Oppenheimer’s Jewishness

If there was anyone I’d want to write my biography, it would be Ray Monk. He and I knew of one another mostly through Facebook because of our philosophy backgrounds. Ray is an amazing person and is also a superb biographer.

I just read Chapter One of A Life Inside the Center and I thought I’d jot down some quick notes here.

It seems that Oppenheimer grew up in an unusual Jewish family–one that somewhat rejected Judaism, in a sense. This, as Ray Monk argues, helps explains why, later in life, Oppenheimer would be described as having no identity. Was he able to point to fellow Jewish people and say, “Those are my people”? I don’t know. But his colleague Rabi didn’t think so.

Ray Monk is careful to point out the various ways one can be Jewish: culturally, ethnically, racially, religiously and as a nationality. I’m no expert on Jewish history, but there appears to have been a time when these things were being brought out and, some of them, such as nationality, rejected by some Jewish people themselves as a way of assimilating into American society.

Oppenheimer seems to have grown up in a household where, if there was anything it meant to be Jewish, it was morally. This idiosyncratic view–the moral devoid of the religious–of what it meant to be Jewish was somewhat new thinking among some Jewish people. But it seems familiar when one looks to Immanuel Kant, who also developed a moral system apart from the religious. Kant’s famous axiom is: act according to the maxim you could will to be a universal law. Oppenheimer grew up in something akin to a Kantian home, then.

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