Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Jewish Brainpower...Fact of Fiction?

CORRECTION: After the following article appeared in the Jewish Post last year, my father pointed out to me that it was Rabbi Hillel, not Akiva, who was asked to explain the Torah standing on one leg. Mea culpa.

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Why are the Jews so smart? I often hear people making the Darwinian argument these days: how centuries of persecution have forced us to live by our wits, putting a premium of brains over brawn. Furthermore, the force of natural selection is complemented in our culture by that of sexual selection: in the old country, the greatest yikhus which would recommend a bridegroom to a prospective bride was a history of rabbinical scholarship. Our people bred selectively for brains.

Those explanations ignore one important factor. Pride in Jewish brains has been part of our culture for thousands of years; in particular, it was in full flower even in the days of Alexander the Great. Since that era predates the codification of the Talmud and the consequent explosion of rabbinical scholarship following the destruction of the Second Temple, it is hard to explain why superior brainpower was already such a central fact of our self-image.

The Agoda is rife with tales of legendary Jewish genius, usually told at the expense of a prideful conqueror, whether Roman, Greek, or Babylonian. A small example is the legend of Rabbi Akiva who, when challenged by a Roman soldier to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot, is said to have replied: “Do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you”.

Jews take conspicrous pride in this formulation of the Golden Rule for its logical superiority to the Christian version. For the sake of a more “positive” formulation, their “do unto others…” ends up being a rule that, if taken literally, no one could really follow in practise. Goyische köp.

But there is one more little-known aspect of this anecdote which truly illustrates the nature of Jewish Genius: the element of word play. “One leg” in Hebrew is regel akhas. (I’m using the Ashkenazi pronunciation here, which some argue is more authentic than the Modern Hebrew version. Rabbi Weizmann once told me that when Moyshe Rabbeynu came down off Mount Sinai carrying the tablets, he greeted his people with a broad, “Git Shabbes!” But I digress.)

Regel akhas means one leg in Hebrew. But regel is also Latin for “rule”. (Compare the word “regulation”.) So in explaining the entire Torah in regel akhas, Rabbi Akiva was actually doing it in one rule while simultaneously standing on one leg!

Now that’s pretty smart.

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