Secular Jews

When we marvel at the contributions made by Jews to Western Civilization, in terms of science and technology and Nobel Prizes won far out of proportion to the number of Jews in the world, we should note that they were all or nearly all actually secular Jews. The percentage of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes is 22.5% when the Jewish population comprises only 0.2% of the world’s population. That is an astounding statistic and is 11,250% above average (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Jewish_Nobel_laureates).

All the famous names are there: Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber, Max Born, Hans Bethe, Albert Michaelson, Niels Bohr, Isador Rabi, Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Salvador Luria, Arthur Kornberg, Melvin Calvin, Max Perutz, Paul Berg, Walter Gilbert, Sidney Altman, Michael Levitt, Martin Karplus, Paul Ehrlich, Otto Warburg, Ernst Chain, Selman Waxman, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Marshall Nirenberg, Julius Axelrod, David Baltimore, Rosalyn Yalow, Gertrude Elion, Harold Varmus, Ada Yonath,, etc, etc. and in literature, Boris Pasternak, Saul Bellow, Elias Canetti, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nadine Gordimer, Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), and so on and so on.  The world we live in would not be the same without them.  No other human group has made anywhere near a comparable contribution to Western Civilization, and I mention also Freud and Marx, and I point our that most if not all of them were secular and not religious Jews.  This is a phenomenon that has hardly been mentioned in courses on Western Civilization.  The encounter of the Jewish mind with modernity is a subject worthy of recognition and study (see for example “Jewish Excellence” IsBlog July 9, 2015 and http://jackcohenart.com/Articles/catalyst.pdf).

Similarly with the creation of the State of Israel, almost all the leaders of Zionism were non-religious,, including Theodor Herzl, David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, Yair Stern, and so on.  There were exceptions such as Menachem Begin, who could pass as Orthodox.  The vast majority of those who came to live in Israel and established kibbutzim and towns were secular and not religious Jews.  I point this out not in any way to denigrate religious Jews, although most of them at first opposed Zionism and assimilation into Western society.  But I emphasize that the meeting of the secular Jewish mind with Western norms of freedom of enquiry produced a burst of creativity the likes of which have never been seen before.  And this is still continuing.

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