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People of the Math Book

Theories have long circulated about Jews’ talent for numbers—but do they add up?

Jenna Weissman Joselit
April 21, 2021
Bettmann/Getty Images
Joann Hulkower, a 21-year-old senior at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in New York, teaches school children, in 1961Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images
Joann Hulkower, a 21-year-old senior at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in New York, teaches school children, in 1961Bettmann/Getty Images

Tax season is upon us—in extended fashion, once again—complicating the lives of those who, like me, have no “head for figures.” Try as I might, they slip through my fingers like fast melting ice cubes.

Given what is often thought to be the “mathematicality” of the Jews, their collective capacity for numeracy, I suppose this makes me an outlier. More to the point, the decided limits of my quantitative abilities prompt me to explore where that association, which runs like a fault line throughout much of Jewish history, came from in the first place. (I’ll do just about anything not to have to reckon with taxes.)

Well into the 20th century, both the fans and the detractors of the Jews were apt to characterize them as a mercantile people, adroit at stock-taking and tabulation. Members of the tribe were thought to be rational and calculating, given easily to abstraction and thoroughly at home within the pages of a ledger book. Their religion, too, was said to be suffused with the very same attributes, rendering even the Jews’ covenant with God transactional rather than transcendent.

Widely shared, this perspective came asunder when trying to account for it. Some of its champions pointed to Jewish cultural practices, to gematria, say, an interpretive posture in which Hebrew words are accorded a numerical value, adding another layer of meaning. Others trotted out the Haggadah, highlighting the frequency with which numbers inhabit the text: the four questions, the four sons, the 10 plagues, the “Who Knows One” counting song. No less a source than the Bible itself, where all those “begets” bespeaks a quantitative imagination at work, was also enlisted as evidence.

Still others, drawing on what the Harvard University historian Derek Penslar in his landmark book Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe, calls a “murky palette of economics, culture and race,” insisted that the Jewish affinity for numbers was immutable and organic—in the blood, not on the page. Whatever distinctiveness the Jews possessed was attributed to their “racial essence” rather than to circumstance, history, or literature.

Tempting as it may be to dismiss the racializing of Jewish economic behavior as the handiwork of conspiracy-minded crackpots, some of the most distinguished and best-known economists of their day, among them Werner Sombart, whom The New York Times described in 1941, at the time of his death, as the “infallible pontiff of economic history,” hewed vigorously to this intellectual and cultural perspective.

In his highly regarded and much talked about book The Jews and Modern Capitalism, which first appeared in German in 1911, followed by an English-language edition two years later, Sombart noted that while some putative “Jewish characteristics” could be dismissed out of hand, as a “feather on a coat—easily blown away,” those traits that related to economic behavior, especially ones that aligned most fully with the perquisites of capitalism, were “deep-seated” and transmissible from one Jewish generation to the next. And with that sweeping assertion, he was off …

At once sober and fanciful, even fantastical, Sombart’s theory bundled together the desert and the city, nomadism and cosmopolitanism, camels and currency, faith and reason. Convinced that the stony desert from which the Israelites first emerged cultivated in them a distinctive form of “Jewish intellectuality,” as well as a predisposition toward mobility, which their descendants not only inherited but sustained in their religious traditions and vernacular practices, the German economist drew a straight and unwavering line between antiquity and modernity. By the time Sombart connected all his dots, he had come to the inescapable conclusion that “as the desert, so the town … the city sharpens [the Jew’s] intellectual capacities, enabling him to search, to spy-out, to organize, to arrange,” and, ’ere long, to become the progenitor of the monetary system and the monetized way of life known as capitalism.

In the United States, as in Germany, where Sombart’s racializing theories were widely circulated, American Jews found them to be a mixed bag, both affirming and troubling. Appearing in The New York Times as well as the American Hebrew, Joseph Jacobs, a leading Jewish intellectual of pre-World War I who was highly conversant with the latest thinking about Jews and race, gave voice to their concerns in two lengthy book-reviews-cum-rebuttals. The good news, he noted, was that at a time when capitalism was held in high regard as the engine of modern society, Sombart’s belief that Jews fueled that development, linking one to the other, made them feel good about their place in the world: integral rather than marginal.

The bad news, he continued, was Sombart’s “less than flattering account of their racial and religious characteristics,” which reduced the complexities of Judaism to a series of business propositions and Jews themselves to little more than the sum of their commercial abilities.

While Jacobs stopped short of impugning Sombart’s motivations, of suggesting that his beliefs were born of anti-Jewish prejudice, others within the American Jewish community, among them Samuel Schulman, the rabbi of New York’s Temple Beth-El and president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, held no such brief. “We see the cloven-foot of anti-Semitism in this book, whose science about the Jews and Judaism is fantastic, but whose animus is a bloody fact,” he charged, adding that the economist’s characterization of Judaism as a “cold, abstract, artificial, calculating, earthy materialistic religion” was nothing more than a “caricature” and a “nasty” one, at that.

For his part, the author of The Jews and Modern Capitalism maintained that he was no anti-Semite and that his theories were not the product of anti-Jewish animus but of the intersection between the “general Jewish question” and the “race problem” that roiled European society at the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th. Quick to acknowledge that “there were defects in the Jewish race as in any other,” Sombart also declared himself “absolutely free of prejudice of any kind.” His work, he clarified on more than one public occasion, was “actuated neither by hatred nor by love, but by the simple desire of revealing the truth as he conceived it.”

That may be. What’s not up for grabs or open for debate are the nefarious uses to which Sombart’s conclusions were put, especially by the Nazis, who drew on their patina of scientific respectability as well as on their creator’s high standing for their own evil ends.

Well before the Nazis came to power, Jacobs had warned of the potentially harmful effects of Sombart’s thesis, advocating that serious students of history keep their distance from it. The “whole book is an instance of the wild exaggeration in which a writer can indulge if he chooses to trust to his imagination rather than to the facts of the case,” he cautioned, concluding that its sole redeeming feature was its utility as an example of how “history ought not to be written.”

What, then, are we left with? Putting two and two together, Sombart’s theory no longer holds up, but as an historical entity in its own right, it casts a long shadow over how we take stock of ourselves—and of others.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.