August 8, 2012
How Jewish is relativity?
“If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world,” Albert Einstein quipped in 1922. “Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”
Steven Gimbel, author of “Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion” (Johns Hopkins University Press, $24.95), puts Einstein’s self-effacing joke in context: “Sometimes even the cynics aren’t cynical enough.” Thus begins Gimbel’s lively, intentionally provocative and wholly compelling inquiry into the Jewishness of Einstein himself and the world-changing scientific revolution that he set in motion.
Einstein’s theory, of course, was proved to be correct long before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Nazis and their supporters in the German scientific establishment dismissed it as “Jewish science.” Scientific truth, as they saw it, belonged exclusively to the master race: “In reality, as with everything that man creates,” wrote the German physicist Philipp Lenard, who won a Nobel of his own in 1905, “science is determined by race and blood.”
But Gimbel, a professor of humanities and philosophy at Gettysburg College, is not prepared to write off such assertions as “sociopathic nonsense.” Rather, he reminds us that Einstein himself argued that Jewish scholars can be discerned by the “Jewish heritage in their intellectual work,” and he dares to entertain a volatile idea: “Maybe relativity is ‘Jewish science’ after all,” Gimbel writes. “In fact the question, ‘What is ‘Jewish science’?’ turns out to be a very Jewish question.”
Gimbel, in fact, is out to tweak Jewish sensibilities by writing provocatively about the single most celebrated Jew of the 20th century, a man so iconic in the Jewish world that he was offered the presidency of Israel. “There is great delight in pointing out that Dinah Shore, Abe Fortas, William Shatner, Marc Chagall, Felix Frankfurter, not to mention both Simon and Garfunkel, all three Stooges, and all four Marx Brothers are Jewish,” he writes. “But among famous Jews, Einstein is in a category unto himself.”
The author is even willing to question in what sense Einstein can be regarded as a Jew since he was raised in a secular home, attended a Catholic school in Munich, and was more interested in mathematics and science than “the God of Abraham” as presented in the Torah. “I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures,” Einstein famously wrote, “or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves.” Still, Gimbel finds himself compelled to conclude that Einstein might not have been “an observant or theistic Jew, but he clearly was a cultural Jew” because, among other things, “[h]e loved Yiddish humor” and embraced Zionism.
Yet Gimbel presses the point. “Judaism seems to me to be concerned almost exclusively with the moral attitude in life,” Einstein declared. But Gimbel insists on cutting through what he calls “Einstein-speak” in order to scrutinize the great man’s private life. He concludes that Einstein was “a terrible husband and father, distant, moody, and at times cruel,” and a serial adulterer “who often served his own needs and desires before those of the people who cared for him.”
Above all, Gimbel insists that Einstein’s Jewishness, whatever it amounted to, did not shape his science in the way the religious backgrounds of Newton and Descartes influenced their work. “[N]one of the intellectual ammunition Einstein fired had come from Jewish suppliers,” he writes. “The content of Einstein’s work was in no way influenced by Torah, Talmud, or anything Judaic at all.” In that sense, “the Nazis were wrong.”
Yet Gimbel finally concludes that there is a “Jewish style” in Einstein’s work, an approach that he likens to the traditions of talmudic study and disputation. “The heart of the talmudic view is that there is an absolute truth, but this truth is not directly and completely available to us,” he explains. “In our search for deeper meaning, we must try to understand how that limited view of the truth fits together with seemingly contrasting views of the truth from other different perspectives and contexts. It turns out that exactly the same style of thinking occurs in the relatively theory. …”
Significantly, Gimbel is not himself a scientist, but he possesses a gift for hot-wiring hard science to the moral, cultural and political environment in which it is practiced. He reaches all the way back to Plato for his points of reference, and draws readily on 20 centuries of Western intellectual history, but he could not have chosen a more appropriate case study than Albert Einstein. And he rewards the reader of “Einstein’s Jewish Science” with a new way of seeing Einstein himself and where he fits into the Jewish world.