Jewish Accomplishment

(With Pesach approaching, I take the liberty of posting several essays that are still timely but were published in the distant past .)

     The social scientist Charles Murray, in his fascinating “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BCE to 1950” (Harper Collins, 2003) presents an insightful overview of the history of human achievement – in technology, arts, and science. He ranks over 4,000 people according to their eminence, assiduously following a formula that he devised based on subsequent references in literature to the person’s work or thought. He begins with the post-biblical period (actually, smack in the middle of the first Bet HaMikdash era) to avoid obvious religious disputes, and concludes over a half-century ago to avoid over-emphasizing our recent past. The controversy, of course, rests in his conclusion – as obvious as it seems – that those who have contributed most to the advancement of civilization are overwhelmingly white European males.

     Several interesting points emerge. Apparently, human accomplishment was essentially frozen from approximately 100 BCE until 1200 CE – a long, Dark Age. During that time, there were few scientific discoveries and almost no inventions of any substance. People’s quality of life in terms of home convenience, medical care, etc. did not improve for over a millennium. What Murray terms, somewhat indecorously, “significant people”, were few in number. Most world development has occurred since the year 1400, and disproportionately in the last century or two.

     That gives rise to Murray’s thesis that human accomplishment is not spread over time symmetrically but is disproportionately clustered in certain historical eras, for reasons he discusses. Consider art in 15-16th century Italy (Michelangelo, Da Vinci, et al) that essentially has never been duplicated, or technological inventiveness in 20th century America, which is also unparalleled. “If one says there is wisdom among the nations, believe it” (Eicha Rabba 2).

     How do Jews fare in his estimation ? Astonishingly well in the recent past. We were dormant through the years of intense persecution and Christian subjugation, but joined the world’s achievers with gusto after 1800. So much so that well over 10%, and in some cases nearly 30%, of the world’s achievers in science, art, literature and music after 1800 were Jews. A clearer indicator: From 1900-1950, 14% of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences or literature were awarded to Jews, but from 1950-2000, an astounding 29% (!) of Nobel Prizes in these fields went to Jews – this, when Jews constituted well under ½ of 1% of the world’s population. Murray offers an interesting theory for this phenomenon, but first a note about his omissions.

     Notwithstanding his awe at Jewish achievement, we still get short shrift historically. During the world’s Dark Age of inactivity, we produced a flourishing culture – Mishna, Talmud, the works of the Gaonim such as Rav Saadiah Gaon (who is listed, by the way, among great philosophers) – that sustain our people until today.

     Moreover, because of our poor public relations (a problem that did not begin with the Israelis), no credit is given to the Talmudic sages for their scientific discoveries – probably because they are unknown to the world at large. Thus, the Tosefta (Shabbat, Chapter 7) notes that an iron bar may be placed on a roof to attract lightning – long before old Ben Franklin discovered electricity. Chazal in several places (e.g., Sanhedrin 106b) refer to the laws pertaining to “a tower that flies in the air”, recognizing that airplane flight was a physical possibility, if then a practical impossibility. Rabban Gamliel used a telescope that could distinguish objects a kilometer away (Eruvin 43b). Rav Yehoshua knew of Halley’s comet – “a star that shoots across the sky once every 70 years” (Horayot 10a) – fifteen centuries before Edmond Halley (1656-1742) was a gleam in his mother’s eye. And it is clear from even a superficial understanding of the Talmud that most of our Sages assumed the earth was a round sphere (not flat) and revolved around the sun – 1300 years before Nic Copernicus claimed the credit and won the fame associated with these “discoveries”.

     It is all PR. Even Murray concedes that for most of his time frame, Jews were forcibly barred from participating in the world’s intellectual and cultural pursuits. So, why have Jews been able to surge to the forefront of the world’s achievers in the last two centuries since the ghetto walls began to fall ? Murray suggests that the “extraordinary level of accomplishment among the Ashkenazi Jews who came out of Central and Eastern Europe” is based on “the one indisputable, consistent fact about traditional Jewish life: the extraordinarily high value attached to learning.” (italics mine) Education in Eastern Europe was almost universal on some level, and Jews were widely literate in societies noted for rampant illiteracy. “Status within traditional Jewish communities was closely linked with learning. The young Rabbi was one of the most desirable marriage partners for young women, and also, given the intellectual demands of Talmudic study, probably had a high IQ. Others who were not rabbis but known to be learned were also desirable marriage partners. A culture in which the males with the highest IQs have the pick of the women is, over centuries, likely to become a population with a high mean IQ” – especially since, Murray notes, geneticists estimate that all Ashkenazic Jews descend from approximately 500 families.

     This is an intriguing proposition, and one which should surely reinforce for us the primacy of Torah study for us and our children, for its own sake, and as an exalted alternative to the vapidity and decadence of the secular culture in which Jews are unfortunately disproportionately represented today. Talmud Torah keneged kulam, indeed. Our strength lies in the maintenance of a society in which intellectual achievement is fostered and prized, and is the foundation of our moral aspirations.

     Perhaps there is one additional point that accounts for our success over the ages that Murray could not recognize: the will of Divine Providence. From the time of the covenant with our forefathers, we were destined to be in the forefront of history and world development – acknowledged or unacknowledged. When we were subdued, the world’s development was also suppressed, and when we emerged – in Medieval Spain, in Renaissance Italy, in Enlightenment Europe, and in Free America – the world’s development accelerated. In essence, we are the barometers of mankind’s progress, and in the way they treat us, of their ethical standing. This is G-d’s will, and largely explains mankind’s obsession with us, generation after generation.

     Because of our status and our reputation as G-d’s people, the world’s empires – whether Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Christian or Moslem – have never been able to ignore us, and, despite their best efforts, have also never succeeded in vanquishing us. These are the challenges and privileges of membership in the Am  Segula, the treasured people, and a constant clarion call to us to always be worthy of that lofty designation, meet the corresponding expectations, and propel mankind forward until man’s moral accomplishments are as heralded as his cultural and technological ones – which surely will coincide with the dawning of the Messianic era.

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