- The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70–1492 by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein
To grasp the value and challenge of The Chosen Few, one must first appreciate its disciplinary rootedness in economic history, the sole conceptual lens through which Botticini and Eckstein examine the very worthwhile, if broad, research question that drives them. The Chosen Few sets out to explain nothing less than how the Jews have succeeded as a dispersed urban minority for over a millennium. Specifically, it reduces that success to Judaism’s [End Page 151] demand for literacy, a commodity with costs and benefits that balance out very favorably in the money-based economies born during the Middle Ages.
I say “reduce” advisedly, for a truly macroscopic history cannot avoid being reductive, and it risks, by extension, falling into a twilight genre, neither popular nor properly scholarly. If, however, a sweeping argument can navigate competing theories and resist gross oversimplification, it can still propose a useful organizing principle. All told, The Chosen Few succeeds in illustrating the centrality of literacy to Jewish success, but it unnecessarily, almost petulantly, insists on the exclusive primacy of literacy over others endogenous, multilayered factors, such as ethnic solidarity and dispersion. Ultimately, though sometimes blinkered, The Chosen Few deserves serious attention for raising and, largely compellingly, answering a fertile question of Jewish history.
To begin, Botticini and Eckstein discern the origin of Jewish literacy in the rise of Rabbinic Judaism. Facing the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis committed the Jewish destiny to the text-based fulfillment of the divine covenant, concomitantly elevating literacy to a religious obligation. This obligation, though enacted in the mid-first century c.e., was implemented after the third-century redaction of the Mishnah. In the agricultural context of the third to seventh centuries, this resource-intensive, religious requirement weakened the Jews and diminished their numbers, because they were, in the main, farmers for whom literacy had no parallel, practical benefits. However, with the rise of Islam, urbanism and, later, the Commercial Revolution, the Jews’ requirement for literacy proved eminently useful and strengthened their position in emerging commercial and money-based economies. The middle chapters follow the Jews’ peregrinations to Europe and their settling into the niches of mercantilism and moneylending, on the strength of their literacy and numeracy. The book ends in the sixteenth century in Europe (leaving the post-Expulsion story for the next book) and at the thirteenth-century Mongol invasions in the Middle East, which destroyed the urban economies of the Islamic world. Dense (to humanists, impenetrable) mathematical annexes to chapters 4 and 6 complement illustrative numerical tables throughout.
As a rule, Botticini and Eckstein affirm their thesis well; but they exclude other theses poorly. Though Jewish literacy clearly owes much to Rabbinic Judaism, The Chosen Few ignores the possibility that the rabbis and their penchant for literacy may not have, in fact, exerted much direct influence over Judaism and Jewish farmers, either way, during the pre-Islamic [End Page 152] centuries (cf. Ra’anan Boustan’s concise outline of influential arguments by Daniel Boyarin and Seth Schwartz, among others, in his review of Paula Fredriksen’s Augustine and the Jews, JQR 99, no. 1 : 74-77). Perhaps more troublingly, The Chosen Few is generally allergic to a more textured (and less punchy) historical tapestry of the coincident and aggregate forces that might have engendered Jewish urbanism. The authors prefer to divide and conquer, picking off individual arguments as insufficient explanations on their own, as if one needed a single-factored solution in the first place.
For example, while Botticini and Eckstein convincingly illustrate the fact of disproportionate Jewish depopulation during the agricultural era, from the first to seventh centuries, they scorn the explanatory power of the lingering demographic effects of revolts and riots. Worse, they argue e silentio to dismiss low fertility; if low fertility “had been a major problem … one would expect it to have … found its way into the Talmud.” The Chosen Few reverts to conversion, spurred by the onus...