DOES KNOWLEDGE EQUAL POWER?

Eugen Schoenfeld

Eugen Schoenfeld

Like most people, I too receive unsolicited e-mail. While most of them are mundane, occasionally I find some very interesting articles reflecting unexpected points of view.
Recently, a friend sent me an article titled “Why Are the Jews so Powerful?”, written by Dr. Farruk Saleem from Islamabad, Pakistan. As this writer is a Muslim, I expected that the article would contain the usual diatribe rooted in conspiracy theory enunciated in the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
To my surprise, the article was not anti-Semitic; it was directed toward the followers of Islam and explained why Jews have far greater power than do the Muslims. Simply stated, the author proposes that Jewish power lies in their education, while by contrast, the Muslims not only lack education but have one of the highest rates of illiteracy in the world.
As evidence, Dr. Saleem presents a long list of Jews who were noted for their scientific, literary and economic success and their contribution to universal culture.
I cannot argue with this view, although the doctor overestimates the power Jews wield in the world. If indeed Jews have all this power that the author claims they do, why then did we have to struggle in the last two millennia for our survival?
The author is also mistaken about the source of this power. Although education can help, power comes from the control of scarce resources – oil, for example – and is related to critical mass (that is, the size of a population), and neither one of these conditions fit the Jewish case.
It is true that Jews from the biblical time to present day have been committed to education and knowledge. Jews have contributed to the world’s culture and science to a far greater degree than one would have expected from such a tiny minority; for example, Jews – who are merely two-hundredths of a percent of the world’s population, have been awarded more than 25 percent of all Nobel prizes awarded.
While I can understand the lack of educational advancement by many nations in the Muslim world, it is however indeed a puzzle: Why have the Arabs – who at one time led the world in science, literature, astronomy, art and many other fields – ceased to continue to be leaders in the disciplines they once dominated? What brought the decline of science in the Arab world and at the same time what gave rise to the great Jewish achievements?

A Clarification, Courtesy Our History

From the ninth through the 12th     century (that period when Europe was mired in the “Dark Ages”), Arabs were the dominant force in the world of science. For instance, they developed the common numeric system, including the idea of zero and the decimal system, without which modern mathematics and the physical sciences could have not existed.
Moreover, it was their efforts that saved the wisdom of Greece and Rome, and their advancement of astronomy was instrumental to the expansion of sea voyages. And perhaps most importantly, the Arabic world was a very tolerant society to Jews and Christians.
Indeed, for almost three centuries beginning with the eighth century, Jews in Andalusia enjoyed a life of freedom that led Jewish historians to designate this period as tekufat ha’zahav, “the golden age.” This was the period that produced such literary giants as Rambam, Yehudah Halevy and Ibn Gabirol, all of whom produced works still considered great achievements in Hebrew literature; and during these years, there were also Jewish philosophers – most of whom wrote in Arabic – who became great contributors to philosophy, theology and moral thought.
Still, that success that Jews have achieved to which Dr. Saleem refers did not begin until the 19th century. For the period between the golden age but prior to the 1800s, Jewish scholarship was outstanding but limited to and by theology – that is, to explanations and the elucidation of the Talmud.
There has always been a strong bond between Jews and learning. The Torah commands us to be students and teachers, to love learning and to honor those who are learned. To be known as one who is baki batorah, “learned in the Torah,” or one who is a harif, “having a sharp mind,” is a great honor, and happy is the mother who can declare, “my son the rabbi.”
But while the Talmud teaches us that we must combine derech eretz, “worldly occupation,” with Torah learning, Jews in the Diaspora were kept from secular learning and from most occupations for some time. What was left to Jews for so many years was a shrunken world in which religion became dominant and in which love for learning was centered on only the Torah and Talmud.
Judaism in the past controlled what is appropriate and permissible to study and what is not. The significance and the power of learning is attested by G-d in the biblical narrative which describes Him as an entity who wishes to control knowledge and is jealous of human beings lest they become god-like.
Also consider that the serpent tells Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge, “for G-d does know that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened and you shall be as G-d…”

Perspectives Shift

It is only when religion has lost its grip over us, when we no longer accepted its restrictive limitations on our thinking and when the opportunities to learn were granted to us, that we were able to turn to the secular world and its teachings.
Over time, explanations that were based on revelations have been replaced by empirical observation. To Jews, this freedom of thought and learning coincided with the breakdown of the ghettoes and increased opportunities to enter universities.
As Jews entered into professions not available before, the love of learning and the honor bestowed to the learned still remained but was transferred from the religiously educated to the secularly educated.
Mothers now proudly proclaimed “my son the doctor,” rather than “my son the rabbi.”
In contrast to Jews, Muslims were unable to free themselves from the enslavement of their faith; to the contrary, their submission to Allah’s will based on the Qu’ran became very strong. This religious enslavement not only kept them from entering the modern times but also from living in a multi-faith society.
Regardless of the faith to which one belongs, a total commitment to a belief enslaves the mind and keeps the person from seeing that truth and beauty can also exist outside of their own belief system. The opposite also holds true: A total commitment to empiricism deprives people from having spiritual experiences.
Man, as the Torah teaches us, cannot live by bread alone, and people cannot enjoy the beauty of life without having an experiential existence and the ability to commune with the transcendental force. Life must have meaning, and the idea that human existence is purely the result of certain accidents does not provide an adequate reason for facing life’s struggles, nor does it motivate us to live in a moral and unselfish society.
As for me, I have the need to be attached to my historical roots, to the wisdom of our sages and, above all, to the existence of a transcendental force. The good life exists only when we live in the world of science while mitigated by the world of spirit.

Editor’s note: Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor.

By Eugen Schoenfeld
AJT Contributor