Jewish Values and Einstein

We are fast approaching the New Year.  The editor of our newsletter, Brad Kolar, assigns us “regular columnists” a topic to write on for each newsletter.  The topic chosen this month is “What Jewish values do you most want to carry with you into the New Year.”  I wondered  about the concept of Jewish values, and whether there were distinct “Jewish” values that we Jews in America held that were different from the values of our neighbors.  After all, one of the reasons for our high intermarriage rate is the fact that young Jewish men and women meet other men and women in the workplace or socially who are not Jewish, but who hold the same values as they do.  They find that they have grown up with the same values, regardless of the religion in which they were raised!   American society has more or less made Jewish values its own, and America has benefitted mightily from that.  Jews have also taken on values from the non-Jewish world that has not been considered traditional Jewish values. For example, the emphasis today on athletic accomplishment and competition has not been a part of traditional Jewish values.    One of my favorite quotations regarding Jewish values comes from Albert Einstein.  He said, “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence — these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my lucky stars I belong to it.”  I associated the first part of that sentence – “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake” – with the rabbinic value of “Torah Lishma” – “pursuit of Torah study for its own sake.”  (I am using “Torah study” in its broadest sense here – the study of Hebrew scriptures, Talmud and the later writings of the rabbis.) In Pirke Avot, Chapter 6, Rabbi Meir says, "Whoever studies Torah lishma [for its own sake] merits many features and, in addition, his study warrants the maintenance of our universe. He is referred to as a friend, an adored personality, a lover of God”, and Rabbi Meir goes on to list other virtues which more or less cover the entire gamut of positive character traits.  Now there are many interpretations, it turns out, about what “pursuit of Torah study for its own sake” really means.  Some say it means studying Torah in order to be better able to fulfill all of its mitzvoth – the behavioral demands of Torah.  Others say “Torah for its own sake” means we study neither out of fear of punishment or out of expectation of reward, but purely out of our love for G-d.  Still others understand Torah Lishma as study to become more adept in Torah’s logic and more knowledgeable of its vastness.  This latter meaning of “Torah Study for its own sake” comes closest to the Jewish value that Einstein adhered to in his scientific investigations, and that he felt he owed so much to his membership in the Jewish people.  Einstein did not believe in a personal G-d who intervened in the lives of His creatures.  He did not seek the answers to his questions in Torah study.  Yet his motivation for his scientific investigations is deeply connected to Jewish values.  “I want to know how God created this world,” he once wrote. ” I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know G-d’s thoughts. The rest are details.” That sounds like Torah Lishma to me.   Shabbat Shalom