talmud, and as can be seen from the Siyum Hashas the study continues for a lifetime. Torah study is not a hobby or an interest, it is a way of life, or as written in the Jewish prayer book “they (the words of Torah) are our lives and the length of our days, and in them we are absorbed day and night.”
Now we come to Brett Stevens’ point about the flexibility and originality of the way Jews think. I do not intend to take on the question of Jewish IQ, Brett Stevens’ discussion of it, or the subsequent reaction to it. This inquiry has ready landed him in enough trouble. Nor am I trying to prove how intense lifelong study of Talmud over 1600 years translated into these unique qualities of Jews. However one cannot talk about Jewish intelligence or Jewish intellectual qualities without understanding the central role Torah study, and particulary Talmud has played in Jewish education. Jewish education was universal, with extremely high rates of literacy, and Torah study was a lifelong endeavor.
I would argue that there is clearly a correlation between the characteristics of the Jewish intellect Stephens focuses on and Talmud study. The method of the Talmud is to explore topics through dialectic and debate. The main body of the Talmud is a series of discussions/arguments, usually between two rabbis, over points of law. The discussions will look at a topic from all sides, assumptions are constantly questioned, and the Talmud turns the discussion on its head by bringing in quotes from other Talmudic sources. To be honest the mental gymnastics can sometimes be head-spinning, and the logic very subtle while at the same time complex.
Immersion in this type of study can also develop powerful thinking and analytical skills. Great Torah scholars have been known to have memorized and mastered the entire Talmudic corpus. I have heard stories of a Talmud student who did not have any advanced secular education besides Talmud study (he obtained a BA in Talmud from an accredited Yeshiva), studied for the LSATs and was admitted to Harvard Law school. The impact of Talmud study is beginning to be recognized by non-Jews as well. In Korea, Talmud is studied because of the recognition that Talmudic study contributed to Jews’ intellectual abilities. The Catholic historian, Paul Johnson called Rabbinic Judaism “an ancient and highly official social machine for the production of intellectuals.”
However for Jews it was never primarily about the intellectual acumen. Stephens goes on to quote Einstein that “there is a moral belief, incarnate in the Jewish people, 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”. This value is not incarnate, it is learnt from the Torah’s teachings on morality and good deeds. Ultimately the purpose of Torah study is not develop intellectual acumen, but to cultivate dedication to a greater meaning in life coming from following the Divine path set down in the Talmud and the Torah. Through that process we can enrich ourselves, our relationship to the Almighty and to others around us, and the world.