The Chosen Few

By Steven Weiss
Slate, November 9, 2012

Edited by Andy Ross

American Jews are nearly twice as likely to have a college degree as the average American and more than four times as likely to have a graduate degree. They are much more likely to be employed in a high-status profession and report an income well above the American average.

More than two-thirds of the Jewish community disappeared in the first millennium CE. Jews long ago moved out of agriculture but most Jews did not invest in a Jewish education. The Talmud is all about agriculture but the rabbis promoted a future Judaism of Torah reading, prayer, and synagogue. The Romans all but wiped out Temple Judaism shortly after the time of Jesus and the sages of the Talmud had a free hand to reshape Judaism. Over the next several hundred years, they codified the Talmud and advocated universal Jewish education.

The Jewish global population shrunk from about 5 million to 1 million between the years 70 and 650 CE. Botticini and Eckstein argue that the missing millions simply stopped being Jewish. Raising one's children as Jews required a big investment in Jewish education. Only devoted Jews or those ambitious to find a profession for the children that rewarded literacy did so. For the rest, the option to leave the Jewish community was more enticing. Over six centuries, the Jewish population shifted from nearly 90% in agriculture to nearly 90% in professions.

Jewish tradition supported success in trade. Rabbinical courts for settling disputes supported the trust required for commercial enterprises to grow. The Hebrew language eased international negotiations. In societies where Jews developed a bias to trades, Jews faced no particular discrimination in agriculture but often did so in trade. Literate Jews continue to pass the torch but needed money from trades to do so.

American Jews today must not only endure a lot of ritual observance but also make a lot of money. Those who are devoted Jews but on low incomes must sacrifice for their Judaism. Many others see too high a price and drop out. So American Jews are disproportionately well educated and rich.

The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History
By Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein


AR This is illuminating.