Tevi Troy, author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency, is an observant Jew who has held a number of positions in the Bush White House. He began his career in government working as an aide to then-Governor John Ashcroft of Missouri. He told me that when the Shavuot holiday approached, he cringed at the prospect of asking for the day off. Most secularized Jews don't observe it, so how could he expect his non-Jewish boss to give him the time?
Sure enough, the initial reaction was puzzlement; the name of the holiday was unfamiliar. Tevi plunged on, explaining that it is the holiday mentioned twice in Exodus (23:16, 34:22), once in Leviticus (23:21), once in Numbers (28:26), and once more in Deuteronomy (16:10). It is celebrated exactly seven weeks from the second day of Passover and the tradition is that the Jews received the Law at Sinai on that day. "Oh," said Ashcroft's chief of staff, a devout evangelical, "you mean Pentecost. Certainly you can have the days off."
This year Shavuot, or Pentecost, is on Monday and Tuesday, June 13 and 14. Whenever statistics are compiled, it always ranks dead last as the least observed of the holidays. The Bible refrained from devising specialized rituals for it; since it celebrates the intellectual task of study, it is best celebrated by study itself, rather than by symbolic acts or objects. And as with all things cerebral, it tends to be the province of the few, the select. No call to ponder its neglect: it's neglected because it calls for pondering.
NOW A FASCINATING confluence of timing brings into focus an element of this heritage. Just a few days ago, the London Economist reported on a scientific paper being published in the coming issue of the Journal of Biosocial Science. The authors, Drs. Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending, offer some coy self-congratulation on their fearless "political incorrectness." Then they sock it to you.
Their subject: the demonstrable edge in intelligence enjoyed by Ashkenazi (literally "German," but used to designate all of Europe except Spain, Greece, and Turkey) Jews over the rest of the Caucasian population, a gap of about 12 IQ points. Their conclusion: it developed since the Middle Ages, as the result of being denied access to trades and forced into more cerebral livelihoods like banking.
There is a chuckle to be had from the irony that the oppressors actually engendered superiority in their victims by ignoring the verse in Scripture (Exodus 1:12): "And the more they oppressed him (the Israelite), that much he would multiply and that much he would be strengthened." To which the Talmud (Sotah 11a) adds, that the future tense of he would multiply and would be strengthened is used, because it is a prophecy for the future history of the Jewish People as well.
In fact this analysis is not only demonstrably incorrect, its blind-man-and-the-elephant methodology doomed it from the start. Let's ask this: is it logical to say that the people who produced the world's greatest literary work in the 24 books of Scripture, the most powerful (and unprecedented) poetry in history in the Psalms and Song of Songs, and the most ingenious legal compilation, the Talmud, did not have these smarts? That by the merest coincidence their offspring fell into an ironic social anomaly two millennia later and only then achieved a belated smartening?
Any reasonable scientific mind, not catechized by the Church of Latter-Day Determinists, would conclude that if people seemed to have produced very smart work 3,000 years ago and are calculably smart today, then there is likely to be one cause for this long trans-historic run of intellectual excellence.
FURTHERMORE, MANY PARTS of Eastern Europe had socioeconomic conditions which forced the vast majority of Jews to be shoemakers, tailors, and carpenters. Yet the children of those people, once liberated into urban modernity, dominated the academy, the arts and wide swaths of the political arena.
The correct answer is simple enough but difficult to ascertain in the laboratory. The Jews developed their intellect by studying the Torah as a lifetime passion. The moment a young boy showed signs of being bright, the Rabbi would make sure that he was singled out for extra instruction in Talmud. When the kid became too smart for him, he sent him up to a greater scholar and on upwards. Later, after the first Yeshiva opened in Eastern Europe in 1804, this system became more formalized.
It is an open, incontrovertible fact that the hierarchical system of pride and privilege within Judaism was built on intellect, analytical skills, and scholarly knowledge. Indeed this eventually created a backlash in the 1700s, when the Hasidic movement was begun with the explicit goal of deemphasizing scholarship and focusing on simpler virtues.
This was how the genetics of intelligence was fostered. Scholars taught other scholars and their children married each other. There was also a strong culture encouraging beautiful women to marry scholars (unlike de Maupassant's false assertion to the contrary) so that the children would be smart and good-looking. People of wealth were honored to subsidize the intellectual activity with their assets.
It is much more common when reading about a brilliant Jewish author and scientist to find that he came from a family of Rabbinic scholars than from a family of bankers. Just read the signature of Maimonides, one of the great geniuses of history, upon completing at age 30 his commentary on the Mishna: "I am Moses, son of Maimon the Judge (of Jewish Law) son of Rabbi Joseph the Wise son of Isaac the Judge son of Joseph the Judge son of Obadiah the Judge son of Rabbi Solomon the Rabbi son of Rabbi Obadiah the Judge."
My grandfather was 15 years old when he arrived in 1908 from the Ukraine; within three years he was excelling at Syracuse University, then Columbia. He died when I was eleven, but not before telling me this joke. The Gentile asks the Jew how Jews are so smart, so he sells him a piece of their special mind-sharpening herring for fifty dollars. Afterwards, the man angrily shouts that he ate the herring and feels no different. "You see?" says the Jew. "You're getting smarter already."
Dr. Gregory Cochran is too smart to eat the herring. He should learn the true answer: Pentecost.
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