Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Richard Feynman meets Rabbinical Students

Richard Feynman was possibly the greatest physicist of the second half of the 20th century. Although he was Jewish, he was very far removed from traditional Jewish learning and practice. But he was always keen to learn (and equally frustrated by others who did not want to learn).

I was rereading a biography of Feynman, entitled Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character (Counterpoint) and was struck (as I am every time I read it) by the following anecdote (p.284-7):

A footnote: While I was at the conference, I stayed at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where young rabbis - I think they were Orthodox - were studying. Since I have a Jewish background, I knew of some of the things they told me about the Talmud, but I had never seen the Talmud. It was very interesting. It's got big pages, and in a little square in the corner of the page is the original Talmud, and then in a sort of L-shaped margin, all around this square, are commentaries written by different people. The Talmud has evolved, and everything has been discussed again and again, all very carefully, in a medieval kind of reasoning. I think the commentaries were shut down around the thirteen or fourteen- or fifteen-hundreds - there hasn't been any modern commentary. The Talmud is a wonderful book, a great big potpourri of things: trivial questions, and difficult questions - for example problems of teachers, and how to teach - and then some trivia again, and so on. The students told me that the Talmud was never translated, something I thought was curious, since the book is so valuable.
One day, two or three of the young rabbis came to me and said, "We realize that we can't study to be rabbis in the modern world without knowing something about science, so we'd like to ask you some questions."
Of course there are thousands of places to find out about science, and Columbia University was right near there, but I wanted to know what kinds of questions they were interest in.
They said, "Well, for instance, is electricity fire?"
"No," I said, "but... what is the problem?"
They said, "In the Talmud it says that you're not supposed to make fire on a Saturday, so our question is, can we use electrical things on Saturdays?"
I was shocked. They weren't interested in science at all! The only way science was influencing their lives was so they might be able to interpret better the Talmud! They weren’t' interested in the world outside, in natural phenomena; they were only interested in resolving some question brought up in the Talmud.
And then one day - I guess it was a Saturday - I want to go up in the elevator, and there's a guy standing near the elevator. The elevator comes, I go in, and he goes in with me. I saw, "Which floor?" and my hand's ready to push one of the buttons.
"No, no!" he says, "I'm supposed to push one of the buttons for you.
"Yes!" The boys here can't push the buttons on Saturday, so I have to do it for them. You see, I'm not Jewish, so it's all right for me to push the buttons. I stand near the elevator, and they tell me what floor, and I push the button for them."
Well this really bothered me, so I decided to trap the students in a logical discussion. I had been brought up in a Jewish home, so I knew the kind of nitpicking logic to use, and I thought "Here's fun!"
My plan went like this: I'd start off by asking, "Is the Jewish viewpoint a viewpoint that any man can have? Because if it is not, then it's certainly not something that is truly valuable for humanity... yak, yak, yak." And then they would have to say, "Yes, the Jewish viewpoint is good for any man."
Then I would steer them around a little more by asking, "Is it ethical for a man to hire another man to do something which is unethical for him to do? Would you hire a man to rob for you, for instance?" And I keep working them into the channel, very slowly, and very carefully, until I've got them - trapped!
And do you know what happened? They're rabbinical students, right? They were ten times better than I was! AS son as they saw I could put them in a hole, they went twist, turn, twist - I can't remember how - and they were free! I thought I had come up with an original idea - phooey! It had been discussed in the Talmud for ages! So they cleaned me up just as easy as pie - they got right out.
Something else happened at that time which is worth mentioning here. One of the questions the rabbinical students and I discussed at some length was why it is that in academic things, such as theoretical physics, there is a higher proportion of Jewish kids than their proportion in the general population. They rabbinical students thought the reason was that the Jews have a history of respecting learning: They respect their rabbis, who are really teachers, and they respect education. The Jews pass on this tradition in their families all the time, so that if a boy is a good student, it's as good as, if not better than, being a good football player.
It was the same afternoon that I was reminded how true it is. I was invited to one of the rabbinical students' home, and he introduced me to his mother, who had just come back from Washington, D.C. She clapped her hands together, in ecstasy, and said, "Oh! My day is complete. Today I met a general, and a professor!"
I realized that there are not many people who think it's just as important, and just as nice, to meet a professor as to meet a general. So I guess there's something in what they said.

1 comment:

  1. Dear David,

    I pray this finds you at the beginning of a most meaningful Ellul.

    As chance would have it, I recently happened upon many Feynman anecdotes in Herman Wouk's latest book, a slim half-autobiography, half-meditation on the implications of being religious in contemporary times. It's entitled The Language God Talks (the phrase by which Feynman honorifically dubbed calculus) and is a rather uneven & meandering narrative. But it's hard not to like Wouk himself, a frum-born Modern Orthodox novelist through whose warm, clear prose a general affability & sincerity shine through. I imagine he's familiar to your blog's audience as a Jewish writer, even though his most famous work, The Caine Mutiny, is not Jewishly themed.

    A recurring reminiscence of The Language God Talks is Wouk's personally fruitful friendship with Feynman--so much recurring, in fact, that the book is practically an homage & hespid to him, taking for its central concern Feynman's challenge that modern cosmology strains our attempts to view the world as hashgachic. In Feynman's famous words, "the stage [has become] too big for the drama."

    Early on, Wouk has this to relate:

    "We met one summer years later at the Aspen Institute, a think tank high in the Colorado Rockies, and we took to lunching together and going on long walks. [Feynman] did most of the talking: about his own work in physics, about quantum mechanics (making it seem momentarily almost understandable), and about philosophy, of which he was acidly scornful[...]. [H]e perked up when I mentioned that I studied the Talmud daily. Feynman respected the Talmud as a 'wonderful book,' though he knew little about it. So I laid out for him an obscure abstruse problem that I had just struggled through. He listened keenly, thought for a moment, then rapped out the correct classic solution, and when I said he had hit it he was mighty pleased with himself."

    Later on:

    "A bar mitzvah was de rigueur for a Jewish Far Rockaway boy, but this one [Feynman] balked at learning a Hebrew passage to chant in the temple just for a wingding in his honor afterward and a pile of presents. His atheist father, possibly admiring his son's precocious unbelief, let the custom slide."
    "Early in the first lecture [collected in The Meaning of It All, where he deals with science as it relates to religion, Richard Feynman does come close articulating an earnest personal faith, in his unbuttoned diction and stand-up comedy style[...]. Feynman never once mentions humanism, and another word he never mentions is Judaism. Now consider: here is a man whose father like mine emigrated from Minsk and like my father--and so many immigrant Jewish fathers--wore out his life and sharp mind in a small business, to give his children an education and their shot at American careers; whose father like mine died young and like mine had a Jewish burial. Melville Feynman was an avowed atheist who now and then attended a temple, and once got his famous son to give a talk there on the atomic bomb. At his father's interment Feynman icily declined to repeat the Kaddish in Hebrew or English, as in boyhood he had balked at having a bar mitzvah. Not a trace of the Jewish background is in those hundred pages. Where it might naturally emerge, Feynman pirouettes on humanist toes around a void."

    Fitting thoughts for this Ellul?

    Bivrakhot michutzlaaretz, J.