Virtual Talmud

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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