Every year after the announcement of the Nobel Prize winners, the media is bombarded with emails and letters asking the same question: Why have Jews, who are only a fraction of the world’s population and only around 1 percent of the total population of the United States and Europe, received more than 20 percent of Nobel Prizes? The question may seem silly, but it actually addresses larger issues of educational and economic equality.
According to the recent Pew Poll, over half of Jews are college graduates (58 percent), including 28 percent who say they have earned a post-graduate degree. By comparison, 29 percent of U.S. adults say they graduated from college, including 10 percent who have a post-graduate degree.
While exploring this phenomenon would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, the past decade or so has seen an increased effort devoted to understanding Jews’ educational achievement. Several theories have been put forth. One was offered by the economist Simon Kuznets in his “Economic Structure of US Jewry.” “Because Jews were a minority,” Kuznets argued, “they chose to concentrate in a few industries and occupations in order to be able to maintain their group identity. And since these industries and occupations were in cities and were human capital intensive, this affected their education choices.”
Another, perhaps more common idea is that since Jews were not allowed to own land, they were often pushed into urban areas and encouraged to invest in professions that would give them flexibility of movement. Most of these occupations required literacy.
Yet another view is a more cultural one: perhaps Jews are more educated because their religion requires them to be educated. In fact, (male) Jews are expected to read the Torah and teach it to their children (sons).
Philo of Alexandria articulated one version of this in the first century C.E.: “Since the Jews esteem their laws as divine revelations, and are instructed in the knowledge of them from their earliest youth, they bear the image of the law in their souls.”
So perhaps it is culture that has made Jews more educated and as a consequence, more successful. But here’s the catch. If this was just a cultural practice, with its roots in Jewish religion, it would have originated at the same time as Judaism. But it didn’t.
Jews were not more educated before the first century C.E. and most probably not before the seventh century C.E. Actually, the change in Jewish educational practices and institutions was a result of an internal conflict between two groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Before the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sadducees controlled Jewish society, dominating the religious and social roles. As the high priests, they were in charge of the Temple and religious learning and restricted access to educational institutions to a very small segment of the Jewish society. Their role was challenged by the Pharisees, who advocated the study of both the Written and Oral Torah by all Jews. This “democratizing education” severely reduced the Sadducee domination.
With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the balance of power in Jewish society shifted, and the Pharisees were able to seize power from the Sadducees. Thus began the process of fundamental educational reform. The Pharisees instituted such traditions as reading and teaching the Torah to one’s sons. They supported primary schools for Jewish communities. After this period, synagogues became learning institutions, and this practice spread more widely in the sixth and seventh centuries. Notably, this happened in part while Jewish society was still mostly agricultural.
Throughout the millennia, Jews and Judaism have continued to emphasize the importance of Jewish education. There are extensive classical Jewish texts that encourage parents to share the Jewish narrative with their children. Only when—early in the first century—it became obvious that not all parents were capable of educating their children, were schools established as an alternative model.
The importance of education is repeatedly stressed in the Talmud (Pirkei Avot): “children are to start school at the age of six—which is in accordance with present-day requirements throughout the world; they are not to be beaten with a stick or cane, but should receive only mild punishment; older students should help out in the education of those who are younger; and children should not be kept away from their lessons by other duties. The number of pupils in a class should not exceed 25; larger classes require the engagement of a relief teacher while two teachers have to be appointed if there are over 40 pupils.”
But what about girls and women? While the focus of study was relegated to boys, what the texts don’t address is the necessity for many women to be literate as well. During the Middle Ages, when many Jewish men sought a living as merchants, their wives were often left at home, responsible for running the business on the home front. They had to be literate to accomplish that, and for the past 100 years, women have continued to make strides in pursuit of a Jewish education. Today girls as well as boys are encouraged to study Judaism and attend institutions of higher learning.
While there have always been women throughout Jewish history who have sought education, some of the more significant movement in that direction may also be attributed to The Enlightenment in the eighteenth century that inspired the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment. This was an intellectual movement in Europe that lasted from approximately the 1770s to the 1880s and was seen as an entrance into general society. When one has been excluded so long from the majority society, there is a longing to enter it. The movement, based on rationality, encouraged Jews to study secular subjects, to learn both the European and Hebrew languages, and to enter fields such as agriculture, crafts, the arts and science. Women both participated in and conducted salons attended by Jews and non-Jews alike.
When Jews immigrated in large numbers to the United States, there was a greater opportunity for children to become educated. Even among the poorer, less educated immigrants, there was powerful motivation to acquire an education for their children. They understood that education was the way to succeed in this new land. In response to the overwhelming numbers of children of Jewish immigrants, quota systems were imposed at elite colleges and universities for the first part of the twentieth century. These limited the number of Jewish students accepted and greatly reduced their previous attendance; however, many attended city and state universities instead.
Today, American Jews no longer face the discrimination in higher education that they did in the past, and as indicated in the Pew Poll, continue to pursue higher education.
Pirkei Avot states that the world of Judaism rests on three pillars: Torah (study), Avodah (worship) and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving kindness). In Deuteronomy 6:7, we are commanded to “teach them diligently.” Following these teachings, Jews have prioritized studying and learning down through the generations. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Jews have been inordinately engaged in building the institutions of education and in promoting teaching as a professional craft. This is so for the all the educational institutions that Jews have supported, from the Yiddish folk schools of the early twentieth century to the Jewish day schools that now exist in many cities and, significantly, the public education system.
There is a good reason Jews hold education sacred. An educated citizenry is not only a necessary precondition for any democracy, but a necessary precondition for engagement in the full kaleidoscope of Jewish life. Jews have long been known as the “People of the Book.” Perhaps, today, we can understand the even more expansive implication of that phrase.
Florence L. Dann, a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in L.A., has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004. She served as the Vice-President of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation West Coast and currently teaches English as Second Language to adults.