The Yiddish Intellectual Tradition

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


The Great Jewish Scholars of Eastern Europe


Anyone who has read any of the major histories of the Jewish people would not know anything about the great Jewish scholars of eastern Europe or would wonder why they are either not mentioned at all or are given no more than a paragraph here or there. This is an atrocity because the American Jewish community is the direct descendant and beneficiary of these great men. Furthermore, the omission of these scholars is similar to a book on American literature which does not mention Ernest Hemingway.

The American Jewish community today is more than ninety percent of eastern European descent. In the early twentieth century and a few years before, two and one half million Jews from Poland and the Russian empire came to the United States. These families spoke Yiddish and were largely not well educated. Nevertheless, the Jews of the “Lower East Side” of Manhattan and similar places in other cities viewed scholarship as important and made “culture heroes” of such great scholars as Yisrael Meir Kagan (1839-1933), who was called “The Chofetz Chayim,” which was the name of his book by that name. That book deals with the almost universal habit of verbal “backstabbing” which consists of speaking “evil’ against others, and maligning and gossiping about people who cannot defend themselves because they do not know they are the victims of “the evil tongue.” The book is available in English and ought to be read by everyone regardless of religion.  In America the tradition of scholarship was continued by the immigrants but it was secularized. This means that the twentieth century Jews went to school, learned English, and then attended the City College of New York, which at that time cost no tuition. There the Jews studied science and the humanities and became the first generation of Nobel Prize winners. Furthermore, Jews entered the professions such as law and medicine and became disproportionate members of the educated class of Americans. Consider that only 29% of Americans have a college degree, while 53% of American Jews have a college degree. Fourteen percent of American physicians are Jewish, although we are only 1.7% of the population, as is also true of lawyers, and 10 percent of American academics are Jewish.

The reason for this development is by no means that Jews are somehow smarter or more intelligent than anyone else. It is instead the Jewish culture which drives Jews to gain a higher education and to value those who have achieved scientific honors.

We live in a natural environment as well as in the man made environment  called culture. Culture has three dimensions. It consists of material culture, such as a nail, the atomic bomb, and the chair we sit on. Then there is ideological culture, which consists of that which we believe, and behavioral culture, which refers to what we do.

These three aspects of culture are interdependent. For example, before the invention of the steam engine in the early nineteenth century, no one could travel at forty miles an hour. Horses don’t run that fast. When the steam engine was perfected and trains traveled faster than anyone had moved before, there were some who said that we were not allowed to go that fast, for if “Shem Yisborach” wanted us to move at forty miles an hour, he would have given us legs that  could run that fast. Yet today we can fly ten times faster, but no one believes that such speed is a sin. We believe we can drive at 60 mph or faster and we do so. The material culture make speed possible, the ideological culture adjusts its beliefs to the material culture, and we conduct ourselves accordingly. 

This is what happened to the American Jews. American materialism led to the opinion that science is more important than Talmud, and therefore we study physics and not the Shulchan Aruch.

Changes in human cultures are usually the products of the culture base. The culture base is the level of culture reached at any time. That  level of culture then produces the next step into yet more changes. For example, for centuries it was believed that Euclid’s geometry was final and unchangeable. Yet, Gauss and his student Riemann developed non-Euclidian geometry, followed by Lobachevsky, the Russian mathematician who gave non-Euclidian geometry a boost so that Einstein could develop his insight that light bends and that Armstrong could travel to the moon.

Likewise, Newton invented calculus in England, even as Leibniz invented calculus at the same time in Germany. Neither man copied from the other inventor. The evidence is that if neither Newton or Leibniz had ever lived, calculus would have been invented by someone else, because Descartes had invented trigonometry and calculus was the obvious next step in the understanding of the secrets of nature.

Therefore, American Jews, inheritors of the great scholarly traditions of the Yiddish speaking Jews, altered the culture of the intellect to fit American expectations and became the most successful ethnic group in America.

So we thank not only Rabbi Kagan but Moshe Isserles (1520-1572), Joseph Karo (1488-1575),  the author  of the Shulchan Aruch, the great Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1789-1866), the Rebbe of Lubavitch and his descendant by the same name (1902-1994). We remember Chaim Soloveitchick (1853 -1918) and Rabbi  Dov  Soloveichck (1820-1892)  who founded a Chasidic Dynasty. Akiva Eger (1761-1837), a great Talmudist and leader of the Jewish people, is remembered for his great contributions, and Jehuda Loew ben Bezalel  of Prague was so famous for his immense intellect that he was consulted by non-Jews, who built him a monument. Loew was the ancestor of Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

There were many more Jewish scholars among the Jews of eastern Europe who fled from the Nazi killers or were murdered. Some came to this country and founded Yeshivahs here. Others inspired American Jews to follow  their tradition. All of them are role models for us who are mere students who stand on the shoulders of those great men who preserved Judaism against all odds.

May their memory be a blessing and an inspiration for all of Israel, Bimhayro v’yomaynew

Gerhard Falk

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Gender, Sex, & Status (2019).

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