(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.
So they can get into the right universities.
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)