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.

Identity And Your Career

I think one of the most detrimental things one can do is identify with their career. I find so many people who do identify with their career. When they lose a job, when they retire, they lose their sense of identity.

When one thinks in terms of oneself as how one sells one’s labor, one is really doing a disservice to oneself. It also makes one extremely vulnerable in that it makes one less flexible. Flexibility, as Jonathan Lear argues in Radical Hope, should be the virtue one aims for in our society. Flexibility gives one the ability to reach beyond one’s current or past way of life and imagine something new and different. It’s the key virtue that lends itself to creativity and imagination in forms of life.

Of course, there’s advantages for your employer for you to identify with your career. If you are so invested in your career that you wholly identify with it, you make a good cog in the working machine. The problem, for you, is: what if the machine stops working or changes direction? What if you have to change careers or forms of life for some reason? When that happens, as it has been known to do, you will suffer an identity crisis. Instead of being able to knuckle down and move on with a different form of life–reaching for different thick concepts–you will be stuck in your old way of thinking while the world moves on without you.

So, do not place your identity in your career.