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Botticini and Eckstein have little patience for this sort of apologetics. On the contrary, they insist, Jews were naturally attracted to moneylending because it was lucrative and because they possessed four significant cultural and social advantages that predisposed their success. First and foremost was rabbinic Judaism’s emphasis on education; literacy and numeracy were prerequisite skills for moneylending.
Jews were also able to rely on other built-in advantages, including significant capital, extensive kinship networks, and rabbinic courts and charters that provided legal enforcement and arbitration mechanisms in the cases of defaults and disputes. The authors add that while maltreatment, discriminatory laws and expulsions were frequently motivated by the prevalence of Jews in moneylending, they played little or no role in promoting this occupational specialization.
The relevance of cultural determinism is the subject of vigorous debate in intellectual circles, as evidenced by the recent brouhaha over Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s remarks about the differences in wealth between Israel and the Palestinian territories being the result of cultural differences. Most scholars would probably dismiss Romney’s argument as “dangerously out of date,” as Jared Diamond recently wrote in The New York Times. At the same time, Diamond and others warn against mono-causal explanations for socioeconomic historical trends, and such concern is warranted for “The Chosen Few” as well.
Of particular concern is the relative paucity of evidence that Botticini and Eckstein marshal for their literacy argument. Talmudic pronouncements on the importance of education can easily, and inaccurately, be read as descriptive rather than prescriptive, and the authors arguably overestimate the influence of the rabbis on the behaviors and self-definition of the Jewish masses.
They seem to be on firmer ground once they have recourse to the variegated documents in the Cairo Genizah, but they devote almost no attention to Jewish educational trends in Christian Europe. They also have little to say on the extent to which instruction in arithmetic and the lingua franca supplemented a school curriculum designed to promote facility in reading and interpreting Hebrew and Aramaic holy books. Instruction in these areas would have a direct impact on the Jews’ ability to function in an urban economy. Undoubtedly, Jewish school attendance rates and curricular norms varied by location and over time.
To be fair, the history of Jewish education remains an understudied subject, leaving Botticini and Eckstein relatively few secondary sources from which to draw evidence. One can say that their economic theory is plausible, particularly if it is advanced in conjunction with other factors.
But the jury must remain out in the absence of more conclusive hard evidence. Hopefully, the fascinating and elegant argument set forth in “The Chosen Few” will encourage historians to interrogate literary sources and archaeological evidence in search of a clearer picture about Jewish educational norms, Jewish literacy and its impact on the demographics and socioeconomic trajectory of Jewish life in the Middle Ages.
Jonathan B. Krasner is Associate Professor of the American Jewish Experience at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York.