The Jew­ish Intel­lec­tu­al Tra­di­tion: A His­to­ry of Learn­ing and Achievement

  • Review
By – November 23, 2020

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.

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