John O. Ifediora. 

From antiquity to the present, Jews have lived in a wide assortment of societies in which they account for a very insignificant percentage of the population but almost invariably achieve higher educational and professional accomplishments than typically obtains in those societies that afford them minimal autonomy (Goldstein, 2012). Even in societies that are decidedly hostile to them, Jews continue to be better educated, more charitable to one another, and live a more stable family life than their non-Jewish counterparts (Prager and Telushkin, 2003). The singularity of this observation is more obvious in Western democracies; this is especially the case in the United States where American Jews account for approximately 2 percent of the population but hold a third of the Nobel Laureates in the sciences, and evince superior presence in medicine, law, economics, and mathematics by a ratio that is three times their proportion to the general population (Prager and Telushkin, 2003). In psychiatry and dentistry, the ratio is five and four respectively. A National Jewish Population Survey showed that American Jewish males are twice as likely than non-Jewish males to complete a university degree program, and Jewish females are three times more likely to complete a degree program than non-Jewish females (Greely, 1977). The United States Bureau of census consistently shows that Jews have the highest income level than any other group in America (Sowell, 1981). Even Jews that are pecuniarily poor are generally better off than non-Jews similarly situated; on this account economist Thomas Sowell ventured this far:

“…when the Jews lived in slums, they were slums with a difference –lower alcoholism, homicide, accidental death rates than other slums, or even the city as a whole. Their children had lower truancy rates, lower juvenile delinquency rates, and by the 1930s higher IQs than other children…..despite a voluminous literature claiming that slums shape people’s values, the Jews had their own values, and they took those values into and out of the slums.” (Sowell, 1981).

But why this near universal observation? What is it that explains this exceptional performance by a collectivity that accounts for barely 13.5 million of the World’s population of over six Billion?

I posit here that the superlative performance of Jews in secular activities is immediately traceable to the fundamental tenets of Judaism as advanced by the Torah, and Talmudic instructions. Judaism, as practiced for thousands of years, is comprised of four supportive pillars: One God, Torah, Israel, and Chosenness; to the practicing Jew these principal elements and the laws and instructions contained in the Talmud, define his faith and commitment. It is this commitment that helps explain, to a large extent, Jewish exceptionalism in secular activities. In this piece I intend to deconstruct this commitment, and identify a principal component – the requirement to study – as a powerful and explanatory vector of Judaism’s influence on Jewish work ethic and its successful application to secular affairs.

Study of the Torah and learning are essential religious obligations in Judaism; thus amongst adherents of the faith, study is not merely a commandment but a supreme one as evinced by the biblical imperative “you shall teach your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7). The Jews, as a matter of commitment, have incorporated the particularities of this injunction into a system of universal education (Talmud Bava Bathra, 21a). In contradistinction to other faiths, no such requirement can be found in Christianity and only until the Protestant Reformation was study required of its clergy (Goldstein, 2012). While the object of study and education under Judaism was the Torah, and proper understanding of God’s requirements, and not as means to professional success, it nonetheless happened to be the case that such acquired habit proved useful and necessary for professional and economic success in contemporary secular existence.

In all human societies, social institutions matter. By social institutions I mean what Bromley (2005) envisaged as the “rules whereby going concerns – families, clans, villages, firms, nation-states – regularize and channel individual action and interaction.’ In this regard, rules of interaction, religious observances, laws, and traditions constitute social institutions that give meaning, and guide individual and collective behavior. It is in this sense that the nature of social institutions adopted by a collectivity is relevant to the social and economic well being of its members. Moses Maimonides, in his code of law sanctioned this rule:

“Every Jew is under an obligation to study Torah, whether he is poor or rich, in sound health or ailing, in the vigor of youth or very old and feeble. Even a man so poor that he is maintained by charity or goes begging from door to door, also a man with a wife and children to support, are under the obligation to set aside a definite period during the day and night for the study of the Torah…..Until what period in life ought one to study Torah? Until the day of one’s death.”(Maimonides, Laws of Torah Study I:I – 10).

This admonition is an essential component of Jewish social institutions, and instrumental to Jewish exceptionalism in matters of professional and economic accomplishments. The important question here is whether such attributes are readily transferable without the trappings of religion? Although to many practicing Jews, Judaism is more than religion – it is a way of life; perhaps so, and just perhaps, such way of life is worth looking into.



Bromley, Daniel, W. “Development reconsidered: The African challenge.” Food Policy, Vol. 20, No.5 (1995): 425-438.

Goldstein, Phyllis. A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism. Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, 2012.

Greely, Andrew. The American Catholic: A Social Portrait. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

Maimonides, Mosses. The laws of Torah Study I:I – 10; cited in Prager, Dennis, and Joseph Telushkin. Why The Jews? New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Prager, Deninis, and Joseph Telushkin. Why The Jews? New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Sowell, Thomas. Ethnic America: A history. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Talmud Bava Bathra, 21a; cited in Prager, Deninis, and Joseph Telushkin. Why The Jews? New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

U.S. Bureau of Census Data; cited in Sowell, Thomas. Ethnic America: A history. New York: Basic Books, 1981.