Does Talmud Study Really Explain Jews’ Remarkable Contributions to Modern Civilization?

March 24, 2020 | Josef Joffe
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The world’s Jewish population, notes Josef Joffe, is about the same as that of Kazakhstan, yet while most people would be hard-pressed to name a single Kazakh, they could easily name a number of famous Jews. In his recent book Genius and Anxiety, the music critic and novelist Norman Lebrecht joins the long list of those who have written on this topic. To Joffe, Lebrecht is “a storyteller par excellence” and, when it comes to explaining “how Jews transformed Western ways of thinking and doing,” the book “is intellectual history at its best.” But when it comes to trying to answer the question at the book’s heart—why the Jews?—Joffe finds Lebrecht’s frequent invocations of the Talmud unsatisfying:

The Talmud, a commentary on the law spanning some 2,700 pages, amounts to a closed system. . . . Its scholars demonstrated their brilliance by construing ever finer distinctions, skewering the arguments of their colleagues, or invoking the authority of the masters. Cracking paradigms was not their business. Subversive thought—say, placing sex at the center of the human condition, as did Sigmund Freud, or confronting the ear, as Arnold Schönberg’s painful atonality did—was not the talmudic way. Both Freud and Schönberg play starring roles in Genius and Anxiety, along with Einstein, because they overturned ancient dispensations rather than delving into Mishnah and Gemara.

[Moreover], if the Talmud is the ur-cause, Jewish worldly success and attainment should have been the story of the Hebrews throughout the ages. Yet Lebrecht situates his account in the hundred years between 1847 and 1947, and rightly so. Apart from rare titans such as Moses Maimonides, Jews did not excel in world-historical terms in [most of] the centuries before, nor did they break the mold. The question “why the Jews?” should therefore be amended to “Why the Jews in those hundred years, in the midst of modernity?”

Sheer smarts is not enough; the conditions had to be right as well. In the 19th century, the Jews were released from the ghetto, gaining full civic rights throughout Europe. Add to that circumstance historical serendipity in the forms of urbanization, industrialization, and globalization. With their literacy, occupational flexibility, and lust for learning, the Jews were perfectly prepared for this new world. An age-old order based on working the land and plying the trades, from which Jews were excluded, began to give way to a knowledge-based economy.

It was tailor-made for eternal outsiders with their pent-up ambitions and energies. Lebrecht quotes Gustav Mahler: “A Jew is like a swimmer with a short arm. He has to swim twice as hard to reach the shore.” But now, the water was a lot warmer.

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