Why are there so many exceptional Jews? Jewish genius is in danger

From the mid 19th century until today, Jews have been disproportionately represented in terms of success; why is this, what is the cause, and how can this advantage be maintained in the future?



The important, trailblazing composer Arnold Schoenberg returned to his Jewish roots in 1933. He was born a Jew and converted to Lutheranism for many years. He then went through a period of doubt and finally took a decision—the rise to power of the Nazis in Germany assuredly aided him in this. At his return ceremony to Judaism, his witnesses were Dr. David Marianoff, the stepson-in-law of Albert Einstein, and the acclaimed painter Marc Chagall.

Composer Gustav Mahler converted to Catholicism so that he could be the director of the Vienna Court Opera. He married a non-Jewish woman and was laid to rest by a Catholic priest. However, anti-Semites continue to claim that his music is “Jewish music, ” just like they said of Schoenberg’s music, and just as they said of Einstein‘s physics.

The world has seen a large number of Jews succeed over the last 150 years, especially in proportion to the general population population. They have succeeded in art, in winning Nobel prizes, as musical composers, and as philosophers, amongst many other fields.

How many Jews have reached these apices of success in modern society? The answer is: Depends on who’s counting.

Should one count those who weren’t raised Jewish, such as Karl Marx? Should Marx not be counted, but Mahler—a convert to Christianity—be considered a Jews? What about Schoenberg, who left the religion and then came back? Should only those who remained Jewish their entire lives be counted, such as Einstein and Chagall?



Why are there so many exceptional Jews?

This is a very petty question. However, behind it lies a much deeper, and perhaps more interesting question. Given the small number of Jews in the world, and the fact that they are overly represented when it comes to being at the top of their fields, the question must be asked not why, but what makes the Jews so exceptional?

If Einstein’s physics was “Jewish” and Mahler’s music was “Jewish, ” then it seems that one can come to a very interesting conclusion: One doesn’t need to be an active Jew to have the “Jewish gift of excellence.”

Marx grew up in a household completely disconnected from Judaism. Einstein came from a family which, while it identified as Jewish, didn’t practice much. Maher converted and left Judaism, and Schoenberg didn’t produce music any less extraordinary during his foray into Christianity.

Therefore, it’s clear that living a Jewish lifestyle is not the catalyst for Jewish exceptionalism.




So what is it? Well, there are several hypotheses.

One of these hypotheses relates to the Jewish custom of being literate and the appreciation of studying for the pursuit of knowledge. There is also the fact that, due to the unique circumstances Jews have found themselves in while in the Diaspora, Jews simply had to work harder to succeed, as they were considered “foreigners” wherever they resided.

There is also the fact that there are Jewish genes, a result of Jews who kept their Judaism and refused to intermarry. This may have caused a genetic mutation which leads to a higher propensity for genius. Although this last theory may be a cause for anti-Semitism and racism, it is still a valid theory and must be discussed.

But still, no matter how one connects the characteristics and their probable causes, the results are the same: From the mid-19th century to today, Jews have shown to be exceptional, especially in proportion to their numbers. Jews have succeeded no matter if they grew up in a religious or completely assimilated household, and succeeded no matter if they themselves identified as Jews, or tried to completely shake off the label of “Jew.”



Mendelssohn as a parable

While this sudden blossoming of Jews in the world of culture indeed seems like a trend, all of these examples should be looked at in the context of what was going on at that time; if they were living amongst non-Jews, if they were living during a time of political and civil unrest, and if they were living in a place where their creativity could flourish, amongst other factors.

But through it all, Jews were considered Jewish based on their heritage, and there was nothing they could do to change this.

For instance, philosopher Moses Mendelssohn was Jewish, yet his grandson, composer Felix Mendelssohn—who converted and became a devout Christian—was always considered a Jew by his contemporaries, such as Richard Wagner.


Felix Mendelssohn Portrait of Mendelssohn by the English miniaturist James Warren Childe (1778–1862),   1839 / Wikipedia

Not much is left

Jews in Israel today don’t live in a country where they are a minority, and have a completely different culture than 19th-century European or 20th-century American Jewry. In fact, their culture is much more similar to other nations with diasporas who recently gained statehood after many generations without.

And the Jews in the Diaspora themselves have changed: While they don’t convert to get ahead—there’s no reason to do so in this day and age—their cultural distinctiveness is growing fainter. The same goes with biological continuity, which is rapidly being assaulted by intermarriage.


Karl Marx / Wikipedia


The disturbing conclusion

In other words: If the Jews need to be different to be smart, then they’re already less different. If they need to marry Jews, then they’re also doing that less.

Half of those living in Israel don’t deal with the non-Jewish world. Half of those living in the Diaspora are not persecuted and discriminated against. This means that all of the explanations discussed until now may have been correct hypotheses in determining what made Jews so successful in the past, but they’re not suitable now or for the future. They don’t guarantee that Jews—if they once were smarter—will be also be smarter in the future.

This conclusion is disturbing for anyone who is counting on Jewish minds to create and invent, and anyone who is counting on the fact that Jews will be able to put themselves in a better position vis-à-vis other peoples and communities in the future. The Jews are a small nation, at times vulnerable. The few advantages that Jews have must be cultivated, not abandoned.

Therefore, guideposts for action must be drawn from that worrying conclusion: fostering excellence, insisting on literacy, a pinch of cultural elitism, keeping an open mind to the wider world without giving up familial tribalism. Provided that the Jewish state doesn’t make the Jews less smart.

By Shmuel Rosner

The author of the Hebrew-language book The Jews: 7 Frequently Asked Questions. The seventh chapter addresses the question, “Is there such a thing as Jewish genius?”

Ynet News


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