Is there such a thing as a Yiddisher kop?
TWO TYPES OF WISDOM
You might claim that the claim for a Yiddisher Kop is backed up by the explicit verse that states: “And you shall observe and do [the Torah], for it is your wisdom and understanding before the eyes of all the nations who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘Indeed, this great people is a wise and understanding people” (Devorim 4:6). Doesn’t this make it clear that Jews will be famed for their wisdom? However, as the verse implies, the Torah is not necessarily talking about intellectual wisdom, but of the kind of wisdom mentioned in the introduction to Mesilas Yesharim:
“Behold the verse says (Iyuv 28:28), “Yes (hein), fear of Hashem is wisdom,” and Chazal say (Shabbos 31) that hein means “one.” Thus fear [of Hashem] is wisdom and that alone is wisdom.” There are indications, however, that this spiritual wisdom comes in tandem with regular wisdom because the Gemara (Shabbos 75a) states, “Said R. Shmuel bar Nachmeini said to R. Yochanan, ‘From where do we see that it is a mitzvah for a person to calculate tekufos (seasons) and mazalos (constellations)? Because it says, “And you shall observe and do, for it is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the nations.” What is wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations? This is the calculation of tekufos and mazalos.”
This implies that the Jews’ wisdom would be expressed in ways that impress all the peoples of the world; many Gemaras indeed cite instances where non-Jewish savants consulted Chazal about a variety of intellectual problems. Does this mean that Jews had superior brains? The opposite can be deduced from an episode in Nida (70b):
“[The people of Alexandria asked R. Yehoshua ben Chinena], ‘What should a person do to become wise?” “He told them, ‘One should sit [and learn] a lot and minimize trade.’ “They said, ‘Many have done so and it did not help them.’ “‘But he should ask for mercy from the One that wisdom is His as it says, “For Hashem will give wisdom from His mouth, knowledge and understanding.”’ “R. Chiya taught, ‘This can be compared to a fl esh and blood king who made a feast for his servants and sent his friends from that which was before him.’”
So the question remains open. Were Chazal and the gedolim of all the generations intrinsically brilliant, or was their intelligence a gift that each generation had to toil for anew?
THE RACE AFTER SECULARISM
In modern times it seemed that there was something intrinsically smart about the Jews when Jews who had barely opened a Gemara in their lives began to amaze the world with their mind power.
This trend began in Eastern Europe after the Haskalah was formally created in 5523/1763 by Jews who yearned to merge Western culture and the Jewish world. Energetic modernizers did all they could to speed the wheels of modernity and assimilation, even urging the Russian government to establish secular schools for Jewish children. The fi rst such school opened in Tarnopol (Galicia) in 5573/1813 and three boys schools opened in Warsaw in 5579/1819 where classes were given in Polish.
One of the Haskalah’s notorious activists was Max Lilienthal who was born in Munich in 5574/1814. In 5601/1841 Count Uvarov, the Russian Minister of Education invited him to come to Russia and lay the groundwork for a network of government schools where children would be taught in German or Russian. In his private memoirs, Lilienthal reports how the Torah Jews tried to oppose him.
Due to his standing with the Russian government, they had to be polite about it.
“I was informed by Prince Shirinski- Shikhmatov, the Director of Public Instruction that Nisan Rosenthal of Vilna wanted to establish a new Jewish school in the city,” he writes. “On a Thursday night an assembly of the representatives of the congregation was convened to hear the proposition. I found 400 men all dressed in their bekishes and fur hats and felt lonesome in the midst of these strange faces, the only Daytshyl (German Jew) in the crowd of Polish Jews. I stated that the imperial government was determined to introduce a wholesome change and that its intentions could not be eluded this time. By such a procedure they would dispose the government in their favor. “I was listened to silently. The elders sat there absorbed in deep contemplation. Some of them, leaning on their silveradorned staffs or smoothing their long beards seemed as if agitated by earnest thoughts and justifi ed suspicions. Others put to me the ominous question: ‘Doctor, are you fully aware of the leading principles of the government? You are a stranger. Do you know what you are undertaking? The government intends to have but one church in the whole empire and we look with gloomy foreboding into the future.’
“’I am well aware of your apprehensions,’ I answered. ‘The question we have to consider is this. Can we avoid the growing danger by the useless answer that we do not to have anything to do with it? I have found it best to take this matter at once in our hands and having established schools according to our plans we will anticipate the measures of the government.’
“‘But what guarantee,’ asked another gentleman, ‘can you offer us that our religion will not be encroached on?’
“’All I can promise you as your coreligionist,’ I replied, ‘is that I shall not go a step further in promoting the plans of the government before obtaining the assurance that nothing will be undertaken against our holy religion.’”
Eventually, he was rejected by the religious establishment, who saw him for what he was, and Lilienthal absconded to the US where he became a reform “rabbi”.
When Alexander II became Czar in 5615/1855 things got even worse. Alexander II was the most liberal of all the czars, and his most major reform was the emancipation of Russia’s 23 million serfs who until then had been literal slaves to half a million wealthy landowners. He also repealed many decrees of his cruel father, Czar Nicholas I including the Cantonist system. But his goal was exactly the same – to convert the Jews.
Wealthy merchants, university graduates, master craftsmen and medical workers were granted the right to leave the Pale and live in Russia; Jewish communities formed in St. Petersburg and Moscow – and there was a feeling that Jewish emancipation was on the way. However, as there were no Jewish high schools in Russia, children who wished to study further went to non-Jewish schools and the number of children studying in such places jumped from 2,045 in 5630/1870 to 8,000 a decade later.
Then the dream of emancipation in Russia came to a jolting stop in 5641/1881 when revolutionaries killed Alexander II with a bomb, resulting in a series of government organized pogroms. Two hundred pogroms took place in 5641/1881 alone. The May Laws of 5642/1882 revoked many of the Jews’ newly gained rights. Jews were expelled from towns and villages and Jewish college students were limited to ten percent. This was when K. Pobedonostsev, the head of the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church, capsulated the aims of Czar Alexander III’s government when he expressed the hope that “one-third of the Jews will convert, one-third will die, and one-third will flee the country.”
Jews were forced back into the ghetto and given two choices: to renounce secular education or choose education and career through baptism. All this history is all good and well but our original question remains open. Was Jewish enthusiasm for secular learning the result of superior intellect or simply a drive to flee the ghetto?
SIZE OF THE JEWISH BRAIN
In 5671/1911, Maurice Fishberg, a fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences, published a strange book titled The Jews – A Study of Race and Environment, an attempt “to present the results of anthropological, demographic, pathological, and sociological investigations of the Jews.” In the midst of discussing Jews’ noses, height, prosperity and sanity, he also touches on their intelligence and begins discussing whether the size of their heads might shed some light on the matter (page 56).
“We are accustomed to hear of the great cerebral capacity of the Jew,” he begins. “His friends are always speaking with emphasis of his remarkable brain, while his enemies speak of the danger of the Jew, with his greater cerebral power, to his non-Jewish neighbor in Eastern Europe who has not been endowed with as much brain tissue in his cranial cavity.”
At this point, he cites an earlier article (from Popular Science vol. 55 1899) that argues that Jewish intelligence may not be inherent but simply a result of their cerebral activities: “If they had been forced by persecution to become mainly blacksmiths one would not have been surprised to find their biceps larger than those of other folk, and similarly, as they have been forced to live by the exercise of their brains, one should not be surprised to find the cubic capacity of their skulls larger than that of their neighbors.”
Fishman points out that this assumption is totally wrong: “It is however a remarkable fact that measurements of the size of the Jews’ head and brain have shown that there is no basis for this belief. Of course it must be remembered in this connection that the size of the brain and especially of the cranium has not by far the significance as regards culture and intelligence which some have ascribed to it.”
This last contention that Fishman goes on to prove through facts and figures is also supported by subsequent research. Even Einstein had a regular sized brain. In a later chapter regarding education of Jews in various countries, he demonstrates Jews’ continued interest in secular education that created such a backlash of envy in the 1930s: “In Prussia where the Jews constitute only 1.14 percent of the total population, they make up 8.11 percent of the students in the universities…. In Austria over twenty-five percent of the students of the universities are Jews, although they constitute less than five percent of the population. In Hungary, where the Jews constitute 4.9 percent of the population, they were in 1904… six times as many, proportionately, as the non-Jews.”
Of course, as Fishberg also points out, this only demonstrates enthusiasm to “get ahead” and is not necessarily a proof of superior intellect. Not until the advent of IQ testing would it be objectively possible to determine whether there was such a thing as a Yiddisher Kop.
(Quotes of Max Lilienthal and discussion of education in Russia from Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996.)