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How Has Jewish Thought Influenced Science?

An exploration of the relationship between Judaism and the evolution of scientific thinking.

 

Jonathan Sacks

Firstly, we shouldn’t exaggerate. Jews were not the first scientists; that distinction goes to Greece and the Pre-Christian century. But according to the great German sociologist Max Weber, it was Judaism that first led to what he calls Western rationality, which made science possible, and the reason it did so was because Bereshit Chapter One is the first act of demythologizing the universe. Until then, the universe was seen to be the result of vast and capricious cosmic forces—it could not be predicted, could only be. It was the abandonment of myth that made people able for the first time to see the universe for what it was, and Weber regarded that as the root of Western rationality out of which came science.

Moses Maimonides says that science is one of the routes to the love and fear of God. Jews were not in the scientific mainstream because they were not in the social mainstream until the modern era. In the 15th century, in the Italian Renaissance, for the first time we have real contact between Jewish and Christian scholars. In Krakow in the 16th century, when Poland is enjoying one of its rare moods of tolerance, you have an interchange between Jewish and non-Jewish scholars—Maharal of Prague and Judah Ganz, who knew Tycho Brahe.

The 17th century is really the birth of modern science. Here the influence was of Judaism, not of Jews. The Christians who read the Bible understood that the Bible was giving us a warrant to understand the universe. The study of the natural universe was as holy a task as studying the Bible.

Why are Jews so good at science? First, there is a profound Jewish sense that this universe is intelligible. Second is the Jewish almost-obsession with asking questions. You can’t even begin the Seder without asking a question. Third is this immense Jewish value placed on intellect. Fourth, Jews since the days of Abraham have been iconoclasts, prepared to challenge the conventional wisdom, and they still do it. Fifth, and very importantly, Jews don’t have a prohibition against playing God. On the contrary, God wants us to be his partner in the work of creation.

Lord Jonathan Sacks is the former chief rabbi of The United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, in the United Kingdom, and author of The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.

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Gerald Schroeder

Jewish philosophy tells us that the world is a single, unified system. This means that the universe makes sense—that one part shouldn’t conflict with another—and allows for deductive reasoning. If you see A, B and C over here, it will also make sense over there, in another environment. It also means that scientific discovery will eventually parallel biblical claims. For instance, the Big Bang theory says that the universe began from a single burst of energy, and that this energy has taken the form of matter. All ancient commentaries have said that this beginning was a physical creation, and now, thousands of years later, science has come to match that understanding. When I look in the mirror in the morning, it’s sometimes depressing, but what I’m looking at is the light of creation. That’s not poetry or New Age philosophy—that’s reality. Everything is the energy of creation in its present form.

If you look at the development of science over the centuries, it’s gone from a completely materialist view to one that includes both the physical and the non-physical. Hundreds of years ago, Newton had a completely materialist view of the world, but in the 20th century, that gave way to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Twenty or 30 years after that came quantum physics, which examines the very small. When you get down to this level, the physical world literally evaporates, and the world becomes pure information. The quantum physics view of the world is a mix of the physical and the metaphysical—and starts to sound a bit theological.

Gerald Schroeder is a nuclear physicist and author of several books, including Genesis and the Big Bang and The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom.


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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

One might argue that Jewish thought influenced science by arguing that Spinoza influenced Einstein—which he did, profoundly. Einstein accepted Spinoza’s idea that the laws of nature are thoroughly intelligible, and, by Einstein’s own admission, this Spinozist belief inspired much of his thinking.  However, just how Jewish is Spinoza? Is there anything of traditional Jewish thought that might have influenced Spinoza to take such a radical view about the ultimate intelligibility of the universe, understood on its own terms alone, without any supernatural principles required to render the universe comprehensible—in other words, no room for a transcendent God to have an explanatory role? That doesn’t sound very Jewish!

The roots of modern science lie in Plato, most especially in the Timaeus, with its view that reality has a self-explanatory mathematical structure, which means a structure of eternal, never-changing truths. An outstanding problem for Plato at the end of his life was reconciling this structure of eternal truths—which he expressed as having a Oneness—with the world of plurality and change we encounter in our senses—a Manyness. This is the problem, in Platonic terms, of reconciling the One with the Many. The neo-Platonists, both Christian and Jewish, inherited this preoccupation from Plato, including the very influential Philo Judaeus. The monotheistic neo-Platonists tried to
answer the problem of the One and the Many by elaborating on God’s emanations as structurally upholding the created world. Jewish Neo-Platonism morphed into full-blooded mysticism when it got absorbed into the thinking of the Kabbalists of Spain. Through the Kabbalists a strain of neo-Platonism was transmitted through Jewish learning, learning with which Spinoza himself was familiar. Kabbalist thinking was rife in the Sephardic Jewish Amsterdam that had excommunicated him, and among his private books at the time of his death was that of the Kabbalist Herrera. In fact, many of Spinoza’s Christian contemporaries read Spinoza, when he was published posthumously, as a kind of Kabbalist.

Now it’s perverse to think of Spinoza, an über-rationalist, as being a mystical Kabbalist. Spinoza makes some very cutting remarks about what he calls Kabbalistic foolishness, just as he makes cutting remarks about Maimonides. He doesn’t align himself with Jewish thinking, neither orthodox nor heterodox, nor should he be so aligned. Cartesian rationalism, as well as ancient Greek Stoicism, are far more traceable influences on him. But I’d tentatively hazard the ghost of a speculation that his rationalism, which far exceeds that of Descartes, might have received some of its creative daring from the neo-Platonist strain transmitted in Kabbalah. Certainly their preoccupation with reconciling the One with the Many is mirrored in Spinoza’s system, which posits a strong version of monism, namely the thesis that reality consists of only one substance, which is as eternal and unchanging as mathematics, and yet which, when viewed in another way, is the teeming world of many individual things, including ourselves, subject to fleeting time. And if there is any bit of truth clinging to this ghost of a speculation, then we can say that Einstein, in being so thoroughly inspired by Spinoza, was touched by a bit of Kabbalah as well.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist. Her newest book is Plato at the Googleplex.
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Judea Pearl

There are many ways in which Jewish thinking has influenced science. Through the ages, rabbis made allowances for educating poor children even though their parents couldn’t pay for it. This is the essence of what I call democratization of learning: It has the potential to create the next Einstein as well as rabbis.

The Jewish religion reveres innovation. There is a saying in the Talmud: “Whatever an earnest scholar will someday teach has already been spoken to Moses at Sinai.” On the one hand, this means that there is no innovation, because everything was given over to Moses at Sinai. The other interpretation is that the Torah is sanctifying innovation with the Seal of Moses, no matter how heretical it is. So innovations have a holiness. Throughout the generations, the notion of chiddush—innovation—was highly competitive. The rabbis used to compete with each other to see who made the most innovative innovation. These were not theoretical interpretations, but new ways of interpreting Torah. They couldn’t have cared less about science; science was an occupation of the goyim. There was no Jewish innovation in science until 1600.

As Jews, we have a chance to look at our evolution over 3,000 to 3,500 years, and we see fallible human beings who change their minds constantly. In the Bible it says, “take an eye for an eye,” but the Mishneh was smart enough to say this is not what Jewish people should do and interprets this as monetary compensation. So a child can look at this today and say, “My ancestors were smart enough to change this to reflect changes in how people lived.” So on the one hand, we respect our ancestors, and on the other, we see their fallibility and how they evolved. That means that no authority should be dogmatic, not even scientific authority. Whatever you learn in school, you are prepared to discard or question tomorrow. That has a lot to do with science and the idea that you don’t accept truth as the final word and that every truth can be totally revamped.

Judea Pearl is professor of computer science and statistics, and director of the Cognitive System Library at UCLA and the 2011 winner of the ACM Turing Award.
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Yehuda Bauer

There is no such thing as Jewish thinking. There is thinking by Jews, and Jews have developed various types of philosophies, contradictory to each other. In fact, the whole of Jewish civilization is based on constant internal debate, and Jewish thinking as such may have influenced science because of logical thinking, with a great emphasis on rationality and logic. But Jews were not the first to develop a way of thinking logically. The calculations of ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian astronomers were complex. And whoever built the ancient Mayan cities calculated the rays of the sun and knew when they hit the peak of the pyramid. That said, this very tiny group of people has contributed a great deal to the richness of human civilization—and science. But Jewish religious thinking has absolutely no influence on science, because it is theology. It is the invention of God, and God doesn’t exist.

Yehuda Bauer is professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a winner of the Israel Prize.

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Menachem Kellner

According to Maimonides, God, as it were, wrote two books, one called Torah and one called Nature—therefore they can’t contradict each other, and if one wants to learn about God, one must study both. In order to understand the commandments, Maimonides explains in the introduction to his Guide For the Perplexed, one needs to know something about metaphysics, and to understand metaphysics one must first study physics—or what Maimonides called physics. That’s why he says the Torah begins with an explanation of physics in “mythological” terms, so that we can understand and properly obey the commandments in a serious and adult fashion. Obedience to the commandments, in turn, enables us to progress more easily to attaining some level of that perfection which is truly human, namely perfection of our intellects. Here we see Maimonides’ elitism and universalism coming together.

When we use the word “science,” and when Maimonides used the word chochma, wisdom, he and we are not talking about the same thing. To be fair, the science Maimonides knew cohered with the Torah much more easily than the science we know now. His science is Aristotelian, and hence teleological. We look at science and expect development in our view of the universe. For us, the scientific view of the universe is dynamic. Maimonides knew there was development and progress, but for him it was incremental. These differences, important as they may be, do not undermine Maimonides’ basic contention that the proper study of Torah must include the study of what we call science.

Menachem Kellner, a Maimonides scholar, is chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Philosophy and Jewish Thought at Shalem College, Jerusalem, and professor emeritus at the University of Haifa. 
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Howard Smith

Life in the universe has been considered and discussed by Jews for at least 3,000 years, from the earliest manuscripts of Tanach. The Jewish offering is: The earth is a special planet, it’s not a typical planet. Life is not common, life is uncommon. What does that mean? It means that we as Jews have responsibilities. If we want to use the language of chosen-ness, chosen-ness comes with responsibility, to take care of one another, to take care of our environment. That’s a Jewish point of view.

The way we think about God and our relationship to God, and the way we think about our relationship to God in the world are all deeply informed by what we know about the world and modern cosmology. We live in the universe as one of many but completely separate universes. That’s called a multiverse. Scientists have developed the idea of the multiverse in order to explain some miraculous features of our world—in particular, what’s called the anthropic principle: basically, the observation that our world is perfectly suited for intelligent life, and if anything were any different, we wouldn’t be here. The Jewish point of view is not that we’re lucky but that we’re blessed, and that it’s not that the universe is chaotic and random but that the universe is purposeful. Science and Judaism are part of a system, and it’s worthwhile to see how they come together because it’s terrifically enriching, enlightening and gets us to a place that wasn’t available to Maimonides or to the Ramah or to Rav Soloveitchik.

Howard Smith is an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and author of Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kabbalah, a New Conversation Between Science and Religion.
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Jonathan Ben-Dov

Between the time of cuneiform science in the first millennium BCE and Roman Egypt, there are several hundred years of a black hole. Jewish writers filled this black hole with very interesting astronomical material we know from the Dead Sea Scrolls. There’s a significant body of Jewish scientific literature in the Hellenistic age, which those Jews cherished, learned and interpreted. Studying this work was considered a religious obligation, to discover the mysteries of the world. These mysteries could be many things, such as the end of the world and the structure of the world. Some people say that when rabbinic thought developed, it was a reaction to these trends of Judaism. There’s a famous passage in the apocryphal Book of Ben Sira that rabbis read to mean you weren’t supposed to engage with the mysteries; you were just to study Torah. There’s an interesting contrast drawn there between two competing trends of ancient Judaism.

Jonathan Ben-Dov is a senior lecturer in the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa and editor of the forthcoming collection, Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature.
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Gad Freudenthal

Jewish thought has its legitimation and the source of its authority in revelation and in sacred texts, whereas science has its source of authority in human reason and empirical experience. The idea of integrating science, as an alien body of thought, into Judaism has been problematic. Only in the Middle Ages were science and Judaism integrated. It began with Maimonides, who knew a lot of science and said how important it was for Jews; he posited that it was a religious obligation, nothing less! However, although in the following centuries Jews studied science, their writings—almost always addressed to their brethren in Hebrew—only rarely describe new discoveries. In the early modern period, too, writers usually inform their readers about what’s going on in the general literature in English, German, Latin or Italian. After the Middle Ages there was no intrinsic relationship any more between Jewish thought and the contents of science. Such a relationship was alleged only by the Nazis, who sought to distinguish between “Jewish” and “Aryan” mathematics and physics.

In the modern period, many Jews were scientists. As I see it, this resulted from the fact that many Jews went into intellectual professions. But what they did in their scientific research had nothing to do with their identity as Jews or with any elements derived from  Jewish thinking. The fact that a Jew chose to become a scientist may be connected to his or her Jewish background and the place of Jews in society, but their research agenda depends only on that of the scientific community.

Gad Freudenthal is a historian of science at the University of Geneva, in Switzerland. He is the editor of Aleph: Historical Studies in Science and Judaism.

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Daniel Matt

The search for the secret of creation is really a shared project between scientists and deep religious thinkers. The Mishneh warns against looking too deeply into two fields—one is creation and the other is God’s inner being. Those are seen as the two most profound secrets.

There are numerous parallels between Kabbalah and cosmology. The Big Bang theory says that everything began from one cosmic seed, and ever since that moment there has been an expansion. Kabbalah also speaks of a primordial point—which it identifies as chochma, or wisdom. Science speaks of an original oneness. All the forces of nature were once one primordial force, but this original symmetry was soon broken and became four forces: gravity, electro-magnetism and what are called the strong and weak nuclear forces. If the original symmetry (or oneness) had not fractured, the world wouldn’t exist as we know it. The parallel in Kabbalah is called the breaking of the vessels, shevirat ha-kelim. According to the Kabbalistic myth of creation, in the beginning there was only “oneness,” unified energy. God began to bring that energy forth but the vessels that were intended to contain the energy shattered under the impact of the light. This breaking of the vessels may sound like a catastrophe, but without it, there would be no separate existence, none of the unique individuality that enriches life. Without the primordial “breaking”—in both science and Kabbalah—there would just be oneness, but it would be a bland, rather boring existence, without the wondrous variety that we all treasure.

Daniel Matt lives in Berkeley, California, and is best known for his multi-volume annotated work, The Zohar: Pritzker Edition.

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Jeremy Brown

If you take your tradition seriously and you take knowledge seriously, then you really need to figure out where Judaism and Copernican thought can harmonize. There really isn’t a singular Jewish response to Copernicus—who posited that the earth orbits the sun. There are responses of individual Jews at individual times in individual places. And those are often very different and depend on what was going on in the local society. By the 1630s, an important Jewish scholar, Joseph Solomon Delmedigo, a student of Galileo, had accepted the Copernican model. He was comfortable with it Jewishly and also comfortable with it scientifically, when the rest of the scientific world had not yet really accepted the model. Copernicanism was not widely received at the time, so Delmedigo was a Jew on the cutting edge of science. Some Jews, such as Tobias Kohn of Padua in 1708, rejected the Copernican model because they understood the Bible as describing the world as unmoving. In the 19th century, a rabbi named Reuven Landau wrote that the world is the spiritual center of the universe and that this has to be reflected in a physical reality. Earth, therefore, must be the physical center of the universe. Even in the contemporary Haredi world, a Jerusalem rabbi named Moshe Sternbuch remarkably writes that the Copernican model is completely acceptable. Observant Jews, who take their Judaism seriously and scientific thought seriously, have to sit down and think about how these things can coexist.

Jeremy Brown is an associate professor of emergency medicine at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and author of New Heavens and New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought.

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Allison Coudert

Over the past 30 or 40 years, there has been this idea that good science emerges when bad religion disappears. But this isn’t true—it’s always been impossible to distinguish science from religion. What scholars have discovered recently is that it was the mix of Kabbalah, Hermeticism, neo-Platonism and even magical texts boiling over in the 17th century that gave way to the genesis of modern science. Kabbalah was particularly important, because it was the idea of tikkun olam—that humans had to be active partners with God in restoring the world—that fostered an activist, interventionist view of human behavior and the idea that humans could control progress. Even the Kabbalah Denudata was dedicated to the lover of Hebrew, the lover of philosophy and the lover of chemistry. So people during this time saw Kabbalah as a way of integrating the study of nature—i.e., science—with philosophy and religion. But it wasn’t just Kabbalah. There are very clear ways in which Christianity also supported science, particularly in the idea that God gave two books—Scripture and the Book of Nature. Sincere Christians, such as Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, believed that he and other scientists were the true priests, because they were reading the Book of Nature. Isaac Newton was also a dedicated religious thinker, and he spent as much time trying to decipher the revelations in the Book of Daniel as he did physics. So when we look at of the scientific revolution, we see all these different forces converging to promote what we now think of as modern science and various doctrines of tolerance.

Allison Coudert is a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Davis, and author of Religion, Magic, and Science in Early Modern Europe and America.

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Shmuel Feiner

The passionate desire of the maskilim for knowledge (which included mainly the natural sciences, but Hebrew, European languages and philosophy as well), their intense curiosity, their urge to acquire knowledge that was not accessible in the cultural circles of traditional Jewish society were all hallmarks of the early-18th-century transformation of Jewish culture. From our own perspective at the beginning of the 21st century, it is sometimes hard to appreciate the sense of sin, guilt and subversiveness experienced by those who engaged in the world of knowledge that lay beyond the bounds of Jewish and religious life. It is also difficult to comprehend the barriers of language, the social norms and the fear of undermining religious faith that these men had to overcome in order to gain access to this knowledge. Hence, to correctly assess how momentous a step it was, we need to listen with sensitivity to the voices of intellectuals of that very time, which testify to their passion for knowledge as a spiritual, even a religious, experience of special significance. The emergence of the Jewish Enlightenment was also a collective experience of Jewish frustration and even humiliation. The early maskilim sometimes expressed a sense of intellectual inferiority. We now realize that the encounter of the Ashkenazi elite in 18th-century Europe with secular knowledge engendered a traumatic conflict. As the modern Hebrew library expanded and the number of maskilim grew, the threat to the exclusive status of the canonical texts of Talmudic culture was taken more seriously. It is therefore not surprising that the Orthodox reacted defensively to prevent the breakdown of norms and accused those unable to resist temptation of heresy. But the force of this seduction was unstoppable, and the new secular elite and its desire for science developed from the end of the 18th century and challenged the traditional structure of Jewish society and culture in Europe.

Shmuel Feiner is a professor of modern Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University, where he specializes in German Jewry and the Haskalah.

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Moshe Tendler

So much information came down from Moses that all through history our view of the world has been more scientific, more rational, than anyone else’s. For example, up until the 1840s, Aristotle’s statement that man’s seed grows in the fertile ground of the mother to produce a child was generally accepted. Today, we know that the mother not only contributes equal genetic material to her child, but also exchanges critical cells with the fetus during pregnancy. Yet in our religion, 2,000 years ago, we spoke about the three partners in creating man—the husband and wife who contributed half each, and God adding the soul. These notions came to us from the divine inspiration that gave us the Torah.

The one critical common denominator between science and Jewish thought is that God made a world that man can understand. He gave us the Torah that can be understood by mankind, and at the same time, He gave us the laws of nature with the expectation that we could understand them. This was a major advance over the alchemy that had once dominated the world. As Jews, we respect the laws of nature as the laws that God has put into this world and don’t try to change them. We don’t spend a lifetime trying to change lead into gold through alchemy. Today, Jews are the forerunners in how to have a rational view of the interaction of religion and science in the world.

Moshe Tendler is an Orthodox rabbi and a professor of biology at Yeshiva University. He is the author of the textbook, Practical Medical Halachah.

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Hermona Soreq

I recently read a paper on evolution which says that human cognition, wisdom and the capacity to develop tools and technologies depended on group thinking and exchange of ideas. There seems to have been a leap in the development of human societies when people started to communicate with each other, suggesting that one brain is not enough. That article connected this evolutionary jump to the development of communities. I would like to bring this over to the Jewish concept of havruta, thinking together, discussing concepts. That concept had existed in Jewish tradition for many, many years, so this is a cultural advantage, if you wish, which is supported by evolutionary evidence.

Another element is Darwinian theory. Only the most capable survived. When Jews were not allowed to hold land or own wealth or to be associated with different professional guilds, they survived in a hostile society thanks to their wisdom and skills. Additionally, any skills that helped them to survive would be emphasized in the next generations, because this was such a small community that kept marrying within itself. So, genetically speaking, they kept the genes of the more fit individuals. The late professor Shneur Lipson used to joke that in Catholic communities, if there was a very bright son, they would send him to become a priest, killing the genes—there would be no next generation. But in the Jewish communities, if there were a bright son, they would marry him to the daughter of the richest man in the village, thus protecting these genes. So there are both genetic and cultural reasons that link Jewish communities with intellectual skills.

Hermona Soreq is professor of molecular neuroscience at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has won the Landau Prize for Biomedical Research and the Kaye Prize for Innovative Research at the Hebrew University.

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Noah Efron

Is there some affinity between being Jewish and doing science? Lots of bright people have thought so. Thorstein Veblen, the great sociologist, concluded 95 years ago that being pariahs for so long fostered in Jews skepticism toward conventional wisdoms, whatever they might be. This skepticism, Veblen wrote, is the “first requisite for constructive work in modern science.” Writer and Cambridge don George Steiner believed that modern Jews are heirs to a particular style of thought that developed in the yeshivas of past centuries which these days makes them ace scientists.

It’s easy to see why a century of scholars have sought a link between Judaism and science, because for the past century, Jews have been abundantly successful in the sciences. Pick any measure—crucial discoveries, prestigious prizes, patents, grants, university appointments, honorary societies—and Jews excel. It’s only natural to wonder why, and to conclude that there must be something in the nature of Jews or Judaism that accounts for it.

And yet, such a conclusion has its problems. Explanations that attribute Jews’ successes in science to their genes or their age-old traditions of learning fail to account for the fact that, with a few remarkable exceptions, Jews showed little interest in science and no special talent for it until a few generations ago. And the Jews who have since then excelled at sciences are a strikingly secular bunch; few ever cracked a tractate of Talmud or received much Jewish education at all.

Why, then, did Jews in the past century embrace science with such vigor and succeed with such extravagance? The answer is infinitely complicated, as these things are, and I’d like to offer just one part of it. Jews in the first decades of the 20th century often found themselves in a New World of one sort or another. Immigrants to the shores of America did. Jews in Russia did, especially after the revolution. Jews in Palestine did. In each of these places, and in many others, Jews struggled to adapt and also struggled to make their new homes adapt to them. In these struggles, science helped. The “values” that science was taken to represent and promote helped; values like democracy, equality, progress and meritocracy. To achieve a modus vivendi with the societies in which they found themselves, some Jews judged it necessary to advance two reform projects of staggering ambition. The first was a reform of Jews themselves, from parochials to full participants in the broader cultures in which they found themselves. The second was the reform of these broader cultures that would enable Jews to participate in them. Science was a way to do both things at once. It was a path that led to the faculty lounge and, sometimes, to the banquet hall of the King of Sweden. It offered the respectability of universally admired achievement. Science also refashioned the societies in which Jews found themselves into more porous and permeable places. The values that early-20th-century science increasingly championed—objectivity, rationality and meritocracy foremost among them—fit perfectly with the needs of a minority people anxious to make it.

And if all this is true, then Veblen’s thesis about Jewish preeminence in science may have matters exactly backwards. Rather than reflecting Jewish virtuosity in skepticism that was a product of alienation, the powerful appeal that sciences held for many Jews may have resulted, in part, from the longing of these Jews to assimilate into those same societies.

Noah Efron teaches at Bar-Ilan University, where he pioneered the Program in Science, Technology and Society. His newest book, A Chosen Calling: Jews in Science in the Twentieth Century, will be out in April. 

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Yossi Vardi

Jews have always sought knowledge; this is part of the Jewish value system. Since the destruction of the Temple, Jews have been required to read the Bible, and to do this they had to read and write. This allowed them to go into and to excel in commerce and science. Today you see an exceptional number of Jews in cutting-edge technology, especially in Israel. I say time and again that the explanation of the phenomenon of Israel high-tech is more cultural than military. It stems from the Jewish mother, who tells her children, “After all we have done for you, is a Nobel Prize too much to ask?” Add to this that Jews have high motivation to explore and push the envelope. I think these are the main driving forces. This entrepreneurship doesn’t only have to be manifested in science. It is part of the cultural DNA.

Yossi Vardi is an Israeli angel investor, high-tech entrepreneur and the chairman of International Technologies. 

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Susan Greenfield

The Greeks believed that discussion leads to advancement, and this is echoed in Jewish culture. It is an integral part of our civilization to ask questions. We are an intensely inquisitive people for whom everything is debated and discussed. Our abiding curiosity is often perceived as being querulous, but this is an entirely mistaken interpretation. In truth, we are using people as a sounding board for our views. Judaism is a very practical religion. People want to find out how things work. Look at yeshivot: The simplest matter can be the subject of intense disputation—even down to the width of straws that should be used in a sukkah! There are no limits on intellectual inquiry. This is reflected in that Israel now punches well above its weight in science and in the commercialization of science.

Baroness Susan Greenfield is a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.

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Edward Bormashenko

Monotheism exerted a crucial but not straightforward influence on what we call the “scientific way of thinking.” I also think that Jews are exceptional scientists because of the unique system of spiritual priorities inherent to Judaism. Within this system, the highest value is related to knowledge and the uncompromising search for truth (whatever we mean by “truth”). Judaism cultivates a “passion for truth,” using the excellent definition by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Spiritual priorities could not be developed by science, and they are external to science. First of all we have to decide that a truth is better than falsehood. And this decision is not “scientific;” it is the moral decision. However, there exists the continuous conflict between science and religion. This conflict is due to the anti-dogmatic nature of science. Science trains us to doubt in everything. There is nothing “immortal” in science. In spite of this, the collision between science and religion is healthy. Spiritual life without collisions is indolent, atonic. Of course this is very personal. Some people prefer steady-state spiritual life without painful conflicts and collisions. They close their windows and doors, and they are not interested in the external world. This kind of spiritual life may be full-fledged and rich. But it is impossible for scientists. If you open your windows and doors, conflicts are inevitable.

Edward Bormashenko is the head of the Laboratory of Polymer and Composite Materials at Ariel University Center of Samaria. 

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Steven Gimbel

The nature of Jewish thought is the ability to look at multiple perspectives when approaching a question. If you look at the way Einstein worked, there’s a style to it—it’s news to many people that scientists have styles the way musicians and artists do, but they do. Einstein’s looks at conflicting interpretations of a given observable happening in the universe and derives insight by finding a way to bring these different interpretations together, and it does look a whole lot like the Talmudic method.

Steven Gimbel is the chair of the philosophy department at Gettysburg College and author of Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion.

Josef Eisinger

It’s the force tradition, of Jewish culture. Being interested in learned things—not necessarily religious of course—that becomes a family value. For Einstein, Jewish thought did not influence his scientific work. For Einstein, his father was not a practicing Jew. Einstein did become religious for one year when he was about 12—he wrote a hymn to God. Then at about age 13 he realized the story in the Old Testament couldn’t be true and became a non-believer. His family was not scholarly at all probably a merchant tradition. There is a Jewish tradition of inviting a yeshiva bochur for Friday evening. Einstein’s father knew about it but he wasn’t interested in yeshiva bochurs but every Thursday night invited a medical student to dinner. This guy really turned Einstein into becoming a scientist. Einstein was a little bit mystical.  Thought there was something up there, not necessarily called a God. But something that produced these laws and nature. His main interest in studying nature. He often said that there was some design out there but he wasn’t willing to call it God.

Josef Eisinger is professor emeritus of structural and chemical biology at Mount Sinai Hospital and author of Einstein on the Road.

Maxine Singer

A lot of Jewish people have participated in scientific advances, and a lot of them have been very seminal contributors. I don’t think it has anything to do with being Jewish. It has a lot to do with being smart, with valuing learning, with working hard and with being willing to go off the beaten path—and I don’t think that Jews, as a group have any leg up on that, compared to other people. One can be misled by the fact that there are a considerable number of Jewish people who have been very prominent scientists. If we face up to history, it’s not true because Jews, by and large, didn’t enter the world of science. If you think about all the contributors to the Enlightenment that led to science, or the Renaissance that led to science, there were not a lot of big Jewish players in any of that. It was the development of modern society and the turning back from religion that gave the opportunity to a lot of Jewish people to use their skills in the world of science.

Maxine Singer is scientist emeritus at the National Institutes of Health and also president emeritus of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC. Trained in biochemistry and molecular biology, Singer was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1992.

Felix Posen

Jews were prohibited from owning land, pre-Enlightenment and prohibited from this and that profession. They went into permitted fields. Science was permitted. Anything that was new was permitted, because there were not yet rules against Jewish participation. Medicine was one of those fields.  Jews went into modern medicine because there was no restriction. Anything that was new had no quota on it. If there was not Jewish regulation, and it was open to everybody, Jews piled into it.

Felix Posen founded the Posen Foundation in 2004 .

Mark Friedlin

Modern science was not initiated by Jews but when Jews gained entrance they were already ready to face complexity of models and logic of modern science because of their education and traditions. When new notions and ideas appear, they often are vague and non-perfect. I think that Jews were ready to work with such not perfect objects and to be persistent. Of course, not only Jews have these features, the but specific life of Jews for many centuries made these features among Jews statistically more likely.

Mark Freidlin is a Distinguished University Professor in Mathematics at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Ruth Arnon

First of all, I think that there is a special way of Jewish thinking about learning altogether. During the centuries that Jews have been in the diaspora, special value has been given to learning, and those who excelled in it received the appreciation of the entire community. This attitude, namely the valuation of knowledge, prevails today in Israel and among Jews elsewhere.  Not just science, but perhaps, science attracts in a particular way. Science is an example of this attitude toward knowledge, and especially advanced knowledge.

Why are there so many new findings and so much scientifically driven new product development in Israel?  I don’t like to think that it is a specifically Jewish attribute.  For example, I’m not sure there is any difference between a Jewish and a non-Jewish graduate student when it comes to finding or seeing applications for their findings.  But Israelis have an aversion to “being square,” and have a penchant for thinking “outside-the-box.”  Thinking inside the box just doesn’t solve hard problems.

Ruth Arnon is the Paul Ehrlich Professor of Immunology at the Weitzmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel and is currently is President of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Fred Alan Wolf

I wouldn’t say there has been a Jewish route to the advancement of theoretical physics, per se. However, it is perhaps astonishing that there have been so many outstanding Jewish physicists over the 20th century, continuing into the 21th century, with so many receiving Nobel Prizes for their work. Nobel Prizes in theoretical physics are given for creative discoveries and new mathematical insights in the nature of reality, which is basically seeing a vision that had not been seen before. One could argue that within Jewish DNA lies a penchant for making such ground-breaking discoveries, perhaps for survival. Jews are raised to ask questions, to not just accept everything that happens. There’s a questioning of: Why does God do it this way, why is it this way and not that way? There’s kind of an ingrained desire for questioning everything, and I think that is exhibited in Jewish family life, where questioning is encouraged.

Fred Alan Wolf is a theoretical physicist and author of several books, including Taking the Quantum Leap: The New Physics for Nonscientists, which won the 1982 National Book Award in Science.

4 comments

  1. Genesis implies an evolutionary creation with humans arriving last on the scene, rather than a human-centred creation – i.e. God created humans then provided plants for shelter, animals for food etc. The evolutionary creation is ingrained in human thought that it took regressive “Intelligent Design” nutters to state the more “obvious” alternative.

    This evolutionary process must have influenced Darwin, albeit subliminally.

    At a deeper level, Judaism put forward the idea of cause and effect – that affairs are not random or capricious but the consequence of human behaviour. “Cause and effect” have driven science until quantum physics, even Einstein could not accept that “God plays dice with the universe”; it is only at the most elemental level that events are random (and that may be debatable).

  2. Giacomo Nunez

    YES, I BELIEVE THAT JEWS HAVE INFLUENCED SCIENCE BUT ALSO PHILOSOPHY, POLITIC, MEDICINE… THEY WERE NOT, PROBABLY, THE FIRST: THE GREEKS CAME BEFORE THEM. BUT WITH THE BIBLE AND, EVEN MORE, WITH THE “PILPOOL” OF THE TALMUD THEY WERE THE FIRST TO SPECULATE, SYSTEMICALLY.
    THE JEWISH CONTRIBUTION IN PHILOSOPHY, MEDICINE, PSYCHIATRY, POLITICS AND MODERN THINKING WAS ILLUSTRATED FIRST BY PHILON, MAIMONIDES ANS SPINOZA AND, AT THE END OF THE 19EEN CENTURY, BY MARX, EINSTEIN AND FREUD AND MANY OTHERS JEWISH SCHOLARS.
    ALL OF THEM WERE THE DESCENDENTS OF THE PUPILS OF THE TALMUD TORAH THAT TEACHES TO READ AND WRITE TO ALL JEWISH CHILDREN BUT ALSO TO DOUBT AND SPECULATE. THIS WAS ALSO TRUE, PROBABLY, FOR LIPMAN, MEYEROF AND KREBS THAT DISCOVERED HOW ENERGY IS PRODUCED IN THE CELLS FROM SIMPLE SUGARS AND HOW THIS EXPLAIN, AT LEAST PARTIALLY, THE AMAZING PHENOMENON OF LIFE. FOR FERMI, PONTECORVO AND LISA LEITNER WHO OPENED THE WORLD OF ATOMIC ENERGY..
    ONE HAS TO REMEMBER ALSO MARSHALL NIREMBERG AND THE DISCOVERY OF THE GENETIC CODE, JULIUS AXELROD AND THE IDENTIFICATION OF NEUROTRANSMITTERS (THAT EXPLAIN HOW NEURONS “SPEAK” ONE TO EACH OTHER IN THE NERVOUS SYSTEM). AND THE IMAGING TECHNIQUES ALSO FIRST INTRODUCED BY TW JEWISH SCIENTISTS, KEATY AND SOKOLOFF. OF COURSE, OF COURSE, A NUMBER OF TALENTED NON JEWS MADE ALSO MAJOR CONTRIBUTIONS TO SCIENCE AND THINKING. BUT THE NUMBER OF JEWS RECEIVING, FOR INSTANCE, THE OF NOBEL PRICE IS INCREDIBLE FOR SUCH A SMALL PEOPLE.
    THERE IS ALSO IN THE JEWISH MONOTHEISM THE IDEA THAT THE UNIVERSE IS NOT A CHAOS, THAT THERE ARE LAWS AND UNITY. IN THE SAME TIME ONE HAS TO BE CAREFUL: THE KABBALAH SAYS THAT IT IS DIFFICULT FOR A HUMAN BEING TO UNDERSTAND “INFINITY” AND “ETERNITY”. IN THE JEWISH RELIGION, THAT THE NOTION OF “ALMIGHTY” HAS TO REMAIN ABSTRACT: “HA CHEM”. THE WORD GOD, DERIVED FROM ZEUS, CONTAIN A GREAT AMOUNT OF ANTHROPOMORPHISM AND IDOLATRY.
    OF COURSE, ONE HAVE TO ASK A FORBIDDEN QUESTION: DOES THIS CAPABILITY OF JEWS FOR IMAGINATION AND ABSTRACTION MEAN THAT THEY ARE SMARTER THAN OTHERS?
    DIFFICULT QUESTION THAT I DISCUSSED WITH LOUIS SOKOLOFF RECENTLY; WE CAME TO THE CONCLUSION THAT THE EXPLANATION IS HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL: SUBMITTED DURING AT LEAST 2000 YEARS TO DISCRIMINATION, MURDER AND CONTEMPT, ONLY THOSE STRONG ENOUGH HAVE SURVIVED. THE FEEBLE, PHYSICALLY AND MORALLY, HAVE DISAPPEARED, KILLED OR ACCEPTING TO BE CONVERTED TO CHRISTIANITY OR ISLAM.
    THIS ASSUMPTION IS IN CONFORMITY WITH DARWINISM AND THE LAWS EXPLAINING THE EVOLUTION OF ANIMAL SPECIES. HUMAN’S EVOLUTION IS NOW MOSTLY CULTURAL: WE KNOW THAT NEW CONTACTS BETWEEN NEURONS AND NEW CIRCUITRY ARE FORMED IN THE BRAIN WHEN IT WORKS AND WHEN WE LEARN. CALLED CULTURE AND APPRENTICESHIP, THIS ABILITY OF THE HUMAN BRAIN PROBABLY EXPLAINS THE PROGRESS IN SCIENCE, PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICS AND ALSO IN INDIVIDUAL BEHAVIOR DURING THE THOUSAND OF YEARS OF HUMAN HISTORY.
    THE DIFFICULT PROGRESSES IN DEMOCRACY, INDIVIDUAL BEHAVIOR, ETHICS AND TOLERANCE MAKES HUMAN BEINGS A DIFFERENT SPECIES. IT IS PROBABLY BECAUSE THEY LIKED THE VERTIGO OF WARS, THE SEXUAL LICENSE AND THE OPPRESSION OF THE FEEBLE, THAT THE NAZIS WANTED TO DESTROY THE JEWISH PEOPLE WHO INTRODUCED, WITH THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, THE MORAL RULES REQUIRED TO GOVERN THE NATIONS.

    GIACOMO (JACQUES) NUNEZ IS DOCTOR IN BIOCHEMISTRY, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF PARIS AND SENIOR SCIENTIST CNRS (FRENCH NSF) AND INSERM (FRENCH NIH). ALSO GUEST RESEARCHER AT NIH-NIDDK AND NIH-NIMH (1996-2008). HE WAS THE AUTHOR OF 250 SCIENTIFIC PUBLICATIONS IN ENDOCRINOLY AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY.

  3. Giacomo Nunez

    Hello Hermona, you remember me?

  4. Dear Rebecca Newberger Goldstein,
    I read with some interest your contribution above. In addition to philosophers, questions regarding the relationship between the one and the many are also a central concern of database designers.
    http://www.databaseprimer.com/pages/relationship_1tox/
    http://code.tutsplus.com/tutorials/sql-for-beginners-part-3-database-relationships–net-8561
    It may be of no particular moment, merely a coincidence of language.
    I wish I could provide you with more guidance as to how to proceed in checking this out; but I am already out of my depth.
    Eli

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