Ask the Rabbi

Understanding Jewish work ethic & success


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Adar 15, 5783
We have seen how people from Jewish backgrounds have been disproportionately high achievers in many fields such as Science, Arts, Literature, Entertainment, etc. with many Nobel laureates as well as other recognitions. To what extent was their Jewish faith a major influence on their achievements?
Thomas, your interesting question touches upon the classic issue of "nature vs. nurture" mixed with our free-will, and to what extent each factor in life comprises a person and his achievements? The same is true on a national level, and the answer is obviously complex. The Bible teaches that the Jewish nation, the "Chosen People", is God's treasure among the nations" (Exodus 19, 5), to be a "light for the nations" (Isaiah 49, 6), and was created for a unique role in mankind. "This nation I have created for Me", to reveal God and His ways to the world (Isaiah 43, 12-21), "Israel, about whom I [God] will boast" (ibid 49, 3). This role as a witness people (ibid 43, 12) has been carried out historically through the monotheism and subsequent morality which we brought to the world (see; through the Bible which we brought; through the Ten Commandments and national Revelation which we witnessed at Mount Sinai; through thousands of prophets over the generations as found in the Bible; through the Jewish people setting an example of decent life; through Jewish history where despite all odds and enemies, we always survive, the fulfillment of God's promise to our fore-fathers; and more recently, through the fulfillment of ancient prophecies (e.g. the miraculous revival of the Nation and Land of Israel, through modern Zionism, the gathering of (most!) of the Jews in this 3rd and final return to the Land of Israel from almost 100 different exiles, etc.). We were created so that the nations of the world will declare: "Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people" (Deut. 4, 6). Even when Jews unfortunately leave their faith, and act like gentiles, and even may choose to be sinners, they still have, to some extent the nature and nurture which God established. Despite comprising only 0.2% of mankind, Einstein, Freud and Bob Dylan and most of the 22% Jewish Nobel Prize laureates, did not have Jewish educations, but still had the Jewish nature, and at least part of the traditional Jewish home, which includes the stress on study ("the People of the Book"), family life (even the secular Jews in Israel have the highest birth rate in the western world), and avoiding drinking, cursing or wife-beating compared to other cultures and societies. The common denominator of these causes, will bring any objective person to admit that God runs Jewish history and helps the Jews, fulfilling His covenant with the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, through many various ways until this very day. In the words of Mark Twain: "[The Jew] has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him… The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone… The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?" The answer to his rhetorical question is that everything immortal must be a result of the immortal Godliness, in nature, education, culture and free-will, altogether.
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