Einstein’s Jewish Science

Steven Gimbel speaks at the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus on March 13. (photo Melissa Gerr)
Steven Gimbel speaks at the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus on March 13. (Photo Melissa Gerr)

“Jewish science” was a term used in Nazi Germany that packed a racist and political charge, spoken with the intention to denigrate the work of Albert Einstein and his Jewish contemporaries. In his book “Einstein’s Jewish Science,” philosopher and author Steven Gimbel dissects this accusation — investigating the pathways of Jewish identity, religion and culture — to determine if what the Nazis claimed was true.

Gimbel, a Pikesville native and philosophy professor at Gettysburg College, will present the ideas from his book and invite discussion as part of the Odyssey Program noncredit liberal arts offerings at Johns Hopkins University on March 13 at the Homewood campus.

The impetus for the question and ultimately the book came about when Gimbel and a colleague from the Judaic Studies department were discussing the way in which ethics is taught and how it seemed to be a “Christian” approach. They wondered about the distinguishable Christian versus Jewish characteristics.

Gimbel, whose enthusiasm for the content and background teaching undergraduates makes his treatment of the subject entertaining and accessible, explained that a “Christian approach” refers to the idea that there is only one truth and there is only one interpretation to arrive at that truth. It’s very different, he said, from a Judaic approach, where there can be much room for interpretation.

“If you look at the Talmudic, the Jewish tradition,” added Gimbel, “it’s dialogical, which is a fancy way of saying Jews argue a lot.”

Continuing the discussion with his colleague, Gimbel said he recognized a Jewish approach in Einstein’s reasoning and his theory of relativity.

He said that Einstein’s method took two seemingly conflicting views of understanding a concept and then put them together in a way that requires a higher level of understanding and creates a “larger truth”; it could thus be considered “Jewish science,” because there is more than one way to access a truth.

He doesn’t claim one needs to be Jewish to think in this way but suggests that perhaps Einstein’s method of attacking a concept had a “style” — a term not typically used when considering rigid scientific research methods.

“Scientists have a style,” said Gimbel. “Discovery comes from the person. There has to be room for insight, for genius in science. You can look at the work of different scientists the same way that you can hear a piece of music and say, ‘Oh, that’s Mozart,’ or you can look at a painting and say, ‘Oh, it’s Picasso.’ You can actually look at scientific papers and think, ‘OK, I know who that is just by the  way they reason.’ ”

So then, is Einstein’s science Jewish? Gimbel asks. “Well, yes and no,” he said, laughing. Whether or not it is Jewish science in the way the Nazis intended — over the course of two years of research and writing, Gimbel set out to answer that question in his book.

The book ventures into other thinkers of the time as well, comparing and contrasting their approaches to scientific research. Not every Jewish scientist necessarily had a Jewish approach or should be considered a Jewish thinker, Gimbel advises, citing another level of anti-Semitic thought that pervaded the sciences in the 1940s called essentialism.

Another element to the book is how Gimbel explains the gradual rise of vehement hatred toward Jews in Nazi Germany, of which Einstein’s very vocal beliefs and actions ultimately played a part. By providing excerpts of writings from some of the most brilliant and respected thinkers of the time, Gimbel explores why and how the belief grew that Jews were considered “unhealthy, disloyal and modern,” all which posed threats to Germany’s status quo and fueled the national engine of anti-Semitism.

Gimbel said that elements of the book addressing the concept of Jewish identity are in some ways his own personal wrestling with the issues. He believes researching and writing the book focused his attention more on the ways in which he might think differently because he is Jewish.

“The big questions now are at the intersections of things, and that’s what Jews have always done,” said Gimbel. “This book began talking with someone in religious studies, but I’ve collaborated with people in physics, in the chemistry department, in health sciences, economics, in our education department. Being Jewish lets you look for insight wherever it is, knowing there are other routes to it.”

Odyssey Program

Johns Hopkins
Homewood campus

March 13, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

For information, contact Bada Hebron at 410-516-8516 or bhebron@jhu.edu.


Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here