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GOOD MORNING! Earlier this year a CBS news poll asked about 2500 Americans: “What is the greatest threat facing America today?” Given the fact that this poll was conducted after the January 6th capitol riot, it comes as no surprise that 54% of the respondents answered “other Americans and domestic enemies.” The other answers were also fairly predictable: 20% economic forces, 17% the natural world (i.e. global warming and coronavirus), and 8% foreign enemies.
I think they are all wrong.
Mark Twain, in an article titled “Concerning the Jews” published by Harper’s magazine in March of 1898, wrote of the Jewish people: “A marvelous race, by long odds the most marvelous that the world has produced, I suppose.” This well-known and oft quoted article has, for the most part, an awe-like appreciation for the accomplishments of the Jewish people. While Twain questions the secret of Jewish survival over three millennia, whilst almost all the ancient civilizations and “great empires” have disappeared, he also observed that Jews “are peculiarly and conspicuously the world’s intellectual aristocracy.”
In this week’s column I would like to discuss this observation. To what do we owe this very extraordinary attribute?
(In next week’s column, God willing, we will discuss Twain’s other question, the one he left unanswered; What is the secret of the survival of the Jewish people?)
Like everything in the physical world there are many elements and ingredients that form the basis of a finished product. Let us try and encapsulate some of the key elements that produce this “intellectual aristocracy” and see if we can find a lesson for the rest of mankind. After all, the Jewish people have a responsibility to be a “light unto the nations” (see Isiah 42:6 and commentaries of Malbim and Radak ad loc).
The basis, of course, begins with the incredible responsibility that the Jewish people undertook when they accepted the Torah from the Almighty and agreed to fulfill all of its mitzvot or obligations. The Jewish nation began with our patriarch Abraham and in this week’s Torah portion we find the Almighty’s commitment to him and his children “because Abraham obeyed My voice and observed My safeguards, My commandments, My statutes, and My Torahs” (Genesis 26:5).
As the Talmud points out (Kiddushin 40b), there is no proper fulfillment of God’s commandments without an intense study of the Torah and what it requires. The Rabbis could not imagine a world without studying the will of God. Our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all spent time studying in the school set up by Noah’s son Shem and his grandson Eber. Together they founded an academy where people could come and learn the Noahide laws. Judaism is not so much built on faith as it is on learning and the acquisition of knowledge.
Perhaps the best example of the importance assigned to the lifelong commitment to Torah study and intellectual and emotional development is a passage found in the section of the Oral Law known as Mishnah. One of the books in this collection of ancient wisdom is known as Pirkei Avot – commonly translated as “Ethics of our Fathers.”
In chapter 5:25 we find a remarkable assessment as to the intellectual and emotional development of a person by age: At five years of age we introduce the study of Scripture, at ten the study of Mishnah, at thirteen the commandments, and at fifteen we begin the study of Talmud.
Here we see how Judaism carefully begins to structure a lifelong commitment to studying from a very young age and the consideration given as to the age appropriate material at each stage of intellectual and emotional development. Thus, education and Torah study is at the very core of Jewish life from early childhood and continues into adulthood. There is a reason that the Jewish people are known as the “people of the book.”
The Renaissance-age philosopher Desidrrius Erasmus once noted, “The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth.”
Perhaps the most incredible benefit of a society built on intellectual growth and achievement is that it naturally becomes a society built on meritocracy. That is, regardless of one’s socioeconomic background or family linage, a person can achieve the greatest heights through hard work and intellectual prowess. The greatest leaders of the Jewish people throughout the ages have almost always been appointed to those positions based on their personal achievements in Torah study.
When the premier societal value is intellectual development and achievement it is only natural that those with high IQs are the most highly valued and are thus offered the best matchmaking options and given the greatest opportunities for further growth. This leads to a nation with an intense drive for knowledge and a desire to be at the pinnacle of innovation.
Compare this core Jewish value of education with the current decimation of the American educational system. The public school system has absolutely failed the American people. This could very well be the opening peal of the death knell of the American people.
I don’t know if you have been paying any attention but China has designs on complete world domination. They are currently targeting Taiwan and are actively practicing war maneuvers to defeat whatever modest armed forces the US has in the region. From there they can easily reach and attack Japan, a country with whom they have a long history of territorial disputes and armed conflict. Then the other dominoes will begin to fall. What does this have to do with our current conversation?
Here’s the sad truth. Twenty-five countries outperform U.S. K-12 students. Those leading the way are China, Hong Kong, Finland, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Canada. China’s students not only place first overall, but they dominate each individual subject as well. U.S. students straggle in at 33rd in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. This does not bode well.
Even the American charter school system, a system that was put in place to deal with some of the educational failings of the public system, has begun to contribute to the malaise of under-achievement. The largest charter school system in the United States is called KIPP. It was founded 25 years ago by Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg and today boasts 247 associated KIPP schools and over 100,000 students. Their slogan? “Be nice, work hard.”
Last year KIPP abandoned this slogan. This is how KIPP Foundation member Orpheus Williams described it: “The slogan supports the illusion of meritocracy. The slogan passively supports ongoing efforts to pacify and control Black and Brown bodies in order to better condition them to be compliant and further reproduce current social norms that center whiteness and meritocracy as normal.” In other words, they are denigrating a system based on meritocracy as being inherently racist. It is nothing short of astonishing.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, the far left liberal agenda wields words like diversity, inclusion, social equity, and social justice as weapons to slash at anything they don’t agree with. They foolishly conflate social equity with equal opportunity. In other words, they search for equal outcome as opposed to equal opportunity. There is no responsibility for personal achievement or personal growth. They push to remove advanced courses because some ethnicities and races aren’t represented proportionally.
The state of Oregon, for example, has removed the requirement for students to pass a basic math, reading, and writing test to graduate high school (ostensibly for the next two school years, but we shall see if it isn’t made permanent). Somehow it has escaped the brilliant minds running the Oregon public school systems that graduating teens who can’t read, write, or do basic math is anything but beneficial – to themselves or the American society as a whole.
Similar nonsense is taking place in San Francisco and New York City. Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, the number one ranked high school in America, known for its rigorous STEM curriculum, is manipulating admissions standards to racially balance the student body at the expense of admitting academically qualified students. The racial rebalancing comes despite the student body comprising of 79% non-white students. The problem? 73% were classified as Asians. Even though they represented 30 different countries, it wasn’t the “right” kind of diversity.
America has become a society that stoops to the lowest level of common denominator; what can we all agree upon without offending anyone? Instead of lifting society with progress, growth, and achievement, the prevailing sentiment seems to be “lets collapse everyone to the lowest level of morality and education so that no one feels slighted or left out.” It should be terrifying to anyone who cares about the future of the American people.
Meritocracy, the very element that was a key ingredient in the success of the Jewish people, has been absolutely cast aside by the far left liberal agenda. The unfortunate irony of it is that many of those far left liberal leaders are of Jewish extraction. This is part of the downward spiral that begins with the abandonment of the Torah and all the lofty ideals for which the Jewish people have traditionally stood.
We can only regain our equilibrium as a Jewish nation when we acknowledge the primacy of the Torah in our lives and embrace all the ideals that it promotes and represents. Only in this way can we once again become a shining example for the other nations of the world and fulfill the prophet Isiah’s words; “And the nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isiah 60:3).
Toldot, Genesis 25:19 - 28:9
Rebecca (Rivka) gives birth to Esau (Eisav) and Jacob (Yaakov). Esau sells the birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup. Isaac (Yitzchak) sojourns in Gerar with Avimelech, king of the Philistines. Esau marries two Hittite women bringing great pain to his parents (because they weren't of the fold).
Jacob impersonates Esau on the counsel of his mother in order to receive the blessing for the oldest son from his blind father, Isaac. Esau, angry because of his brother's deception caused him to lose the firstborn blessings, plans to kill Jacob, so Jacob flees to his uncle Lavan in Padan Aram – on the advice of his parents. They also advise him to marry Lavan's daughter.
Esau understands that his Canaanite wives are displeasing to his parents, so he marries a third wife, Machlath, the daughter of Ishmael.
“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruits are sweet.”