Rabbi Avi Shafran: Chosen


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editorial.jpgIn the April issue of Commentary, a scholar dared to raise one of the few remaining issues still considered impolite these days for public discussion: Jewish intelligence. 

In an essay entitled “Jewish Genius,” political scientist and writer Charles Murray – who is not Jewish – outlines the historical and statistical data suggesting Jewish intellectual acumen and accomplishment, as well as a variety of theories seeking to explain them.

While most of us Jews will readily admit that we personally know many members of the tribe who are not very smart at all, Dr. Murray insists that “the average Jew is at the 75th percentile” of the IQ scale and that “the proportion of Jews with IQs of 140 or higher is somewhere around six times the proportion of everyone else.”  Some, moreover, have noticed that a number of world-changing ideas, both religious ones like monotheism and scientific ones like relativity, have their roots in a certain ethnicity.

After exploring a number of theories addressing the anomaly, Dr. Murray is less than satisfied.  Recent historical circumstances might have genetically favored Jews of higher intellect, he allows; but he suspects that Jewish intellectual ability is ancient, that the Jews may “have had some degree of unusual verbal skills going back to the time of Moses.”  And so, he writes, he remains without an answer for “the evolutionary psychologists’ ultimate challenge: Why should one particular tribe at the time of Moses, living in the same environment as other nomadic and agricultural peoples of the Middle East, have already evolved elevated intelligence when the others did not?”

Then, tongue – at least partially – in cheek, he concludes:

“At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable.  The Jews are G-d’s [hypen mine – AS] chosen people.”

Well, the thought is certainly timely.  We head toward Shavuos, when we will commemorate the cementing of Klal Yisroel’s chosen status: the covenant forged at Har Sinai.

I don’t know, or much care, whether or not intelligence plays any role in the Jewish election.  But if it does, it is peripheral to the essence of our chosenness.

Because what Jews are chosen for is to serve HaKodosh Boruch Hu – with our intellects, yes, but also with our hearts and with our bodies.

To be sure, the Torah itself refers to Klal Yisroell as “a wise nation” – but also as a stubborn one, and sometimes even worse.  The bottom line: It’s not our Intelligence Quotients that count but our Righteousness Quotients.  What counts is the service, not the smarts. Chazal did not generally stress inherent abilities – mental or otherwise – but rather focused on how we utilize whatever blessings we have.  Their greatest honorifics customarily ran not to words like “genius” or brilliant” but to ones like “righteous” and “G-d fearing.”

Even though Klal Yisroel’s election was merited through the dedication of our ancestors Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, and through another choice – that of the Avos’ descendants, at Har Sinai, to accept the Torah; and even though the exclusive Jewish people is open to any sincere ger willing to undertake to observe the Torah, the idea of Jewish chosenness has perturbed some non-Jews since, well, since Sinai.

Of late, though, anti-Semites tend to feed at other troughs of hate-fodder, like Israel’s existence (and its imagined evildoing). These days, ironically, the idea of the Jewish people as divinely chosen is more likely to disturb… Jews.

That is because the truism that every human being has limitless value and potential has morphed into the notion that all people are interchangeable, if not identical.  To suggest that different individuals or groups may have different functions or responsibilities has become uncouth, if not racist.  The Torah, however, unapologetically assigns roles – to men and to women; to talmidei chachomim and to those of us less learned; to descendants of Aharon HaCohein and to the rest of Klal Yisroel.  And to Klal Yisroel qua Klal Yisroel, too, in contrast to the rest of the nations of the world.

There’s no escaping it.  We say it every morning in our birchos haTorah: “…Who chose us from among all the nations and gave us His Torah…”

I sometimes wonder if part of the reason Shavuos isn’t as widely celebrated by contemporary American Jews as Sukkos or Pesach might be the squirming induced in some Jewish circles by the idea of Jewish specialness.  If so, I’d respectfully suggest that the squirmers just get over it already.

After all, there are many ethnicities and religions that lay claim to specialness – from the Japanese to the Mormons to the Black Muslims. And while history is littered with the deaths and destruction sown by self-proclaimed Ubermenschen, Jewish specialness is not a license but a gift; and its sole import is a responsibility to live lives of kedusha and thereby inspire others – to be the proverbial light unto the nations.

While some have the minhag to spend the entire first night of Shavuos (or both nights) immersed in limud haTorah, there is, of course, no Shavuos cognate-commandment to Pesach’s seder or Sukkos’ sukkos.  Shavuos is a time, it would seem, for turning inward and focusing on Mattan Torah and how it defines  Klal Yisroel.  A time to realize that our essence lies not in our talents and not in our intelligence, but in our tafkid.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


  1. I watch this with great trepidation. It may lead to a great Kiddush Hashem or it may lead to greater anti-semitism. Time will tell.

  2. very cool.

    speaking of R’ Shafran and friends, I wonder if he’s going to accept Jonathan Schorsch’s invitation to his father’s house for fruit and tea. That would be an interesting conversation…