From tenured professorships to nobel prizes, Jews have excelled in all manner of scholarship. Many authors have explored where this dedication to learning comes from—The Jewish Intellectual Tradition: A History of Learning and Achievement by Alan Kadish, Michael Shmidman, and Simcha Fishbane is another important voice in the conversation.
Kadish, Shmidman, and Fishbane claim that the Jewish commitment to intellectualism is ingrained in our history, critical to Jewish identity. To prove their point, the authors have split their book into two distinct sections; first, they chart the history of Jewish thought from its earlier iterations until modern day; secondly, they analyze common themes found in Jewish intellectual history.
The authors pick six key time periods — from medieval Spain to the contemporary period — to explore the significance and impact that the particular books around then might have had on readers. An ambitious endeavor, as the authors are challenged with condensing many topics — for example, the impact of Maimonides and the birth of modern Orthodoxy — into only a handful of pages.
The three authors present the information thoughtfully, building a robust bookshelf before their readers’ eyes. The book serves as a helpful teaching tool because of its shortened explanations of mystical texts, and early modern trends — like the birth of Reform Judaism — that educators may find useful. As a whole, it’s a helpful introduction, not only to Jewish thought, but to Jewish history and literature.
Though their exploration has taken the reader across the globe and centuries, the authors claim that one can draw conclusions about why Jews have been so successful at filling these diverse bookshelves. In a series of well-argued chapters, they unpack four major principles that seem to run though all of Jewish intellectual history: a balance between respecting precedence and independent thinking, the use of logic to get to a greater truth, the importance of education, and the use of knowledge and learning for a higher purpose.
The claim of the book is bold. Jews throughout time, whether religious or secular, have benefited from a culture that privileges these four values. Thus Jewish scientists with little or no formal religious education are able to embody the same values as a person who grows up going to yeshiva, because the Jewish outlook on intellectualism is so deeply found in one’s Jewish family. Children watch their parents value education, show a commitment to a higher purpose, or respect tradition and precedent; subsequently, they pass those ideals on to their children, who apply it to their own intellectual endeavors.
Though the book has two sections that are meant to rely on one another, they can be read independently. For readers who are newer to the great works of Judaism, the first portion is an invaluable resource and provides necessary background to understand the authors’ later analysis.
Kadish, Shmidman, and Fishbane have given us an important new way to look at Jewish history and help us understand exactly what comes out of being the “people of the book.”
Rabbi Marc Katz is the Rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Loneliness: How Jewish Wisdom Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort (Turner Publishing), which was chosen as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award.