Why the Jews Are so Educated?  
Monday, September 3, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Historically, Jews have typically been more educated than the average population of the countries in which they have lived. They have also tended to be concentrated in urban areas and in a number of skilled occupations. In joint work with Tarek Hassan, we showed that this was the case for Soviet Jews, and argued that one of the many negative legacies of the Holocaust in Russia has been to create a hole in the social structure of areas where the fraction of Jews was high and fell under Nazi control during World War II. We showed that these places are now economically and politically more backward, a gap that seems to have opened up even further after the collapse of communism.

But why have Jews been so educated throughout history? A clever argument was offered by the great economist Simon Kuznets in his Economic Structure of US Jewry. Jews, being a minority, Kuznets argued, chose to concentrate in a few industries and occupations in order to be able to maintain their cohesion and group identity separate from the majority. Because the industries and occupations in which they chose to specialize were in cities and were human capital intensive, this shaped their location and education choices.

Max Weber also wrote a book, Ancient Judaism, where he suggested that Jews voluntarily segregated from the rest of the population.

Perhaps more common and more plausible is the idea that Jews were often barred from agricultural occupations, and this pushed them into urban occupations and also encouraged them to invest in human capital that would give them the flexibility to choose urban occupations (often despite discrimination even in towns).

Yet another view would be a more cultural one: perhaps Jews are more educated because their religion requires them to be educated. In fact, (male) Jews are expected to read the Torah and teach it to their children (sons). Philo of Alexandria articulated one version of this in the 1st century A.D. (quoted in Eliezer Ebner, Elementary Education in Ancient Israel, page 12):

Since the Jews esteem their laws as divine revelations, and are instructed in the knowledge of them from their earliest youth, they bear the image of the law in their souls.


So perhaps it is the Jewish culture that has made them more educated and as a consequence, more successful.

These questions are taken up in Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein’s intriguing new book, The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History (itself following up on their 2005 Journal of Economic History article on the same topic). Botticini and Eckstein first show that common explanations don’t hold much water. For a long time, Jews were not segregated occupationally and were farmers just like the rest of the population in the areas they lived. This continued essentially until the 7th century. So Kuznets’s thesis is unlikely to be the right explanation. They also point out that during this transition, taking place within Arabic and Muslim lands, there were no legal restrictions on Jewish economic activity, and Jews could choose any occupation and own land (in contrast, there were such restrictions within the Roman Empire, but the Jews did not make the occupational transition during that time). In sum, the Jewish educational advantage is unlikely to be a consequence of direct regulations either.

Instead, Botticini and Eckstein document that the greater education of Jews is indeed related to the tradition of reading and teaching the Torah. Sounds cultural, doesn’t it?

But here’s the catch. If this was just a cultural practice, with its roots in Jewish religion, we would expect it to have originated at the same time as Judaism. But it hasn’t.

Botticini and Eckstein document that Jews were not more educated before 1st century A.D. and most probably before 7th century A.D. Rather, as Solo Baron’s classic A Social and Religious History of the Jews also argues, the change in Jewish educational practices and institutions came out of an internal conflict about the control of Jewish society between two groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

Before the destruction of the Second Temple, the sect of Sadducees controlled Jewish society, largely through their dominance of religious and social roles therein. The Sadducees were the high priests, were responsible of the Temple, and in charge of religious learning. They justified their dominance by accepting only the Written Torah and the Hellenistic culture, and restricting access to educational institutions to a very small segment of the Jewish society. Their role was challenged by the Pharisees, who countered the Sadducees’ approach by advocating the study of both the Written and Oral Torah by all Jews, thus in some sense democratizing education and undercutting Sadducee domination. They effectively pitted the common people against the more aristocratic Sadducees.

The balance of power in Jewish society shifted with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. by the Romans in response to the Jewish revolt, led by the Sadducees. The Pharisees did not participate in the revolt, and used this window of opportunity to wrest power from the Sadducees, who seem to disappear from the record thereafter. The Pharisees started the process of fundamental educational reform along the lines they had advocated before. It is possible that this was also a move to permanently shift power to themselves, as democratizing educational institutions would undercut the foundation of the power of the Sadducees. Traditions such as reading and teaching the Torah to one’s sons and supporting primary schools for Jewish communities and synagogues as learning institutions developed after this period, and spread more widely in the 6th and 7th centuries. Notably, this happened in part while Jewish society was still mostly agricultural.

These events illustrate that even religious practices, the clearest form of cultural factors, cannot be studied and understood in isolation of the political struggles over these practices and without an investigation of why certain groups advocate them and succeed in implementing them. We’ll see in the next post that the same is true even for the more basic teachings of religions.

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (http://whynationsfail.com/).
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