What could a Nobel laureate in theoretical physics and a Lubavitch Hasidim Rabbi have in common, other than both being Jewish?
Their obituaries appeared in the New York Times Monday morning. Professor Steven Weinberg was a well-known theoretical physicist who was a Nobel laureate. Rabbi Yoel Kahn was the oral scribe or chozer of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the leader of the Lubavitch Hasidim. Both had made major contributions to the world of which they were a part and had more in common than appearing on the same day in obituaries of the New York Times.
I have had a long-time interest in science, especially cosmology and evolution. Weinberg was that rare scientist who could communicate and write for the general public. His The First Three Minutes: A Modern View Of The Origin Of The Universe is a classic in popular science writing. The headline “Oral Scribe for the Grand Rabbi” in the NYT for Rabbi Kahn’s obituary intrigued me, because of my long-term interest in the interface of orality and literacy.
After reading Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature (1993), I corresponded with him and met him once. Professor Weinberg belongs to that small group of scientists who rank just below Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr in terms of the magnitude of their contributions to science. Physics had posited four basic forces—gravitational, electromagnetic, strong, and weak. Weinberg demonstrated that at very high energy levels the electromagnetic and weak forces were the same electro-weak force. This is the discovery for which he was awarded the Nobel prize. Weinberg also made major contributions towards the establishment of the Standard Model which describes the interaction of three of the four fundamental forces and classifies the elementary particles.
What caught my attention upon reading his Dreams of a Final Theory when it first came out was the chapter on God. Weinberg was a true child of the Enlightenment in his understanding of the relation between science and religion. He thought they stood in irreconcilable opposition. Yet Weinberg described himself as a nostalgic unbeliever. He understood the desire for meaning and value in life. From the point of view of all we know about the universe, Weinberg thought the more we know, the more the universe and human life seems pointless.
Rabbi Kahn took the opposite view. Born in Moscow in 1930, his parents were members of a Hasidic group that was forced underground because of Stalin’s efforts to stamp out religion. His family escaped to Palestine, where Kahn enrolled in a Lubavitch yeshiva. When he later came to Brooklyn to study with the Grand Rabbi Schneerson, Kahn soon became the rebbe’s chozer. As such he was tasked with memorizing the rebbe’s sermons, which often went on for hours. This was necessary because no electronic devices were permitted on the sabbath or high holy day celebrations. Rabbi Kahn would memorize the rebbe’s talks and transcribe them. Then the rebbe would correct the transcripts. The published volumes of these talks run to 150 volumes. This act of memorizing and recording the discourses of revered sages is basic to the foundation of the rabbinic tradition as represented in the various Talmuds and Midrashim.
My intellectual sympathies lie with Weinberg: science and religion, as traditionally understood, are not compatible. But Rabbi Kahn and the Hasidim command respect for their perseverance in the face of evil. Their religious convictions enabled them to survive Hitler’s Shoah and Stalin’s attempt to eliminate them.
Weinberg and Rabbi Kahn represent two different strains within the traditions of Israel. Rabbi Kahn belonged to the Deuteronomist tradition, the dominant tradition in the Hebrew holy writings. The Deuteronomist’s basic strategy asserts that God has a plan. If it is not working, it’s our fault. Repentance restores God’s plan. God’s Torah requires careful and extensive study. From this imperative come the multitude of commentaries that have exemplified this tradition of wisdom.
Weinberg belonged to a minority tradition flowing out of the Hebrew wisdom writings as represented by Jonah, Job, and Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes). This minority tradition challenges the majority Deuteronomist position. It argues that if God has a plan, it is not working. Jonah the prophet initially refuses to preach against Nineveh because he knows God is a forgiving God. In the end, God will not punish Nineveh and Jonah will look like a false prophet. This is exactly what happens. In the Book of Job, Job’s friends, presenting the Deuteronomist position, try to convince Job that he must have done something wrong. Job steadfastly maintains his innocence. Even God seems to have forgotten that he, God, caused Job’s trials. The Book of Qoheleth goes even further:
Futility, utter futility, says the Speaker, everything is futile. What does anyone profit from all his labour and toil here under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3 REV)
Both Weinberg and Kahn were great rabbis. Although I imagine that Weinberg would have denied the title, he belongs to a noble Jewish tradition, as does Kahn. Weinberg explored our future; Kahn defended a version of our past.
At the end of The First Three Minutes, Weinberg wrote: “The more that the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” This position also is the same as the ancient teacher, Qoheleth.
Many view Qoheleth’s and Weinberg’s points of view as disheartening and even tragic, but they are tragic only because we have assumed that we are the heroes of the universe’s story. Science has shown that not to be the case. Weinberg acknowledged the tragic quality of his view (see Nobel Prize interview). While lacking religious belief, his life was neither tragic nor meaningless. Human beings need meaning, he thought, and we must make it for ourselves. This is as true today as it was in the past. When humans found meaning in gods or a god, they created their meaning, even though its creators did not recognize their own self creation. Historical analysis made that social construction evident.
Folks like Rabbi Kahn make meaning in a self-enclosed community of belief and practice. Such communities of believers are shrinking. They may in the future become dangerous as they find themselves more and more surrounded, cut off, and challenged. A retreat into nativism, isolation, or an imagined mythical past is a dangerous way forward.
Most will move in Steven Weinberg’s direction. That offers two options: either despair and nihilism at the pointlessness of life or the acceptance of the responsibility to make our lives meaningful by acts of love and caring for others. But Weinberg points to an even deeper or more outward looking perspective. Our concern must be larger than simply our own lives but must include the earth of which we are a part and even extend to the whole cosmos.
Photo Credit: Bernard Brandon Scott
Our task as humans has not really changed, only the way we understand that task. In the past meaning came from the gods on high. Historical analysis has made us aware that we create meaning. Now we must take responsibility for our lives. Our purpose in life is to make our lives meaningful. That is what defines us as human.
Those of us who study religion must show how meaning was made in the past, and how those traditions of wisdom can contribute to making a meaningful future.
Weinberg, Steven. The First Three Minutes: A Modern View Of The Origin Of The Universe. New York: Basic Books, 1993._____. Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist’s Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature. New York: Vintage, 1994.There are a number of good YouTube video featuring Steven Weinberg.
I would recommend the following:
Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and historical-jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
Subscribe to our email list and receive updates, news, and more.