Thursday, March 29, 2012

Jews and Science

Recently I was interested in researching the history of Jews in science. In the library’s collection I discovered a number of interesting books on the topic. In addition to finding books on the history of Jews in science in general that cover different time periods, I located a biography section that contains works on specific Jewish scientists, including a section about Einstein. Subject headings in the library’s catalog include Judaism and science, Judaism and science-Congresses, Judaism and science- History, Judaism and science- History of doctrines, and Judaism and science- periodicals. Since this is such a vast and broad topic, I decided to focus on several books that would both give a general overview of Jewish involvement in the sciences over different time periods as well as provide information about key Jewish figures who contributed to science.

Some of the books that I looked at:

  • In 1934, Louis Gershenfeld published a book titled The Jew in Science, which traces Jewish involvement in the sciences all the way from the Dark Ages until modern times. Time periods covered include the Dark Ages, the time of Maimonides, the Renaissance, the Nineteenth Century, and American history. To provide context, Gershenfeld devotes a chapter to the history of science and a chapter to the history of the Jews. These chapters provide a brief overview of their topics. In addition to discussing more well-known figures such as Maimonides, the book discusses many more obscure Jewish scientists as well.

  • To focus more on a specific time period, and one during which Jewish scientists were highly prolific, one can consult Tzvi Langermann’s book titled The Jews and the Sciences in the Middle Ages. Primarily the chapters each deal with one figure: Sa’adya, Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Nahmanides, Gersonides, Rav Moshe Isserless, and Mordechai Fizzi. However, rather than just providing a biography, the chapters focus on a scientific topic with respect to the particular figure, such as astrology, astronomy, or physics.

  • Ruderman’s Jewish Thought and Scientific Discovery in Early Modern Europe provides a comprehensive analysis of Jewish interaction with the sciences during the emerging Enlightenment and age of science. One particularly interesting chapter focuses on Jewish attendance of the medical school at Padua. “In the beginning of the seventeenth century, a constant trickle of Jews were among the hundreds of students who graduated each year from Padua’s medical school.” Some of the chapters focus on specific figures, some well-known and some less well-known, but these chapters serve as a platform for a more thematic analysis as well, such as “Science and Skepticism.” Different geographical areas are covered, such as in the chapter “A Jewish Thinker in Newtonian England,” about David Nieto, a Rabbi in London who also held a medical degree from Padua.

  • An interesting book by Tina Levitan, titled The Laureates, provides short biographies of Jewish Nobel prize winners up until 1960, when the book was written. In the preface, the author explains that she has set out “to describe in nontechnical language the work for which it was given.” Levitan’s introduction provides an interesting history of the Nobel Prize in general and discusses the role of Jews in scientific discovery in particular.

  • In the biography section, I found one that was of particular interest, that of Lise Meitner, a German-Jewish physicist who was a friend of Einstein’s. One of the great scientists of her time, Meitner escaped Nazi Germany, and was a physicist involved in discovering nuclear fission. Because the author is herself a scientist, the book explains the scientific details of Meitner’s research, and does so in a clear fashion.

  • I also found a book titled Jews and Sciences in German Contexts: Case Studies from the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Ulrich Chapra and Ute Deichman, which analyzes Jewish involvement in the sciences in Germany during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including a chapter about Einstein. The book is arranged thematically instead of chronologically, and sections include “Research Practices, Achievements, Contexts,” “The Impact of Religious and Ideological Attitudes,” “Anti-Semitism in Academia,” and “Prosopographical Data.” The book deals with a wide range of topics. For example, the second section contains a chapter by Yael Hashiloni-Dolev that compares “German and Israeli Attitudes towards Reproductive Genetics and the Effects of Religion,” and the third section contains a chapter by Aaron Lowenstein that analyzes anti-Semitism in the journal Nature in 1938 as well as a chapter by Ruth Lewin Sime that discusses German Jewish scientists after World War II. Interestingly, Lowenstein’s article contains a reprint of the 1938 article published in Nature.

  • For an example of a more modern history of Jews and science, the Vertical Files contain a booklet titled “Profile of the Wiezman Institute of Science,” printed in 1967.

From these works it becomes evident that it is possible to examine the topic of Jews and science through a number of different lenses- historical, geographical, intellectual, and biographical. Due to the vastness of the topic, there are many more books that could be looked at. Given the significant role that Jewish scientists have played in the scientific community over time, this has proven to be a very interesting topic to study.


  1. Very interesting. Take a look at the new Einstein archive online which is at the Hebrew University.

  2. These all sound interesting. There's also a journal devoted to the subject: *Aleph*, published by Indiana University Press.