A food for thought post by Acemoglu/Robinson.
They look at several explanations offered in the past to the question:
A clever argument was offered by the great economist Simon Kuznets in his Economic Structure of US Jewry. Jews, being a minority, Kuznets argued, chose to concentrate in a few industries and occupations in order to be able to maintain their cohesion and group identity separate from the majority. Because the industries and occupations in which they chose to specialize were in cities and were human capital intensive, this shaped their location and education choices.
Max Weber also wrote a book, Ancient Judaism, where he suggested that Jews voluntarily segregated from the rest of the population.
Perhaps more common and more plausible is the idea that Jews were often barred from agricultural occupations, and this pushed them into urban occupations and also encouraged them to invest in human capital that would give them the flexibility to choose urban occupations (often despite discrimination even in towns).
Yet another view would be a more cultural one: perhaps Jews are more educated because their religion requires them to be educated. In fact, (male) Jews are expected to read the Torah and teach it to their children (sons).
They then point to a recent book which reviews all these hypothesis:
Botticini and Eckstein first show that common explanations don’t hold much water. For a long time, Jews were not segregated occupationally and were farmers just like the rest of the population in the areas they lived. This continued essentially until the 7th century. So Kuznets’s thesis is unlikely to be the right explanation. They also point out that during this transition, taking place within Arabic and Muslim lands, there were no legal restrictions on Jewish economic activity, and Jews could choose any occupation and own land (in contrast, there were such restrictions within the Roman Empire, but the Jews did not make the occupational transition during that time). In sum, the Jewish educational advantage is unlikely to be a consequence of direct regulations either.
Instead, Botticini and Eckstein document that the greater education of Jews is indeed related to the tradition of reading and teaching the Torah. Sounds cultural, doesn’t it?
The authors go on to show much of this was not just cultural but resulted because of political struggles.
Rather, as Solo Baron’s classic A Social and Religious History of the Jews also argues, the change in Jewish educational practices and institutions came out of an internal conflict about the control of Jewish society between two groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
Nice story there…In the end:
These events illustrate that even religious practices, the clearest form of cultural factors, cannot be studied and understood in isolation of the political struggles over these practices and without an investigation of why certain groups advocate them and succeed in implementing them. We’ll see in the next post that the same is true even for the more basic teachings of religions.