Is There Really Such a Thing as Jewish Genius?

Jonathan Valk
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Jonathan Valk

Many Jews in Israel and around the world will be patting themselves on the back this week, indulging in another round of self-congratulation and communal pride. The occasion: a fresh batch of Jewish Nobel Prize winners. Saul Perlmutter and Adam G. Riess are among the three recipients of the prize in physics, Ralph M. Steinman and Bruce Beutler make up two thirds of the three latest laureates in medicine, and Dan Shechtman claimed the prize in chemistry all by himself. This leaves us with a total of just under half of this year's winners, and precisely half if we do away with the unscientific Nobel Peace Prize. An impressive tally by any standards, but are we right to attribute it to some sort of special, Jewish genius?

Not quite. It is undeniable that the gamut of evidence marshaled by proponents of "Jewish genius" is remarkable. Jews have not only picked up an inordinate share of 2011's Nobel Prizes: they account for roughly twenty percent of all Nobel Prizes ever awarded, and this while constituting only one fifth of one percent (0.2%) of the global population. Jews are similarly overrepresented in academic publications of all descriptions, in science, in the media, in business, and in other fields of human endeavor. There's clearly something going on here.

Albert EinsteinCredit: AP

But we aren't dealing with something uniquely Jewish as such. Other than a common identity, what is it that unites all of these Jewish thinkers, innovators, and doers? With only the odd and arguable exception, every Jewish Nobel Prize winner has been steeped in the intellectual traditions, mores and values of secular, non-Jewish culture, in addition to whatever attachment they may have had to their Jewish origin. The truth is, of course, that Einstein did not formulate the law of the photoelectric effect in the Yeshiva, that Freud did not develop psychoanalysis in the synagogue, and that the myriad other Jewish innovators of the last two centuries made their greatest breakthrough in fields and settings that can only very rarely, if at all, be objectively classified as Jewish.

Advocates of "Jewish genius" will protest that irrespective of where Jewish thinkers are educated, in what field they are active, and in which intellectual tradition they operate, it remains true that the statistics demonstrate unambiguously that Jews have contributed incommensurately to a great variety of disciplines. Opponents of "Jewish genius" will point out that the overwhelming majority of these Jews share a common socioeconomic background: they all tend to come from either bourgeois or aspiring bourgeois families that relate to academic success as the objective criterion for measuring one's accomplishments in life. Given that so many Jews share this background, they say, is it any wonder that they go on to feature prominently in fields that depend on academic qualifications?

Both sides make valid arguments, but they miss the point. Yes, people who happen to be Jewish contribute disproportionately to many disciplines. And yes, Jews often come from backgrounds that predispose them to do so. The crux of the matter, however, is that those Jews who take the greatest steps forward for humanity as a whole first step away from their Jewish particularism. Some may continue to embrace this particularism, some may well draw deeply from its richness, and some may even find that it informs their every move, but in the end they all build upon – and for – a more universal human heritage.

Einstein merged his particular world view with humanity's accumulated scientific knowledge to develop innovative concepts in physics. Similarly, Freud combined his studies in the nascent field of neurology and his particular relationship with his Jewish mother to create the new discipline of psychoanalysis. The Jewish Nobel Laureates of 2011 are no different, and each and every one of them has combined universal scientific underpinnings with his own particularism to innovate and to create new knowledge.

This bringing together of particularism and universalism isnt unique to the modern era. The most fecund and vital periods of Jewish civilization are precisely those that were richest in intellectual exchange between Jew and non-Jew. Today's Jewish innovators can by and large trace their intellectual pedigree to the Jewish Enlightenment of the 19th century, when Jews in much of Europe were freed from their ghettoes and allowed to participate actively in the cultures of their host societies.

Spinoza, perhaps the greatest of Jewish philosophers, was a product of 17th century Amsterdam, a free-thinking place that enabled Jews to look beyond narrow communal confines. The work of Jewish thinkers like Maimonides, Judah Halevi, and Abraham ibn Ezra reflects the multicultural Hispano-Arabic milieu in which it originated. What distinguishes the thinking of Philo of Alexandria is the extent to which he uses Hellenistic forms to frame his ideas. The list goes on. Indeed, one might almost be tempted to recall that Moses was educated in Pharaoh's court!

All of which goes to say that in so far as it is possible to speak of "Jewish genius" at all, it makes no sense to do so without reference to its essential ingredient – a productive interaction between the Jewish individual and the best of variant traditions. We must look for all genius – not just Jewish genius – in the ability to combine different traditions in novel ways and to innovate to universal benefit. When Jews win Nobel Prizes and excel, then it should be welcomed as a clear indication of an ability to look beyond Jewish particularism and to embrace a broader, more universal outlook. So although they did our back-patting, self-congratulating communities proud, the Jewish Nobel winners' achievements are, ironically, not a celebration of their Jewishness per se, but rather a triumph of their fruitful engagement with the outside world.

Jonathan Valk is an Israel Research Fellow and a graduate of the Universities of Oxford and Chicago.