It is not just our traditional and liturgical emphasis on asking questions that contributes to what Rabbi Waxman terms the “Jewish intellectual legacy.” It is the value Jewish traditional learning placed upon engaging different opinions.
The Talmud is full of such debates: different opinions are tried, compared and tested. Often a successful conclusion means finding how the opinions of two or more rabbis can be internally consistent (and therefore legitimate) even if they represent diametrically opposite opinions. The model of Talmudic study has not only honed our ability to think clearly but has also created a Jewish culture open to the difference of opinions. It so imbues who we are that even the least affiliated Jew is familiar with some version of the quip, “Ask two Jews, get three opinions.” It is this openness and concurrent tendency against dogma, which is responsible for creating the kind of cultural environment that stimulates creative thinking. It means that Jews are disproportionately represented among the greatest achievers in modern science and culture, as reflected in the number of Nobel Prizes awarded to Jews. It also means that we may have a slightly greater tendency than our peers to think for ourselves and reject tradition and authority. That can be a blessing and a curse. We are what the Bible calls a “stiff-necked people.” This reflects great strength of purpose and character but also plain stubbornness as we exert our sovereign selves, often at the cost of rejecting the very tradition that contributed so much to who we have become.
–Posted by Rabbi Susan Grossman
Read the Full Debate: Are Jews Intellectually Superior?