Where Does Torah Greatness Come From?
What did the early lives of many great Torah scholars share in common...and would it be wise to try to replicate it?
I recently read a fascinating essay on finding common features in the childhood educations of brilliant and creative people. The author, the Swedish writer and thinker Henrik Karlsson, set about reading the biographies of dozens of widely acknowledged intellectual leaders of the last two or three hundred years, including people like Bertrand Russel, Blaise Pascal, Alan Turing, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Virginia Woolf, and John Stuart Mill.
Karlsson noticed five elements coming up over and over again in his reading. Let me list them:
As you might expect, brilliant, high-achieving adults often possess natural, inborn genius in one or more fields. This is something that can’t be changed, so it’s not something that’s actionable.
The individuals being described were almost all the recipients of unusual educations. Few attended normal schools through their youth and most had personal tutors and extended exposure to intellectually rigorous environments.
Many - or perhaps most - of the subjects enjoyed (or, in some cases, suffered) long periods of free, unstructured time during their early years. This was partly because one-on-one (tutored) education simply doesn’t require all that much time. But the free time seems to have permitted these individuals to develop independent skills and knowledge, and forced them to find ways to entertain (and educate) themselves informally.
Most of the subjects were consciously exposed to intellectually enriching adult environments from very young ages, and their youthful opinions and thoughts were sought and encouraged. In other words, they were treated as full intellectual adults and expected to contribute in that context.
Many subjects engaged actively in what we would call apprenticeships through participating in the professional activities of their parents or other high-functioning adults.
Now, if I could somehow bring myself to read a few popular gedolim biographies, I might be able to find parallel repeated trends. If any of you would be willing to take one for the team and report on the results, we’d all be both grateful and awed.
However, my guess is that we would probably discover a lot of overlap. Greatness (in any field) seldom springs from mundane origins. Although I will note that I found Karlsson’s discussion of the use of free time particularly striking.
And for all the talk of excellence in education you sometimes hear in the chinuch world, it’s genuinely hard to actually deliver excellence at scale in a mass-production environment.
But perhaps we shouldn’t even try. Sure, you’re far less likely to win a fortune at gambling if you never gamble. But you’re also far less likely to destroy yourself financially. For every godol produced through extreme parenting, there are probably dozens or hundreds of sacrifices lost along the way. R’ Dessler acknowledged as much in his (in)famous letter contrasting Frankfurt with Gateshead.
And don’t forget what Chana asked for before the birth of Shmuel (Berachos 31b):
מאי זרע אנשים ... ורבנן אמרי זרע אנשים זרע שמובלע בין אנשים כי אתא רב דימי אמר לא ארוך ולא גוץ ולא קטן ולא אלם ולא צחור ולא גיחור ולא חכם ולא טפש
What does “the seed of men” (I Shmuel 1:11) mean? …The Rabbis said seed that can be swallowed up between men (i.e., a person who can go unnoticed). When Rav Dimi came, he explained: ‘Not tall, short, small, mute, too red, too pale, (excessively) smart, foolish’
Apparently, if we can take Chana at her word, we should all hope for children of only average talent.
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