Jerusalem has a breezy insouciance about it. People seem, well, cleverer than average. Conversations are vocabulary-rich, the complaining is erudite and sophisticated and people think and act fast. For its size, the school where I teach boasts a dazzling array of academic luminosity, beside which
my own modest achievements flicker shyly.
The Nobel season is again upon us and it seems to become less surprising than ever to observe that a tiny nation comprising 0.2% of the world’s population has once more scooped a handful of the most prestigious academic accolades on the planet. In chemistry, all three winners were Jewish, in medicine, two out of three. In physics, the prize went jointly to François Englert, and Peter Higgs. Englert is 80, a Holocaust survivor who holds a special professorial chair at the school of physics and astronomy at Tel Aviv University.
Is it a gene? Some think so, but I don’t really buy into the genetic dialogue – it would almost be as if God were cheating by giving the chosen people an unfair advantage. I have the rare honour of agreeing with one Nobel laureate, Robert Aumann, (economics, 2005) who suggested :
“Torah study is an intellectual pursuit, and honoring this ultimate value transfers to other pursuits as well….. Jewish homes have overflowing bookshelves.. Throughout the generations we have given great honor to this intellectual pursuit…Torah study makes the nation and its people of the finest and highest quality.”
So, that’s it. Reading and studying Scripture. Could it possibly be that simple, and yet so demanding? I get to meet a number of people here whose worldview is circumscribed by a quite linear interpretation of the Scriptures, as if it were somehow sacrilegious or worse, in bad taste, to argue about their meaning. No such scruples for the Jews. They set about dismembering flawed logic and fuzzy reasoning with all the vigour of scores of generations who argued with God. It might be that it is this that gives them the edge intellectually. It is said that where you have one Jew, you have an opinion. Where there are two, an argument. Three, you have a synagogue. Contending with the Creator of the Universe, it seems, has the great merit of sharpening the mind.