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Questioning Jewish Genius

An article by Charles Murray that recently appeared in Commentary Magazine has been inspiring both conversation and criticism with its claim that Jews are uniquely gifted when it comes to intellectual accomplishment, especially in the arts and sciences. Although much of his methodology seems more anecdotal than rigorously analytical, there are some salient facts that are hard to ignore. Chief among them is the observation that more than 30 percent of the Nobel Prize winners in the fields of literature, chemistry, physics, and medicine since the second half of the 20th-century have been Jewish. This is huge considering Jews representing only two-tenths of one percent of the world population.


Murray’s conclusion? That Jews have higher IQs than the general population, especially in the realms of verbal and reasoning skills. Murray (who, incidentally, is a self-proclaimed “Scots-Irish Gentile from Iowa”) engages in a fair amount of speculation as to why this may be so (none of which struck me as particularly compelling). Ultimately he argues that Jews self-selected for increased intelligence because of the demands that being a learned Jew put on us–literacy at a bare minimum, but also the ability to read and engage with difficult commentaries and the high status that was accorded to those who excelled in this area.

Many, myself included, find the claims in the article distasteful. Certainly it’s not politically correct to assert that any ethnic group is inherently superior in any area–and the Jews know all too well the tremendous capacities for evil that emerge when one ethnic group claims to be a “master race.” And yet it’s hard to argue with a record of Jewish accomplishment in Western civilization. Perhaps it’s not a superior intellect that’s at play. Raw intelligence, as Murray acknowledges, is only one ingredient that would go into intellectual accomplishment. I find myself struck by a comment from Walter Isaacson (yes, he’s Jewish) based on his recent biography of Albert Einstein (yes, he’s Jewish too) to the effect that Einstein succeeded not because he was so much smarter than other scientists of his time – and many scholars agree that he lacked the raw mathematical ability of many of his colleagues – but because he was creative in the way he viewed the world and posed questions.


This to me is the perhaps the crux of what I would term a “Jewish intellectual legacy”: the value placed on posing questions and exploring their implications from many different angles. The Talmud is based on series of questions, often questions asked for the sheer joy of posing them, and the numerous and conflicting answers that co-exist side-by-side demonstrate that questions and debate are more important to the rabbis than arriving at easy answers. The Torah tells us to remember our going forth out of Egypt and teach this to our children. The rabbis respond by creating the seder (traditional Passover meal), based on the premise that children are taught by being encouraged to ask questions (according to the Mishnah, the famed Four Questions asked during th eseder are only fallbacks in case the children cannot come up with questions of their own). Many of the breakthroughs of recent intellectual history, not just Einstein, but also Marx, Freud, and Oppenheimer, came not as a result of sheer superior intelligence, but from Jews looking at the same information everyone else had, asking different questions, and thinking about it in different ways. If Jews show a track record of increased intellectual accomplishment, I imagine fostering thoughtful and reasoned questions must be a key ingredient.



Read the Full Debate: Are Jews Intellectually Superior?

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posted May 8, 2007 at 6:16 pm

Rabbi Waxman implies that being raised in the tradition of the Talmud teaches Jews to ask questions and to look at things from many different points of view. What about the many Jews who were not exposed to the Talmudic tradition? Einstein was Jewish, but did he study Talmud? That’s just one example.

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posted May 8, 2007 at 7:37 pm

I believe that the approach to Jewish “superior intelligence” is valid, since Jewish people have put in practice questioning everything in different ways and approaches along their history. So, it’s matter of well schooled and disciplined minds, more than of raw intelligence looking for simple and comfortable explanations to any kind of problem we face every day. Since I am not Jewish, but I feel the utmost respect for Jewish accomplishments, I think we ought to learn from them and put in practice the methods and ways to become more “smart and intelligent” and some people would put it.

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posted May 8, 2007 at 8:54 pm

Speaking as a Gentile, let me say that I am not in the least bit offended by the idea that Jews might be statistically more intelligent than other people-groups. Neither would I be surprised if it were true. Might I add that they are demonstrably the most forgiving group of people in all of time; after all they have gone through in history and continue to go through today. With all my heart, Shalom.

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posted May 8, 2007 at 10:22 pm

Why haven’t anti-semites figured it out yet? It’s a simple case of Darwinian “survival of the fittest.” Keep oppressing and killing the Jews and the the more intelligent and creative will figure out ways to survive and pass on their genes.

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Bill Wertman

posted May 9, 2007 at 12:04 am

And Jews have a religious obligation to be literate and the social norm has favored scholars for centuries. We are self-selected for intelligence and education.

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Dr. Philip Sekar

posted May 9, 2007 at 12:15 am

I fully agree with this article. Jewish people are far more intelligent than the rest of us. I had worked with few brilliant men Like Prof. Chambon, Prof Mandel, Dr. Benenson. They do have superior intelligence. Dr. Chambon is a leading molecular biologist and Dr. Mandel was a wellknown Neurochemist. My reasoning for this is that the Jewish parents teach their children Torah, Good work ethics, Discipline and lessons on how to handle money. Good nutrition during the first 5 years of life as well as Disciplining the mind are essential components in the development of the brain which contribute to the superior intelligence. They are no doubt God’s chosen people.

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posted May 9, 2007 at 3:04 am

I personally do not believe Jews as a group have more native intelligence than people of other religous or ethnic groups. The generally high academic achievement one sees in certain groups (Jews, many Asians and others) is more of a cultural phenomenon. People from these backgrouds value education and encourage their children to do well. They give them the tools that allow them to learn and set the example by reading and studying themselves. I have taught high school students of many different backgrounds and quickly discovered that native intelligence is pretty evenly distributed. The difference is in the attitudes the students encountered both at home and in the outside world. Korean parents, for example, would push their children to enroll in the most difficult courses (even when they were not ready for them, usually because they still lacked fluency in English) and then pay for expensive tutoring so the child would be able to pass the course. Some of these students were very bright but others were average kids with ambitious parents. On the other hand, I had two VERY BRIGHT and capable African-American boys who tried to convince everyone they were just “dumb basketball players.” (Fortunately, I did not fall for it.) A number of my Latino students were unusually intelligent and creative but had to deal with language barriers. They however, did not get the extra help the Korean students so did not appear to do as well. In reality, they were just as intelligent. Culture plays a huge part in academic success.

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Dante Medici

posted May 9, 2007 at 5:11 am

I agree with Lucy that culture plays a huge part in academic success. I also believe that God plays an active, though subtle and hidden, role in all of our achievements be they spiritual, intellectual, scholastic, creative, professional or athletic. The Bible warns us against saying (possibly paraphrased) “by my hand alone have I done this.”

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posted May 9, 2007 at 5:18 am

Every Jewish Mother I know has a genius in the high chair. Consider the first teacher. I’m not kidding! Think about it.

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posted May 9, 2007 at 3:02 pm

I had something similar once, that there was a genetic basis for “jewish Inteligence”. The theory went that if a family had more than one son, usually the eldest recieved land/whatever, and any other children went to the priesthood. Usually inteligent children went to the Priesthood, and their Genes disappeared with them. Compare that to jews where if there is an inteligent Child, that Child was saught after, and his Children were in turn saught after, spreading the genes through a larger Pool. Some attribute it to the nature of jewish thinking, that we teach a level of Abstract thought that really is not found among non-jews. I mean if we have a G-d who is neither visible, and is Omnipotent, one has to take a level of abstract thought to work there.

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posted May 9, 2007 at 6:16 pm

A lot of people had a similar environment and education as Einstein but did not have nearly his intelligence. Einstein (and others) had/have superior intelligence because of their genes. As to the language barriers-shouldn’t have had much effect on the math scores-who was better in math? The idea that Jewish intelligence is a result of the greater discrimination weeding out the less intelligent doesn’t work. The proof of this is the fact that the Roma/Gypsies suffered similar discrimination in the same geographical areas and times that Jews did but did not come out of it with the higher level of intelligence of the Jews. Of course the other question is that if Jews have a higher level of intelligence, who has the lower level to fill out the average? Ten foot pole available? Anyone?

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posted May 9, 2007 at 7:26 pm

Intelligence is an elusive quality and not necessarily defined by “I.Q.” (is anybody here familiar with Gardner?) We are born with a genetically predetermined range of ability, but if you don’t lose it, you literally lose it. And if it is nourished, it fluorishes. Jewish culture encourages and values learning and critical thinking (hence the Talmudic tradition). It is not at all surprising that many of the world’s academics and intellectuals have emerged from it. The rest of the world is sorely in need of the same sort of open mindedness and willingness to question.

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posted May 10, 2007 at 3:35 pm

The superior intellignce (and I would say, the moral beauty as well), of a Jewish person? Of course. There is a reason why the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob formed these people from a seperate and seperated group of individuals, into a race of people. The Creator did not pick “Jews,” he selected and created Israelites, who are called “Jews” now. He entered into an agreement, a contract with them. And who is surprised that they are not given an intellectual gift for the “personal” relationship they have with The Creator of the Universe? So much beauty continues to flow from the Sinai experience of Shavout. I am a Christian.

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posted May 10, 2007 at 4:08 pm

Donny, you wrote that: >The Creator did not pick “Jews,” he >selected and created Israelites, who >are called “Jews” now. He entered >into an agreement, a contract with >them. And who is surprised that they >are not given an intellectual gift ?>for the “personal” relationship Part of the problem is that 1) Many jews(like Reconstructionists) gave up the concept of “chosenness” years ago. To believe that one was “selected” is to imply a level of superiority, and can lead to violence and feelings of :”otherness” I tend to actually take a more mystical view, stemming from the fact that in Jewish Law, if a man forces a woman to marry him, he can not divorce her. In much the way that it is written in Torah that it appeared that the mountain was held over the camp of the Israelites. Hence they were “coerced” into the relationship, and can’t leave. of course this means the G-d can’t leave either.

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posted May 11, 2007 at 9:51 pm

I read that Jewish society deliberately chose for intelligence,so it is no surprise that Jews are more intellectual,compared to the general population.Yes,and scholarship is “encouraged,”due to the culture. A “negative”culture can really make learning difficult;AFrican-American culture does not usually encourage scholarship.(Usually,the opposite.)In societies where male youngsters are seen as “bookworms” or “bookish”,and this is a derogatory comment,scholarship and studying is looked down on. And then people wonder why all these young males fail in society,when it comes to making a living?Perhaps not so much cause they are stupid,but because it would not have hurt them to be raised in a Jewish family instead,where their intelligence could have been encouraged.(irony.) I know that American society,in general,dislikes and fears “genius” or the truly intelligent,until one of them becomes Bill Gates,and makes tons of money.So,if ever there was a quality that we Jews could stand to spread among the larger populace,it would be “respect and encouragement for scholarship and intellect.” Many of you have probably read that the level of science and mathamatics workers produced in the U.S. is at an all-time low.Our industry needs them,yet our culture likes people to be conformists,”average” and never ” odd geniuses”. Because many people in my family were geniuses,we were always regarded by neighbors as “wierd.” Later in life,this had the consequences of isolating me from many gentiles,and throwing me in with other Jewish people,and causing me to actively go to synagouge,just to hear the rabbi teach the Talmud. So,yes,I do believe Jews are more intelligent.It’s something we could figure out how to encourage in the rest of the population,including gentiles.Stop refusing to accept “evolution”in science,and start understanding that being smart is nothing to be ashamed of. Choosing to be intelligent,and choosing to use it,has helped we Jews,it certainly could not hurt the rest of the world.

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posted May 12, 2007 at 6:18 am

Just the fact that this is being contemplated shows such a level of conceit. It’s like the Asians who truly believe they’re are just more intelligent on the basis of them being Asian. There is opportunity. That’s what Jews have, money and opportunity. That, Obviously, will lead to being “smarter”. But being as we’re all human beings, and being that being Jewish doesn’t change your genetic structure in any way, means that no Jews are not built to be more intelligent. If you pass that money and opportunity on to another race or culture then believe me, they’ll be showing higher levels of ‘intelligence’ also.

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posted May 12, 2007 at 6:13 pm

To Bookworm: I agree with you. Just the fact that this is being contemplated shows conceit. However, when you say that the money and opportunity that Jews have leads us to become ‘smarter,’ I have to disagree. There are a lot of Jewish people who are in the middle and lower economic brackets. There are also Jewish people who, having both money AND opportunity, manage to waste both of them. You write that any race or culture, having money and opportunity, would also appear ‘smart.’ Again, I disagree. It’s more than money and opportunity. It’s learning and living a set of values that is centered around good for all. And it’s a lot of other things, including discovering your passion in life and following it. You write that being Jewish doesn’t change one’s genetic structure. No, it doesn’t. However, because Jewish communities were somewhat isolated for many years, by a degree of choice and often at the wish of the surrounding non-Jewish communities, many Jews do share some genetic tendencies. I have a question for you, Bookworm. Why do you put the words smarter and intelligence in quotation marks? What are you trying to say by doing that?

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Steven McCahon

posted May 12, 2007 at 9:50 pm

Intelligence & I.Q. It is my view that discussions regarding intelligence promotes racism. The idea that one race or religion, or colour of skin, or gender, is superior to another leads to differentiation, and comparison. Historically, we have sufficient examples of human differences being used to exploit, enslave, experiment, denigrade, institutionalize, torture, and murder “different” people. Twenty-First Century problems require a worldview where humanity is an inclusive concept. Engaging the debate on questions of intelligence or other traits and characteristics invites inferiority and ultimately hatred. In Yahweh’s economy, these differences can never outweigh our inherent similarities. Science continues to identify our sameness. Stem cell research and the human genome are but two examples of the oneness of humanity. Let’s avoid these debates and humanity can learn to live in harmony. We can begin the process today.

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posted May 17, 2007 at 5:26 am

I think Jewish people most likely excel because of their wonderful Jewish Mothers. Now, please understand, I am a Gentile, brought up by a cold English Episcopalian mother. I find the whole idea of a warm, loving, solituous, concerned mom to be a complete delight. With the kind of glowing love that is given by a Jewish Mother, could any child NOT excel? Coupled with a nice Kosher diet, kids thrive. (Darn! I should have been born Jewish!)

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posted May 17, 2007 at 5:54 am

A couple of comments for three of the above commentators: Doreet: I agree that certain cultures value certain characteristics, and that those same cultures devalue certain highly desirable characteristics that lead to success. I do feel that the Jewish culture fosters a warm, loving home environment and expects scholarly advancements from their youngsters. The adherence to religious beliefs and customs is an additional discipline that enables a youngster to excel. To Bookworm, Cheryl & Steve: On the contrary! The answer is discipline. Plain and simple. Asian parents absolutely, positively expect their youngsters to academic achievement. Jewish parents encourage, set good examples, have those wonderful Mothers (!) and have a history of success. Wow. Who couldn’t do well under those circumstances? The average in this great nation of America is the lowly standard of what is portrayed on TV. We inadvertently are seeking the lowest common denominator. Kids learn by example. Give them enough good examples of being a successful person, and you will create a successful person. Park them in front of the TV, and God only knows what you will get. A serial killer, perhaps? Incidently, what is it with all the “G-d” stuff?? I say “God”. I write “God”. Are these people who write, “G-d” catering to that miniscule percentage of the population who is Aethist? Give me a break.

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posted May 17, 2007 at 6:19 am

Actually, some Jews write G-d as an extension of the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain. If it were written on paper (and it’s debatable whether the word “God” really qualifies), you wouldn’t want it destroyed, thrown in the garbage, stepped on, etc. The Internet is a bit more vague. The word isn’t written on something that could be mishandled, but it could be printed out onto a physical sheet of paper. Anyway, it’s just a sign of respect. Some do it, some don’t.

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posted September 1, 2011 at 5:45 am

I don’t buy this stuff. Jews have been around in history for ca. 4000 yrs & have accomplished very great things- apart from good, but not great stuff in medieval Spain- in past 150-200 yrs. On the other hand- French, Germans, English- each & every ca. 2-2.5 times more numerous than Jews- have been around, as nations, for less than 1000 yrs, and in past 500-600 yrs have radically changed human civilization (not to mention founding empires etc.). Jews seem to me essentially “plastic”. In great country like Germany (or German speaking countries), you got great creative minds: Franz Kafka, Gustav Mahler, Hermann Broch. In the US- you got rather downsized figures of Norman Mailer and George Gershwin. “Sich” is life.

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