Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Do Jews really value education?

Students passing through the Oberlin Memorial Arch in front of Peters Hall.

(RNS) It might be hard to believe, but when I was a kid, I got bullied a lot. The bullies were the “tough” kids, nonacademically oriented – and decidedly not Jewish.

My father knew how I could avoid the bullies: Study harder. “That way, you’ll just be with Jewish kids. It will be safer for you.”

My father was simply expressing American Jewish folk sociology – Jews are smarter than everyone else.

The old joke: Q: When does a Jewish fetus become viable? A: When it graduates from medical school.

My father was not entirely wrong. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, Jews are the world’s most-educated religious group.

Nearly all Jews have had some formal schooling – with an average of more than 13 years of formal schooling. This is four more years of schooling on average than the next-most educated group – Christians.

Jews have the highest rate of higher education — 75 percent– compared with 40 percent of Americans generally.

It’s not just American Jews. Jewish Israelis have an average of 12 years of schooling, and 46 percent have had higher education.

Now, let’s be clear about what this study is not saying.

Contrary to the stereotype, it does not say that Jews are smarter than other people. My friend Sander Gilman has written about this perception in his book “Smart Jews: The Construction of the Image of Jewish Superior Intelligence.”

The perception of Jewish “smarts” came with several price tags.

First, the smart Jew has been an anti-Semitic icon. In the 16th century, Martin Luther said Jewish doctors were so smart they could develop a poison that could kill Christians. Centuries later, in the Soviet Union, Jewish doctors were suspected of plotting to kill Stalin.

Second, if you have the mind, that means that you must lack the muscle. For centuries, Jews have had their lunch money stolen from them.

The Zionist thinker Max Nordau sought to overturn that stereotype. Zionism wanted to create a new Jew and came to valorize bodybuilding and athletics (as in the Maccabiah games, named for the Maccabees – “real” Jewish men).

Zionism was to become the SNL’s Hans and Franz of Jewish history. It “vanted to pump you up.”

So, are Jews really more educated than other people?

So it would seem.

Does that mean that Jews value education more than other people?

Hmmm. Not so sure.

Asian and Indian students have long been giving Jewish kids a run for their academic money. They are “the new Jews.” One of my colleagues, a Hillel rabbi, says that Jewish students sometimes even check out how many Asian and Indian kids have registered for a class – for fear that it will “throw off the curve.”

But, let’s go one step further.

Does the higher rate of educated Jews mean that Jews prize education more than other people?

I am no longer so sure.

Yes, of course, Jewish parents want their children to do well in school.

But, why?

So they can get into the right universities.

But, why?

So they can get a broad, liberal education?

So that they can love literature, the arts, philosophy, the sciences – for the pure love of learning?

Hardly. At least, not anymore. It’s about joining the meritocracy.

How can we fix this? How can we get Jews – and others – to value education for its own sake?

We need to re-emphasize reading – again, for its own sake. I loved the recent article in The New York Times on great bookstores. I hang out in them as often as I can.

And while I cannot know what’s on people’s Kindles and e-readers, I often find myself in Jewish homes that seem to have no books.

Something is missing.

We need to emphasize intellectual struggle. In a world of fake news, 120-character limits and post-truth, this idea is frankly countercultural. It means digging deeper, examining various sides of a story, seeing the gray areas. It is the loving of research – especially scientific research.

It is the talent that Jews were supposed to have learned from centuries of Torah study and Talmudic learning. It is the very essence of how we Jews came to love education in the first place. It’s now sadly lacking.

Mishkan T’filah, the Reform prayerbook, says:

From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,

From the laziness that is content with half-truths,

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,

O God of truth, deliver us.

We need to emphasize the real purpose of education. As I am fond of saying to kids: Knowledge is more important than grades, and wisdom is more important than knowledge. The goal of education is not only to be “smart”; it is to become whole, to have your soul sing, to reach for something higher and deeper.

Every Shabbat morning, I ask that God will make Torah sweet for the Jewish people. Why? So that we can know God, “by studying your Torah for its own sake” – or “lishma” in Hebrew.

Yes, Jews love education.

We just need to value it more.

For its own sake.

(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla. He writes the “Martini Judaism” column for RNS)

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.


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  • Again, this isn’t surprising. If I founded a religion in a first-world nation, I’d expect ridiculously high education rates. Probably even at 100%. It’s unsurprising that Judaism, present mostly in first-world countries, has the highest over percentage of education.

    It’d be interesting to see purely (or nearly purely) American religions like Mormonism and Scientology, I’d bet those numbers would blow Judaism out of the water. Statistically speaking these stats are just a reflection of how much of any given religion is concentrated in 1st world countries.

  • When I was shopping for our current home nearly 20 years ago I found a beautiful house but something was missing. There was a wonderful fireplace serving two rooms, and one had the obvious place for book shelves on either side–but no shelving. I have since remedied that, and it didn’t take long for it to fill with treasures, including a beautiful Qur’an left to me by the family of a friend who died and a JPS Tanach. (The Judaica collection is organized by topic in another room.) I guess I always expected everybody to have a home full of books! What an education life has been.


    This one doesn’t include Scientologists. Hindus at the top (but of course this is skewed) then Jews, Unitarians and the English/Scottish religions. Unscientifically, I can plot a correlation with how literal they (christians) believe the bible to be or how fundamental they are to the rate of college degrees. My alma mater, Jehovah’s Witnesses, are one up from the bottom. They publicly discourage children from attending college.

  • I think what that study failed to differentiate is that many people that identify as Jewish, do so as a national and ethnic identity, yet a very large number do not even believe in God or Jewish religious thoughts. So to count someone that is “Jewish” but doesn’t have any of their religious beliefs and is highly educated, that heavily distorts these numbers. As an American, I know many Jews that fall into the religious nones, atheist and agnostic categories. The distinction is important.

    That all being said, I do believe that education and debate are a huge part of the Jewish religious tradition that is carried on to the religious and non-religious families.

  • The 2016 Pew Report on US Mormons gives the number of 60% with some college, a college degree, or postgraduate education.

  • I had meant for the statistics worldwide, not the statistics in just America.

    Overall, one would expect first world nations to have statistically more educated people than third world, therefore one would expect religions that are primarily based in first world nations, like Judaism, to be at the top of the list (as they are).

    Education levels really just boil down to geography, and any correlation between religion and education is really just because of a correlation with religion and geography and education and geography. It’s no wonder Hinduism worldwide is near the end of the worldwide list, even when it’s at the top when only considering Hindus in a first world nation.

    The worldwide statistics presented, I’d argue, show nothing more than where each religion typically lives.

    Edit: Mormons perhaps a bad example, turns out there’s a larger amount of Mormons outside of first world countries than I’d have guessed. Basic point was if you have a religion (say, Scientology) that is concentrated in a first world nation almost exclusively, their number of education years will blow everyone else’s out of the water, regardless of what they believe.

  • “The goal of education is not only to be “smart”; it is to become whole, to have your soul sing, to reach for something higher and deeper.”

    Yes. Education for this purpose is needed for all Americans.

  • Maybe the question should be “Do Americans really value education?” And then “How many generations has a group lived in America?” I think you’re seeing the difference between 2nd-generation immigrants and a more established group.