Why Us?

Gil Student has a discussion of the purported superior intelligence of Jews vis-à-vis non-Jews, and its possible relationship to chosenness:

There are many theological approaches to the religious idea of God having chosen the Jews. These range from mystical concepts of inherent holiness to historical explanations of Jews having bonded with God … Yet I have never seen in this discussion a suggestion that the result of this chosenness is greater intelligence. Having a covenant with God does not mean being smarter than gentiles.

In George Gilder’s recent book, The Israel Test, this philosemitic author makes much of Jewish genius. With his captivating prose and contagious enthusiasm, he shows how Jews have succeeded in modern Europe, America and now Israel, excelling in the sciences and industry well beyond their proportion. He embraces the idea that Jews are disproportionately intelligent and successful. His point, essentially, is that a successful culture is one that allows Jews (and Israel, the Jewish country) to do their thing. If Jews are discovering, inventing and making money then you know that the society is healthy and will reap material rewards. If Jews (or the state of Israel) are held back, then it speaks of repression and ultimate failure.

I find this entire line of argument strange for a number of reasons. …

Student mentions the hypothetical correlation that “the result of this chosenness is greater intelligence”, but what about the converse? Perhaps we are chosen by God because of our innately greater intelligence?

My father once showed me, and my brother recently recalled to me, a remarkable exegetical passage in אור החיים, arguing that it is precisely this misconception that God desired to forestall by emphasizing Yisro’s role in the establishment of the hierarchal judicial system; the Torah wishes to make clear שיש באומות יותר חכמים מישראל, and that our selection was out of חסד עליון and love of the Patriarchs, and not due to an intellectual superiority:

וראיתי לתת לב איך זכה יתרו שנכתב על ידו פרשה זו והן אמת כי הוא כבד משה עבד ד’ והנה שכרו שכבדו ד’ אלא היה ד’ יכול עשות לו דרך כבוד אחר לא בדרך זה שיראה חס ושלום כפחות ידיעה בעם ד’ עד שבא כהן מדין והשכילם:

ונראה כי טעם הדבר הוא להראות ד’ את בני ישראל הדור ההוא וכל דור ודור כי יש באומות גדולים בהבנה והשכלה וצא ולמד מהשכלת יתרו בעצמו ואופן סדר בני אדם אשר בחר כי יש באומות מכירים דברים המאושרים והכונה בזה כי לא באה הבחירה בישראל לצד שיש בהם השכלה והכרה יותר מכל האומות וזה לך האות השכלת יתרו הא למדת כי לא מרוב חכמת ישראל והשכלתם בחר ד’ בהם אלא לחסד עליון ולאהבת האבות

ויותר יערב לחיך טעם זה למאן דאמר יתרו קודם מתן תורה בא כי נתחכם ד’ על זה קודם מתן תורה לומר שהגם שיש באומות יותר חכמים מישראל אף על פי כן אותנו הביא ד’ אליו ובחר בנו ועל זה בפרט עלינו לשבח לאשר בחר בנו מצד חסדיו גם למאן דאמר אחר מתן תורה יש טעם במה שסדר ביאתו קודם להראות הכונה הנזכרת שזולת זה אין הכונה הנזכרת נגלית והבן:1

  1. אור החיים, שמות יח:כב – קשר []
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5 Responses to Why Us?

  1. DF says:

    Have not read Gilder’s book, but it does surprise me. If it’s possible for one race qua race to be smarter than another, then by definition it also means some races are not as smart as others. Yet academia will not currently let anyone publish on or even experiment to consider the relative intelligence of blacks and whites. Indeed, the current outward position is that they wont even acknowledge the possibility for the mental superiority of one race over another. It’s curious.

    As for the issue with regard to chosenness, most people theorize that the disproportionate Jewish intelligence – if it is, in fact, true – comes from our bookishness. If so, this is something that really developed much later than Sinai, annd could not have been a factor as to our choseness.

  2. Yitzhak says:

    Regarding intellectual honesty and the radioactivity of the topic of racial disparity in intelligence, you must read the great Prof. Volokh’s wonderful series on the recent Harvard email controversy: I, II, III, IV, and here.

  3. DF says:

    Seems to be Volokh equivacates a little too much, no? Clearly there are genetic differences physically between blacks and whites, and there is a little something called the National Basketball Association in case one thinks there isnt. So if its possible that one race is stronger physically than the other, or has a better jumping ability, why cant there also be genetic differences in mental ability?

    The emes is, its a dovor poshut there are enormous, unbridegeable differences. Behind closed doors most people recognize this. But there are many social factors at work that prevent people from publicly recognizing it. No comment as to whether good or bad, merely an observation.

  4. Yitzhak says:

    The Prof. is one of the most brilliant, acute and intellectually honest guys out there. Where do you see equivocation?

  5. DF says:

    Agreed with the assessment of Volokh. The sheer length of his commentary denoted wishy-washyness to me, a hesitancy to come down firm on a particular side.

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