American Jews in the Physical Sciences, 2008

Yakov Rabkin

Published in the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC- Clio, 2008, vol. 2, pp. 739-742.


The issue of Jews in any creative occupation—science, art, or literature—constitutes a controversy in itself. If science were seen as an objective and impersonal reflection of physical reality this article would have no raison d’être. In fact, many Jewish scientists, Albert Einstein the best known among them, have been averse to any association between their Jewishness and their scientific pursuit. Some scientists consider the question of “Jews in science” prejudicial; others deem it as nonsensical as that of “green-eyed men in science.” In their view, there cannot be anything specifically Jewish in scientific endeavor. Science is viewed as an activity devoid of cultural traits traceable to a country, a religion, or an ethnicity. This remains a strong belief in both popular opinion and among practicing natural scientists in spite of the work of historians of science, who, since the 1960s, ascertained social, cultural, religious, and other “external” influences on science.

The question of Jews in science has a long history of conflicting claims. Antisemites have blamed the Jews for contaminating the otherwise “pure science” with Jewish ideas. In some countries, this claim has led to discrimination, dismissal, and emigration. Conversely, others expressed pride in “Jewish geniuses” like Einstein and looked for roots of success in Jewish cultural and educational values. Some have asserted that Jewish marital practices tend to breed geniuses, in contradistinction to the Catholic custom of celibacy for the clergy, who for many centuries were the most important contingent among the intellectuals. A recent work presents an up-to-date survey of the opinions and issues in the literature on Jews in world science (Deichmann and Charpa 2004).

Science as an Instrument of Secularization. American Jews used to choose science as a refuge from discrimination, where meritocracy was expected to reign supreme. Robert Merton’s codification of the scientific ethos reassured them of an even playing-field as early as the 1940s. The ethos is “a complex of values and norms which is held to be binding on the man of science.” The young Jewish sociologist who had changed his original name Schkolnick to the English-sounding Merton, attributed to science four norms. The first was universalism, particularly appealing to many American Jews, many of whom with foreign names and strange accents. Prodded by Georges Gurvitch, a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied France, Merton also linked democracy and science. It was done largely as a reaction to the Nazification of science in Germany and, to a lesser degree, to the growing use of political arguments in Soviet science in the 1930s (Hollinger 1996).

Some Jews saw science as a tool to reshape American society to become more open, and also more secular. They wanted the meritocracy to transcend science and permeate American society in general. Science offered not only a meritocratic refuge from prejudice, as it had done previously in other countries, but also appeared to be a politically progressive activity, which was appealing to the largely left-leaning Jewish urban population of the United States in the middle of the 20th century. Ideologically, science also exhibited a particular pull for the Jews, a group that was then abandoning all religious practice faster and more radically than most other denominations in the country. The entry of Jews into the universities, and more specifically, into the scientific profession, triggered a trend that some scholars would later call “de-Christianization.” It was accompanied by rapid “de-Judaization” of the Jews themselves.

Jewish identity underwent major metamorphoses in the 19th and 20th centuries that were important in making science, particularly the Physical Sciences, a strong magnet for the Jews. Massive immigration of Jews from the Russian Empire and its successor states in the early 20th century brought these metamorphoses to American shores. Part of the new Americans’ intellectual heritage was the concept of the “secular Jew.” The new concept, which had gained popularity in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Russian Empire, eliminated the religious—and thus normative—dimension of Judaism and retained only its biological and cultural components. The secular Jewish identity thus assumed a socio-cultural coloration: it could be applied only to those who had consciously rejected Judaism while preserving linguistic (Yiddish and, later, Hebrew) and cultural traits. The identity that took shape was channelled into a diversity of political options, often inspired by nationalism and socialism. The concept of the secular Jew, which overtly negated the traditional Jewish perspective, would become the cornerstone of Zionism, of the Bund, as well as of the Soviet definition of “Jewish nationality.” Jewish secularism as an expression of ethnicity found no long-term support in American society and has experienced a decline since the 1950s.

A striking example of the vacuum left by Judaism was the call plea that young Jews in Riga, Latvia, issued made to Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), a Russian author and Zionist leader in 1923: “Our life is dull and our hearts are empty, for there is no God in our midst; give us a God, sir, worthy of dedication and sacrifice, and you will see what we can do” (Schechtman 1961). Zionism offered one such God, Bolshevism offered another.  The Physical Sciences also figured prominently as a substitute and an alternative to Judaism prior to the 1960s.

The idea of progress, particularly the positivist idea of progress from the theological to the scientific level of consciousness, found enthusiastic response among Eastern European Jews. The deterministic image of science, grounded in Newtonian physics, survived remarkably well the ascendance of probabilistic approachesthe concepts of relativity and uncertainty, introduced in the course of the scientific revolution associated with the names of Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg in the early 20th century. It is this image of science that could be conveniently erected as a challenge to religion. Throughout the latter part of the 19th and much of the 20th century, science as antipode of religion had a strong impact on the public around the world. American Jews were in the forefront of the struggle for this kind of scientific progress.

Scientific Training. There were practically no scientists, or even university graduates, among the Jewish immigrants to the United States until the 1930s. The severe restrictions on university admission that the Tsarist authorities had imposed on the country’s Jews made it highly improbable to find scientists among those who fled the Russian Empire. It was only among those escaping from National Socialism later in the century that significant numbers of scientists could be found.

Young American Jews began to enter universities in significant numbers at about the same time as new scientific careers were opening in academia and, to a lesser degree, in the private sector. While in Europe, emancipation of the Jews roughly coincided with the emergence of science as a profession in the late 19th century, in the United States it was the mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe that coincided with the somewhat later beginnings of professional science in America. In other words, professionalization of science was taking place at the same time as Jews were entering general society in their respective countries (Rabkin and Robinson 1994).

American Jews embraced the Physical Sciences with particular enthusiasm and success. Mertonian universalism held the promise of full acceptance, and the vanguard Physical Sciences appeared more transnational than the traditional botany or zoology. Several European Jews were, by the beginning of World War I, well known as proponents of the New Physics. Pushed to the margins of mainstream traditional Physics, they found themselves on the forefront of a scientific revolution that was reshaping their discipline. Young Jews entering American universities were aware of the prominence achieved by Jewish scientists in Europe, mostly in Germany. Their example showed how the Physical Sciences could help Jews to transcend parochialism and discrimination, and to make universally recognized contributions to science. It would appear that the hope of universalism, rather than ethnic pride, was in play.

Orthodox Jewish Scientists. Paradoxically, it was during the rebellious Sixties that Orthodox Jewish scientists began to make a mark in America’s Physical Sciences. Several factors account for the growing presence of observant Jews in Physics. One is the implantation of a new kind of Jewish Orthodoxy on American soil. Developed since the 1850s, this trend, associated with its founder Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, put emphasis on integration of Judaism with modern culture, including science. This emphasis distinguished it from the Orthodoxy of Eastern and Central Europe that shunned modernity altogether. All these trends of Orthodoxy found itself migrated to Americain exile after the rise of National Socialismbefore and after World War II. The German Orthodoxy in exileIn America, it took over a decade to produce its first crop of Orthodox scientists, many of whom formed the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, established in New York in1947. It has since tackled theological aspects of research results as well as applications of science to the elucidation of Jewish law (Carmell and Domb 1976).

Another factor that facilitated the entry of Jews into the Physical Sciences was the increasing tolerance on America’s campuses. Kosher cafeterias and accommodation to Sabbath observance were signs of the growing cultural diversity, rather than measures directed specifically at American Jews. While prior to the 1960s, most Jews would try to downplay their Jewishness, to change their names, and to appear paragons of universalism, it then became acceptable for observant and otherwise conspicuous Jews to join the faculties of major American universities.

The Sixties were also a period of unprecedented expansion of American Physics and its consolidation as the established center of the world scientific community. The nuclear arms race, the increased emphasis on American science education in reaction to the Sputnik satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, superpower competition in space exploration, and other elements of the Cold War boosted the Physical Sciences, creating many openings for qualified researchers in the United States. This was a particularly propitious time to embark on a career in the Physical Sciences, and Jews, including many Orthodox Jews, were among the new recruits. They were joining the center of world science that was undergoing rapid growth, a situation that resembled the entry of Jews in the scientific profession in the latter third of the 19th and the first third of the 20th century in Germany.

While it was its universalistic ethos that had drawn German Jews to science, in the United States, the Physical Sciences offered an additional refuge to observant Jews. They required relatively little familiarity with the ambient culture that was indispensable for those interested in becoming historians, philosophers, or anthropologists. Indeed, Judaic scholars often distrusted the Humanities and the Social Sciences and discouraged Orthodox Jews from studying them in a serious manner (Levi 1983). They held science to be an objective search for truth, which was deemed devoid of cultural influences, and it could thus be reconciled with the scientist’s personal practice of Judaism.

Current Situation. It is also since the 1960s that prominent Jewish physicists have become outspoken about the impact of Jewish culture on their scientific work. Judaism and Talmudic study came to be praised in acceptance speeches of Jewish Nobel laureates. Indeed, the Jews are clearly overrepresented among America’s religious groups in terms of the ratio between their share in the faculty and their share among the Nobel Prize winners. This disproportion is particularly pronounced in the Physical Sciences (more than 3 to 1), and the first American to earn a Nobel Prize in Physics was a Jew, Albert A. Michelson.

In the early 21st century American Jews perceive themselves mostly as part of the country’s mainstream. They are no longer “outsiders” in the sense of the sociologist Thorstein Veblen, who ascribed the Jews’ success in the sciences to their socially marginal status. Today science is no longer seen as an avenue to social mobility. While Jewish scientists in the Sixties came from poor and lower middle-class backgrounds, becoming a scientist nowadays would entail an economic sacrifice for many American Jews. This may explain the apparent decline in the share of Jews in the Physical Sciences. Another factor is the change of emphasis from the Physical Sciences to the Life Sciences that accompanied the end of the Cold War.

Yakov M. Rabkin

References and Further Reading

Carmell, Aryeh and Cyril Domb, eds. 1976. Challenge: Torah Views on Science and its Problems. New York: Feldheim.

Deichmann, Ute and Ulrich Charpa. 2004. “Jews in the Sciences—Sciences and the Jews—

The 19th and 20th Centuries.” Pp. 1-11 in Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook 3.

Hollinger, David A. 1996. Science, Jews, and Secular Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Levi, Leo. 1983. Torah and Science. New York: Feldheim.

Rabkin, Yakov M. and Ira Robinson. 1994. The Interaction of Scientific and Jewish Cultures in Modern Times, Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.

Schechtman, Joseph B. 1961. Fighter and Prophet. New York, Thomas Yoseloff.

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