Thursday, May 06, 2010

A Genius Theology

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 (see these posts: I, II, III, IV, V). 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. Primarily, as Thomas Edison famously said, genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. Was it purely brainpower that allowed Jews to succeed remarkably in the twentieth century? Couldn't it have been the combination of immigration, a scholastic culture and the need to work harder in order to overcome anti-semitism that gave Jews the necessary perspiration quotient? Nowadays, it seems like more recent immigrants (from China, India, etc.) are taking the genius role away from Jews.

Israel is itself in a sorry state. The education there is well below average and the Charedim, an increasing portion of the population, have essentially no secular education beyond elementary school (see, for example, this article: link). Its saving grace is, ironically, the constant military threat. As Gilder discusses, out of sheer necessity the Israeli army has served as an incubator for technological innovation. That, coupled with a highly educated immigration from the FSU and US, has led Israel to such a stunning lead in technology.

The question, though, is what will happen to the next generation of Jews. As we witness the graying of the post-Holocaust generation and see a younger crowd (myself included) raised with few of the pressures that immigrants face, as we watch the educational aspirations of our children decline, can we expect the same Jewish success of the past century? When the wave of Soviet immigration fades away, is the IDF enough to sustain Israeli innovation?

If we don't have a supernatural reason to believe in the unique genius of the Jew, then the answer is probably no. A covenant with God means much but it does not guarantee an oversized portion of technological patents.

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