The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70–1492. By Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 323. $39.50.)
Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 194–195, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Bell, D. P. (2014), The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70–1492. By Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. Pp. xvii, 323. $39.50.). Historian, 76: 194–195. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_73
- Issue online: 4 MAR 2014
- Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
In this well-researched and wide-reaching book, Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein examine Jewish history from the rabbinic through the medieval periods, utilizing an economics lens that addresses the apparent Jewish demographic decrease in this period. The authors challenge a variety of now-standard assumptions related to the occupations practiced by Jews. In many cases, they provide thoughtful revisions, suggesting, for example, that persecution did not necessarily dictate the occupational decisions of medieval Jews. At the core of the book, the authors assert that the transformations related to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE shifted the religious leadership within the Jewish community and transformed Judaism from a cult based on ritual sacrifices in the temple to a religion whose main norm required every Jewish man to read and to study the Torah in Hebrew and to send his sons from the age of six or seven to primary school or synagogue to learn to do so (2).
The resultant spread of literacy among an initially and predominantly rural Jewry (along with other developments such as a unified code of Jewish law in the form of the Talmud and rabbinic courts) created comparative advantages in urban, skilled occupations and a voluntary diaspora; it also led to increased conversion from Judaism (and so population decrease) by those not prepared to invest in the required education. The costs associated with sending children to school meant that Jews who remained Jewish needed to find more lucrative work in order to invest in education.
Like other persecuted minorities, Jews were often forced to migrate, and so they preferred to invest in portable human, rather than physical, capital. Jews moved into occupations that benefitted from education, such as moneylending and finance. This development should not be ascribed to guild restrictions, which often came later, but rather to the rise of comparative advantages—capital, networking, literacy and numeracy, and contract-enforcement institutions.
The authors spend less time grappling with the practical implications of the rabbinic position toward education. Relying heavily on limited secondary accounts and prescriptive legislation, they conclude that education was pervasive in medieval Jewish communities. But what exactly did it mean to send children to school, what were the curricula, what were the specific costs, did everyone actually adhere to the requirements of the decree, and were Jews in fact particularly literate? In short, even as they provide useful reconstruction of the situation Jews faced in a number of important contexts (such as Tuscany in the fifteenth century)—and offer very welcome overviews of the Jews in Persia and Europe—the authors often remain at the theoretical level in describing anticipated behaviors and implications.
The authors further face challenges with an uneven depth and accuracy of information for various periods and locations and at times appear to relativize external factors and underestimate other noneconomic conditions, particularly religious conviction and interreligious permeability. The book includes some limited but lengthy economics formulae that will be (literally) Greek to the uninitiated. In the end, the authors provide a useful synthetic overview of some demographic and broad historical developments and some enticing economic theory. Still, the union of the two is more intriguing than completely convincing.