Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

by Steven Gimbel
     
 

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Is relativity Jewish? The Nazis denigrated Albert Einstein’s revolutionary theory by calling it "Jewish science," a charge typical of the ideological excesses of Hitler and his followers. Philosopher of science Steven Gimbel explores the many meanings of this provocative phrase and considers whether there is any sense in which Einstein’s theory of

Overview

Is relativity Jewish? The Nazis denigrated Albert Einstein’s revolutionary theory by calling it "Jewish science," a charge typical of the ideological excesses of Hitler and his followers. Philosopher of science Steven Gimbel explores the many meanings of this provocative phrase and considers whether there is any sense in which Einstein’s theory of relativity is Jewish.

Arguing that we must take seriously the possibility that the Nazis were in some measure correct, Gimbel examines Einstein and his work to explore how beliefs, background, and environment may—or may not—have influenced the work of the scientist. You cannot understand Einstein’s science, Gimbel declares, without knowing the history, religion, and philosophy that influenced it.

No one, especially Einstein himself, denies Einstein's Jewish heritage, but many are uncomfortable saying that he was being a Jew while he was at his desk working. To understand what "Jewish" means for Einstein’s work, Gimbel first explores the many definitions of "Jewish" and asks whether there are elements of Talmudic thinking apparent in Einstein’s theory of relativity. He applies this line of inquiry to other scientists, including Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Sigmund Freud, and Émile Durkheim, to consider whether their specific religious beliefs or backgrounds manifested in their scientific endeavors.

Einstein's Jewish Science intertwines science, history, philosophy, theology, and politics in fresh and fascinating ways to solve the multifaceted riddle of what religion means—and what it means to science. There are some senses, Gimbel claims, in which Jews can find a special connection to E = mc2, and this claim leads to the engaging, spirited debate at the heart of this book.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
…Gimbel is an engaging writer…he takes readers on enlightening excursions through the nature of Judaism, Hegelian philosophy, wherever his curiosity leads…What gives Einstein's work a Jewish flavor, Gimbel believes, is an approach to the universe that reminds him of the way a Talmudic scholar seeks to understand God's truth. It comes only in glimpses.
—George Johnson
Publishers Weekly
Prior to WWII, Nazi sympathizers dismissed Einstein’s theory of relativity as “Jewish science.” Yet Einstein himself, notes Gimbel, recognized an intellectual style that could be identified as Jewish. In this wide-ranging exploration, Gimbel (Exploring the Scientific Method), chair of the department of philosophy at Gettysburg College, seeks to discover whether and to what extent Einstein’s work could legitimately be called “Jewish” and what difference it makes. He speculates about whether only a Jew could have discovered relativity theory, or whether the style of reasoning characteristic of Jewish theology can influence scientific thinking (as Catholicism informed the reasoning of Descartes). Finally, Gimbel asks, did Einstein’s theory contribute to wider conversations about Jewish themes among contemporary scholars such as Walter Benjamin and Martin Buber? Gimbel felicitously concludes that what makes the theory of relativity so attractive is its cosmopolitanism and intellectual open-mindedness. It is thus only metaphorically Jewish: as the ancient rabbis assumed the existence of God’s truth but could approach it only through their contrasting interpretations, so Einstein assumed that science was the pursuit of truth about the world that still allows us the integration of different perspectives on, and individual beliefs about, the world. Agent: Deirdre Mullane, Mullane Literary Associates. (May)
Tikkun - Donald Goldsmith
To understand Gimbel’s argument about the Jewish quality of Einstein’s approach—and to perceive the boldness of Gimbel’s decision to re-examine twentieth-century, anti-Semitic ideas about 'Jewish science'—it’s necessary first to understand the historical moment out of which the theory of relativity emerged.

New York Times - George Johnson
Gimbel is an engaging writer... he takes readers on enlightening excursions through the nature of Judaism, Hegelian philosophy, wherever his curiosity leads.

Choice
The author explores the question of whether a scientist's religious and cultural/ethnic heritage colors the way he/she does science.

Zocalo Public Square
Gimbel spins out what could have been a mere provocation into a wide-ranging and entertaining collision of science, history, philosophy, and religion.

New York Times Book Review
Gimbel is an engaging writer... he takes readers on enlightening excursions through the nature of Judaism, Hegelian philosophy, wherever his curiosity leads.

— George Johnson

Jewish Journal
[A] lively, intentionally provocative and wholly compelling inquiry into the Jewishness of Einstein himself and the world-changing scientific revolution that he set in motion.

— Jonathan Kirsch

San Diego Jewish World
Reaching back into the first half of the twentieth century, Gimbel returns with absorbing stories about Albert Einstein and his life as a politician, brilliant scientist, and Jew.

— Fred Reiss

Cosmos
For anyone interested in the history and philosophy of science, this book is well worth reading to its delightful conclusion.

— Rivqa Rafael

Digital Insider
The author and his book do a wonderful job in framing the time, and the science, and the politics, and the religion.

— Howard Blumenthal

Jewish Journal - Jonathan Kirsch
[A] lively, intentionally provocative and wholly compelling inquiry into the Jewishness of Einstein himself and the world-changing scientific revolution that he set in motion.

San Diego Jewish World - Fred Reiss
Reaching back into the first half of the twentieth century, Gimbel returns with absorbing stories about Albert Einstein and his life as a politician, brilliant scientist, and Jew.

Cosmos - Rivqa Rafael
For anyone interested in the history and philosophy of science, this book is well worth reading to its delightful conclusion.

Digital Insider - Howard Blumenthal
The author and his book do a wonderful job in framing the time, and the science, and the politics, and the religion.

Physics Today

There is no better English-language source on the topic.

Physics Today - Don Howard
The ugly, public assault on Einstein in early 1920s Germany is the starting point... The attack on Einstein is thoroughly and clearly described and placed in its historical and political context. There is no better English-language source on the topic. But Gimbel quickly turns the whole question upside down, asking with more than a little, deliberate irony whether there might not, in fact, be some truth to the characterization of Einstein’s physics as, in some sense, 'Jewish.' What follows is a fascinating and enlightening discussion of many aspects of the scientific, philosophical, religious, cultural, and political history of the 20th century that examines the many different ways in which one might understand the suggestion that Einstein’s physics expresses or reflects something distinctively Jewish.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781421405759
Publisher:
Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date:
04/30/2012
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Noah Efron
From its unnerving premise—maybe the Nazis were right, and Einstein’s physics is 'Jewish science' after all—to its contrarian conclusions, Einstein’s Jewish Science is a bruiser of a book. It asks questions and floats hypotheses that strain academic etiquette. With unflagging 'out-of-the-box-itude,' Gimbel reinterprets modern science and modern Judaism in a way that is sometimes exasperating, often challenging, frequently inspired and always riveting. You may not be persuaded, but after grappling with this book, you are sure to see in a new light both science and Jews of the twentieth century.

Rabbi Michael Lerner
A fascinating engagement with the nature of Judaism and of science. By exploring and, in a sense, redeeming the Nazi accusation that Einstein's relativity theory is 'Jewish science,' Gimbel not only challenges the racist meanings of that charge but shows how scientific theories must in fact reflect the issues and concerns of the historical periods which give rise to them. This book is certain to generate much interest and will stimulate an important and understudied debate.

Meet the Author

Steven Gimbel is the Edwin T. and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Professor for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Gettysburg College, where he won the Luther and Bernice Johnson Award for Distinguished Teaching. He is author of Exploring the Scientific Method: Cases and Questions; René Descartes: The Search for Certainty; and Defending Einstein: Hans Reichenbach's Writings on Space, Time, and Motion.

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