How to Apply the Jewish Intellectual Tradition to Achieve Success

Q&A with Dr. Alan Kadish and Dr. Michael Shmidman

January 06, 2021
Dr. Alan Kadish, book jacket of the book The Jewish Intellectual Tradition, and Dr. Michael Shmidman (collage image)
Dr. Kadish and Dr. Shmidman, authors of The Jewish Intellectual Tradition

Touro president, Dr. Alan Kadish and Graduate School of Jewish Studies dean, Dr. Michael Shmidman, discuss their new book, The Jewish Intellectual Tradition, published by Academic Studies Press. They explain how a series of common principles extracted from the Jewish intellectual tradition can have life-changing implications for individual and societal achievement today. 

Can you define the Jewish intellectual tradition?

Dr. Kadish: It is a tradition of learning and achievement that was initially derived from Torah study, but has become more universal. This tradition is transmitted overtly or inadvertently by a system of education and by cultural milieu and has been effective at promoting achievement.

How did it arise and how is it sustained throughout history?

Dr. Shmidman: The tradition goes back to antiquity, to Biblical and Talmudic times, where we see an emphasis on the primacy of education, the importance of study and writing and respect for scholars, the pursuit of truth and living a purposeful existence. This begins with the classic writings of the Jewish tradition and continues throughout the later periods—medieval and modern.

Dr. Kadish: In a nutshell, I would say that the Jewish intellectual tradition arises from the Torah and Talmudic tradition, which requires and venerates education, learning, and achievement.

Can you give examples of people or systems throughout history who employ this tradition successfully?

Dr. Kadish: Let’s start backwards with a great quote from Einstein. Although he had a unique conception of G-d, he recognized the value of the Jewish intellectual tradition. In his book Ideas and Opinions, he says, “The essence of the Jewish conception of life seems to me to lie in an affirmative attitude to the life of all creation. The life of the individual only has meaning in so far as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful. Life is sacred, that is to say, it is the supreme value, to which all other values are subordinate. The individual life brings in its train a reverence for everything spiritual, a particularly characteristic feature of the Jewish tradition.”

Would you have an example of someone from an earlier period in history who employed this tradition?

Dr. Shmidman: From the medieval period, one such figure is Maimonides. There is no question that he exemplifies the versatility of many medieval Jewish scholars, an expert in a variety of different disciplines, a kind of Renaissance man prior to the Renaissance. He was a halachist or expert in Jewish law, a philosopher, and a physician. He clearly venerated the tradition of scholarship and learning that he inherited and tried to advance it further in his own creative and innovative ways.

Dr. Kadish: In terms of Rambam’s innovation and creativity beyond what existed previously, I would cite two examples. One is that he provided a logically organized Encyclopedia of Jewish Law or halacha, that begins with the relationship between man and G-d and progresses to how Jewish law embodies that relationship. That's something that no one had ever done before. And secondly, he tried to create a synthesis between Aristotelian and other philosophy and the Jewish tradition.

Dr. Shmidman: I would add that not only was that reordering and logical arrangement of all halacha, of Jewish law, unprecedented, it's also unparalleled to this day and its fusion of law and religious philosophy for Maimonides is a given. The two are inseparable; you cannot divorce one from the other in his world view.

How can people in 2020 apply this tradition to achieve success academically, professionally, personally—is there a way that we can relate it?

Dr. Shmidman: We offer 11 specific recommendations for application of these principles of the Jewish intellectual tradition, and all of them potentially have universal import and impact.

Dr. Kadish: Mentorship, collaborative learning, and living life with a higher purpose.

Is there something you'd want to say about how this tradition might be employed during the pandemic?

Dr. Kadish: If you look at intellectual achievement in the general global society, the real advances usually happen in cultures that have significant power and economic and social stability. The unique feature of Jewish intellectual achievement is that it continues even at times of poverty, pogroms, and great challenges. We believe that the reason for that is that the striving for a higher purpose and the recognition that one lives life for an eternal higher purpose means that you're able to overcome the day-to-day stresses and recognize that working to learn something or attain intellectual achievement has inherent value. So, Jewish scholars have been able to say—I'm not going to let COVID and the isolation get me down, I'm going to continue my work because my work is more important than what happens day-to-day because it has eternal value and meaning.

Could it be that unlike other traditions of scholarship, the Jewish intellectual tradition continues even during painful or difficult eras in history because its goal extends beyond the achievement of scholarship to a meaningful way to live?

Dr. Shmidman: Indeed, and one of our recommendations is this—do not be distracted from your determination to advance and accomplish despite impediments, major or minor, that stand in your way. So that's one of the universal applications of the tradition and this really relates to the current world situation. As we grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and pressing social issues in America, the increased stress currently facing all of us underscores the vital need for better grounding of our lives in these core principles.

Dr. Kadish: Another example of people embracing this tradition that we refer to in the book is those in the Warsaw Ghetto who created a rich cultural and educational life despite the terrible situation they faced during the Holocaust.

How has the age of the Internet impacted this intellectual tradition?

Dr. Kadish: It has made the unfiltered exchange of knowledge easier. The internet can advance intellectual achievement and accomplishment, as well as intellectual curiosity, but of course, it comes at a bit of a price. The democratization of access to information in some ways can decrease the value of expertise and can potentially lead to less critical analysis of thinking and data. It doesn't really fundamentally change the principles of the Jewish intellectual tradition. It simply makes the transmission of information easier.

Dr. Shmidman: The principles remain constant. One of the challenges as a result of the digital age is the challenge to authority, for example, rabbinic authority and communal leadership. This happens because of this democratization of knowledge, of information. So, people feel they know just as well, and the authority of a certain position is not quite as immutable.

How did this tradition get the Jewish community to where we are today?

Dr. Shmidman: Both in terms of the religiously observant Jewish community and in terms of the more secular Jewish community, the principles that are inherent in this tradition are manifested in the accomplishments and achievements of all these people in all of these groups. When they do achieve and accomplish, it's generally because they’re remaining loyal to the principles of primacy of education, respect for precedent combined with innovation, a quest to find purpose in existence, and pursuing truth with logic and intellectual honesty.

How has this tradition been transmitted through the generations?

Dr. Shmidman: It goes back to the oral law itself, the Torah she-be-al Peh, and on to handwritten manuscripts, the printing press and digital media. These are the outer vehicles for the transmission of this tradition, along with the constant oral transmission.

Dr. Kadish: I think it’s transmitted through an educational system that's been well developed. We talk about how universal literacy was common in Jewish communities at times when most of the world was illiterate, because of the legal requirement to study and to teach, and that literacy throughout history translated into a tradition of achievement. In the book, we look at achievement in different genres, and so it includes literature, philosophy—it's not all traditional academic achievement.

Dr. Shmidman: Jewish legal literature, Hebrew philology, creative writing, philosophy, scientific knowledge and mysticism are all genres discussed in the book in which the tradition manifests itself and which have been furthered by Jews throughout the centuries as a result of their adherence to the principles of the tradition.