Wednesday, March 04, 2009

raging chutzpah, sabbath elevators, bibliolatry and missionality

I'll never forget taking the elevator from our towering Jerusalem hotel room down to the lobby for breakfast one Saturday.

Not only could I not push the lobby button,

but the elevator stopped automatically on every floor.
I wondered if I would make it down for lunch.

When I ordered, I realized that the waitress was not writing down any orders;
even the most complicated ones.

Writing was "work" on the sabbath,
as was pushing elevator buttons.
Thus, the "sabbath elevator"

Which of course (!) brings me to..

the eccentric physics professor:

Richard P. Feynman,
the classic absent-minded professor,
Nobel Prize-winner even..

but with a twist or three:

-"a storyteller in the tradition of Mark Twain" (NY Times)
-accompanied ballet with bongos
-"high intelligence, unlimited curiosity and raging chutzaph"
-Freeman Dyson once wrote that Feynman was "half-genius, half-buffoon", but later revised this to "all-genius, all-buffoon"
-used a topless bar as an office
etc etc..

..relates in the famous/infamous "Surely You're Joking, Mr, Feynman,"
this short chapter which raises eyebrows and questions

how Judaism (or any tradition with a potential for bibliolatry..
that is, all of them) navigates missionality
..on the sabbath..
or any time
(I have placed phrases worth pursuing for "church and culture" implications in bold):

In the early fifties I suffered temporarily from a disease of middle age: I used to give philosophical talks about science - how science satisfies curiosity, how it gives you a new world view, how it gives man the ability to do things, how it gives him power - and the question is, in view of the recent development of the atomic bomb, is it a good idea to give man that much power? I also thought about the relation of science and religion, and it was about this time when I was invited to a conference in New York that was going to discuss "the ethics of equality."

....There was only one thing that happened at that meeting that was pleasant or amusing. At this conference, every word that every guy said at the plenary session was so important that they had a stenotypist there, typing every ..damn thing. Somewhere on the second day the stenotypist came up to me and said, "What profession are you? Surely not a professor."

"I am a professor," I said.

"Of what?"

"Of physics - science."

"Oh! That must be the reason," he said.

"Reason for what?"

He said, "You see, I'm a stenotypist, and I type everything that is said here. Now, when the other fellas talk, I type what they say, but I don't understand what they're saying. But every time you get up to ask a question or to say something, I understand exactly what you mean - what the question is, and what you're saying - so I thought you can't be a professor!"

...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 interested in.

They said, "Well, for instance, is electricity fire?"

"No," I said, "but. . . what is the problem?"

They said, "In the Talmud it says 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 say, "Which floor?" and my hand's ready to push one of the buttons.

"No, no!" he says, "I'm supposed to push 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 soon 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.

Finally I tried to assure the rabbinical students that the electric spark that was botherin g them when they pushed the elevator buttons was not fire. I said, "Electricity is not fire. It's not a chemical process, as fire is."

"Oh?" they said.

"Of course, there's electricity in amongst the atoms in a fire."

"Aha!" they said.

"And in every other phenomenon that occurs in the world."

I even proposed a practical solution for eliminating the spark. "If that's what's bothering you, you can put a condenser across the switch, so the electricity will go on and off without any spark whatsoever - anywhere." But for some reason, they didn't like that idea either.

It really was a disappointment. Here they are, slowly coming to life, only to better interpret the Talmud. Imagine! In modern times like this, guys are studying to go into society and do something - to be a rabbi - and the only way they think that science might be interesting is because their ancient, provincial, medieval problems are being confounded slightly by some new phenomena.

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. The 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 Washin gton, 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.

-Feynman, chapter: "Is Electricity Fire?"


  1. Forget the Talmud... it's a violation of the actual COMMANDMENT in SCRIPTURE to hire what traditional Jews call "Shabbas Goys" (Sabbath Gentiles).


  2. just trying to "push your buttons," Rabbi!

    Sorry, couldn't resist the Ken Adams-ish pun.


Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!