Among all the different cultural groups coexisting today in the United States, statistically, Jew are way more educated than most people in the country. At least 59 percent of the Jewish population in the U.S. holds a college degree while only 27 percent of non-Jews in America hold any type of academic degree. The question here is, why is education so important to Jews?
Known for being “the people of the book”, for too long Jews have valued education, even before arriving at the U.S. Yosef Meystel knows that Jews have seen education as an opportunity for their children to achieve higher goals and grow personally and intellectually. Besides, education is a pillar of Judaism called Tzedakah, which means doing the right thing (righteousness). It is a way to contribute to their communities and support cultural institutions for their religious groups and non-Jews as well.
In many historical events, it has been shown to us that Jews seem to be more educated than the average population of the countries they inhabit. Even after the Holocaust, cities that used to have a higher education level, went backward after Jews were killed or evicted. This can be seen in Russia, where Nazi control during World War II eradicate the presence of Soviet Jews, affecting the political and economic development of areas that used to have larger Jewish population prior the war.
Some experts, such as the economist Simon Kuznets affirm that as a minority concentrated in a few industries and businesses, Jews had the chance to keep their identity as a defined group, away from the influence of other cultures. Keeping their identity structured and defined among every member of their groups, allowed Jews to specialize in their occupations, helping them become the best at the paths they picked to follow no matter the city where they lived.
Maybe the fact that Jews were a minority who was constantly banned from agricultural activities helped them pick urban occupations that encouraged them to care about investing in human capital and cultural development instead of spending their time and money in physical activities. Some Jews nowadays can even state that as they were not allowed to have anything material for a long time, the only thing they had left was education. For centuries, they could not own the land, or choose the job they wanted, ergo, the best thing they had left to do was studying, an activity that authorities would not try to keep away from them.
In time, land stopped being the most important asset, and knowledge took its place. Jews have understood for a long time that in practical life knowledge is the best currency and so they have used it to survive, overcome difficulties and often become the richest men on earth.
Has it always been so important to Jews to be well educated?
Perhaps, the importance of education to Jews has something to do with the fact that they need to know how to read in order to be able to understand and teach the Torah to their children. However, history says that when the religious group was settled, only Jewish priests had the right to read the Torah and pass its teachings to their people. This privileged and well-educated group was called the Sadducees, who would in time fight the Pharisees, another Jewish group who demanded educational practices and institutions to be reformed because they considered that common people should have access to education, abolishing the Sadducees power and democratizing education as a right every Jew must have.
Balancing the power in Jewish societies and giving access to all Jews to read the written Torah, allowed Jews to start traditions like reading and teaching the Torah to their children so they could become better adults and support the creation of the first primary schools for Jewish groups. This change enhanced the foundation of synagogues and development of learning institutions around the 6th century. However, despite the education reform, Jewish societies were still mostly agricultural back then.
It was only when segregation started after the 7th century that Jews made their occupational transition from agriculture to books and started struggling with political regulations, developing small groups of literate individuals living in urban areas that knew how to trade, lend money, practice medicine and even manufacture crafts across the old World.
There may be different thesis to answer the question “Why is education so important to Jews?” however, an undeniable truth around this subject is that all the political and religious struggles that the people of the book have had to face have helped them become more interested in training their brains with knowledge than their bodies with physical labors like the ones related to agriculture.
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