Chosen

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In the April issue of Commentary, a scholar dared to raise one of the few remaining issues still considered impolite these days for public discussion: Jewish intelligence.

In an essay entitled “Jewish Genius,” political scientist and writer Charles Murray – who is not Jewish – outlines the historical and statistical data suggesting Jewish intellectual acumen and accomplishment, as well as a variety of theories seeking to explain them.

While most of us Jews will readily admit that we personally know many members of the tribe who are not very smart at all, Dr. Murray insists that “the average Jew is at the 75th percentile” of the IQ scale and that “the proportion of Jews with IQs of 140 or higher is somewhere around six times the proportion of everyone else.” Some, moreover, have noticed that a number of world-changing ideas, both religious ones like monotheism and scientific ones like relativity, have their roots in a certain ethnicity.

After exploring a number of theories addressing the anomaly, Dr. Murray is less than satisfied. Recent historical circumstances might have genetically favored Jews of higher intellect, he allows; but he suspects that Jewish intellectual ability is ancient, that the Jews may “have had some degree of unusual verbal skills going back to the time of Moses.” And so, he writes, he remains “naked before the evolutionary psychologists’ ultimate challenge: Why should one particular tribe at the time of Moses, living in the same environment as other nomadic and agricultural peoples of the Middle East, have already evolved elevated intelligence when the others did not?”

Then, tongue – at least partially – in cheek, he concludes:

“At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are G-d’s [hypen mine – AS] chosen people.”

Well, the thought is certainly timely. We will soon be celebrating Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the cementing of the Jewish people’s chosen status: the covenant forged at Sinai.

I don’t know, or much care, whether or not intelligence plays any role in the Jewish election. But if it does, it is peripheral to the essence of our chosenness.

Because what Jews are chosen for is to serve the Creator – with our intellects, yes, but also with our hearts and with our bodies.

To be sure, the Torah itself refers to the Jewish people as “a wise nation” – but also as a stubborn one, and sometimes even worse. The bottom line: It’s not our Intelligence Quotients that count but our Righteousness Quotients. What counts is the service, not the smarts. The Sages of the Talmud did not generally stress inherent abilities – mental or otherwise – but rather focused on how we utilize whatever blessings we have. Their greatest honorifics customarily ran not to words like “genius” or brilliant” but to ones like “righteous” and “G-d fearing.”

Even though the Jews’ election was merited through the dedication of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and through another choice – that of their descendants, at Sinai, to accept the laws and teachings of the Torah; and even though the exclusive Jewish club is open to any sincere convert willing to undertake to observe the Torah, the idea of Jewish chosenness has perturbed some non-Jews since, well, since Sinai.

Of late, though, anti-Semites tend to feed at other troughs of hate-fodder, like Israel’s existence (and its imagined evildoing). These days, ironically, the idea of the Jewish people as divinely chosen is more likely to disturb… Jews.

That is because the truism that every human being has limitless value and potential has morphed into the notion that all people are interchangeable, if not identical. To suggest that different individuals or groups may have different functions or responsibilities has become uncouth, if not sexist or racist. Judaism, however, unapologetically assigns roles – to men and to women; to scholars and to laypeople; to descendants of the Biblical Aaron and to the rest of the Jewish people. And to the Jewish people qua people, too.

There’s no escaping it. A blessing all Jews are enjoined to pronounce each morning states the fact clearly: “Blessed are You… Who chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah…”

I sometimes wonder if part of the reason Shavuot isn’t as widely celebrated by contemporary Jews as Sukkot or Passover might be the squirming induced in some Jewish circles by the idea of Jewish specialness. If so, I’d respectfully suggest that the squirmers just get over it already.

After all, there are many ethnicities and religions that lay claim to specialness – from the Japanese to the Mormons to the Black Muslims. And while history is littered with the deaths and destruction sown by self-proclaimed Ubermenschen, Jewish specialness is not a license but a gift; and its sole import is a responsibility to live lives of holiness and thereby inspire others – to be the proverbial light unto the nations.

This year Shavuot falls on May 23 and 24. While some have the custom to spend the entire first night of the holiday (and others, both nights) studying Torah, there is no Shavuot cognate-commandment to Passover’s seder or Sukkot’s huts. Shavuot is a time, it would seem, for turning inward and focusing on the giving of the Torah and how it defines who we are as Jews. A time to realize that our essence lies not in our talents and not in our intelligence, but in our mission.

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14 Responses

  1. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “The successful Jewish doctor, accoutant and, nebich, lawyer, is using the same study techniques and perseverence that his grandfather, the yeshiva man, used in his study of the Gemara… It’s well known that nowadays the yeshiva boy who studies the most, irregardless of his personal characteristics, is the first up for the shiduch.”

    Cordac,

    Doesn’t the Jackie Mason version put a lawyer on a higher madreiga than, nebach, an accountant? :)

    Seriously, I agree to an extent with your last point, that shidduchim focus too much on externals, including smarts(“he’s the best boy in…”), and certainly, “my son the rosh yeshivah”, should never become the frum version of “my son, the doctor, my son the lawyer”. A much better approach is that of the new “Shidduch Magazine” which except for education, lists character and life goals as defining characteristics.

    Someone on the administration of a Brooklyn yeshiva high school had the correct attitude for education. I remember this person saying at the end of the school year, that they were are as proud of those boys who had grown in various areas of character and personality, as they were of those who made siyumim on masechtas or otherwise achieved academically.

  2. Reb Yid says:

    AS writes:

    “While most of us Jews will readily admit that we personally know many members of the tribe who are not very smart at all, Dr. Murray insists that “the average Jew is at the 75th percentile” of the IQ scale and that “the proportion of Jews with IQs of 140 or higher is somewhere around six times the proportion of everyone else.” Some, moreover, have noticed that a number of world-changing ideas, both religious ones like monotheism and scientific ones like relativity, have their roots in a certain ethnicity.”

    It’s incredible how short-sighted contemporary American Jews are, as well as is at least one non-Jewish political scientist. If you look back to 1900 New York, Philadelphia, Boston, etc–the prominent IQ “studies” found that Jews (who were then by and large recent immigrants) actually had among the “lowest” IQs. Many Jews of the era were illiterate, too.

    Of course, this is not the main theme of AS’s post–it’s only meant to whet our appetite before getting to the “real” importance of being Jewish. But a critical look at US history will give one a different ‘take’ on the “intelligence” of Jews.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Today’s Israeli government is an object lesson that our innate group intelligence (if that is a valid concept to begin with) is not enough to make Jews do the right thing. Our intelligence is a tool to be used within Torah guidelines and can even have a negative value outside those guidelines. If we use it properly, we and all other nations benefit.

  4. sam says:

    i think the ohr Hachaim Hakadosh Rudy mentioned is so crucial to understanding the chosen people, and the author of the article should mention it. Choseness has nothing to do with intellectual superiority. when Rav Ruderman ZTZ”l came to the Slaobodka Yeshiva, the Alter ZTZ”L spent six months impressing on Rav Ruderman that “kishron is gornisht”
    We teach our children that middos is the most important value, and when it comes time for seminary , the student needs A average.
    The whole thing sounds racist.
    there is no question that our educational system going back thousands of years, of Torah study being the highest value, developed intellect, added to the fact that the most brilliant minds in the chritian world would not have children, contributes to the idea in the article. But not that we are in our essense more intellegent, or that we were chosen because of it

  5. Shlomo says:

    While some have the custom to spend the entire first night of the holiday (and others, both nights) studying Torah

    And some of us have the custom to live in places where there’s only one night of the holiday.

    Come to think of it, it’s not just a custom. It’s a possibly obligatory mitzvah deoraita…

  6. Rudy Wagner says:

    Rav Shafran, you may be interested to know that an illustrous predecessor, the Or Ha-Chaim Ha-Kadosh (Itro 18-21), addresses this same point. He explains that we should not believe that we have been chosen because of our supposedly superior intelligence, as there will always be more intelligent/wiser people around (in that instance Mr Itro who gives a precious advice to Moshe Rabbenu). We should thus realise that our choseness is not due to our superiour intelligence, but rather to the merit of our forefathers (the Avos) and ultimately an act of Chesed (Mercy) from the Ribono Shel Oilam (the Creator). The Torah describes us as wise people (also in the eyes of the gentiles) because of our adherence to the Torah (Devarim 4: 4-9)

  7. mycroft says:

    We are definitely a self-selected group. Jews who didn’t want to bother with Judaism could, in most societies, convert away from it. Those who remained tended to be argumentative, stiff necked, and intelligent. Those were our ancestors.

    Comment by Ori Pomerantz

    Or sadly from my standpoint those who are not part of the intellectual elite have not been encouraged to stay within Yahadus. For a little while the Hassidic Revolution tried to reach and accept the non elite-but even that has to a large extent disappeared.
    I believe after the levaya of Rav A Kotler ZT”L-his widow complained that all were talking about what a great Talmid Chacham he was-she felt they should have spoken what a Great Zaddik he was. Until we stop glorifying the intellectual giants rather than those who act properly to all we will continue to push away many.

  8. ariel says:

    Jewish Intelligence
    While most of us Jews will readily admit that we personally know many members of the tribe who are not very smart at all, Dr. Murray insists that “the average Jew is at the 75th percentile”…

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    We are definitely a self-selected group. Jews who didn’t want to bother with Judaism could, in most societies, convert away from it. Those who remained tended to be argumentative, stiff necked, and intelligent. Those were our ancestors.

  10. yirmeyahu says:

    “What counts is the service, not the smarts.” It’s well known that nowadays the yeshiva boy who studies the most, irregardless of his personal characteristics, is the first up for the shiduch.

    You are using “counts” in what one gets from his service…the article speaks of what “counts” to Hashem.

  11. Noam says:

    Very nicely written. I would also add that our ‘chosenness” gives us additional obligations to God and to others, and does not bestow any additional favors on us in relation to others who are not part of the group. Also, anyone who seriously wants to join is allowed to join, in contradistinction to many other groups where membership is predetermined, or not open to all.

    My wife teaches adult Jewish education, and the concept of chosenness is the most difficult one for many to accept and understand.

  12. Cordac Hesperon says:

    In response to various points raised in Rav Shafran’s essay:
    1) It’s well known why Jews are so smart. For centuries in Europe, whenever the Catholics found an intelligent boy with a high level of devotion, they stuck him in the priesthood and the celibacy that came with it. In this way, they selected out their own intelligent population. With the Jews, if they found a nice bochur with a good kopf on his shoulders, they made sure they got him married by 16 (17 max!) and that he produced at least 20 kids. They selected in and thereby enhanced the average intelligence of the population.
    Furthermore, in the Middle East, Muslims have a strong tradition of marrying close cousins which means in-breeding of damaging recessive genes. Jews, by valuing qualities other than strong family ties, ensured this didn’t happen to their population.
    2)The Jewish tradition of learning is so ingrained as to be almost genetic. The successful Jewish doctor, accoutant and, nebich, lawyer, is using the same study techniques and perseverence that his grandfather, the yeshiva man, used in his study of the Gemara. Sometimes even average intelligence can achieve high aims with the right effort. Was it not for this stubborness that G-d chose us?
    3) Shavuos is the least celebrated of the Three Festivals precisely because it has no special symbol (like the sukkah) or ritual (like the Seder). This is why most non-religious Jews haven’t heard of Shemini Atzeres either. Plus Shavuos happens late in the school year when most part-time Talmud Torahs are either out for the summer or gearing up for the end of the year parties. So it gets misssed.
    4) Please don’t tell me that “What counts is the service, not the smarts.” It’s well known that nowadays the yeshiva boy who studies the most, irregardless of his personal characteristics, is the first up for the shiduch. The modest, saintly boy gets pushed to the back of the beis medrash by the egotistical but intelligent students and never rates a mention because he doesn’t spout off all the time about how much he’s learned and how he won’t even eat fish with fish, never mind meat and milk.

  13. joel rich says:

    R’ Shafran,

    Of course an amalekite explanation would be that even in a random distribution someone/thing/group has to be at the 99th percentile (does anyone ever try and explain why a lottery winner was chosen?)

    Jewish specialness is not a license but a gift; and its sole import is a responsibility to live lives of holiness and thereby inspire others – to be the proverbial light unto the nations.

    A gift and a responsibility (a la NOBLESSE OBLIGE). Of course much of the current debate within orthodoxy is how does one carry out the “light” role – do our own thing and hope to be noticed or try to conciously influence the outside world.

    KT

  14. Bob Miller says:

    It’s not unusual to assign tough missions to those best equipped to succeed in them.