Like most, I understand the theories of the universe the late Stephen Hawking pioneered through his own writings or those of other physicists who explain science to us lay people.
But even from this vantage point, the awe Hawking brought to his explorations of time and space – and tales of his glee at everyday things like ice cream and silly jokes – inspired generations of people like me.
Certainly Hawking inculcated in others Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s belief that “Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious [person’s] attitude toward history and nature.” Many people before me have noted just how many Jews are in physics.
Beyond the world’s most famous physicist – Albert Einstein, upon whose 1915 theory of general relativity Hawking based his theorem for the origin of time – the field is awash with members of the tribe.
Cue the many theories for why this is. Is there something to the number of Jewish physicists that points to Jewish thinking’s embrace of indeterminacy, something to which I can attest from battles with the Talmud over the complexity of Truth?
Or there was the answer Brian Greene, the well-known American physicist, gave when responding to a question about whether a religious or spiritual background in childhood might have affected his chosen profession. Greene noted his father in particular “had a very spiritual, philosophical outlook on life” and a huge collection of books. Is that where Jewishness and physics meet?
Hawking famously identified as an atheist. “God is the name people give to the reason we are here,” he said. “But I think that reason is the laws of physics, rather than someone with whom one can have a personal relationship. An impersonal God.”
But on the other hand, Hawking was also known to believe very deeply in what the Jewish tradition might identify as a Divine-inspired experience of wonder.
“Mah gadlu ma’asecha, Adonai,” says the psalmist. “How great at Your works, Eternal / how profound Your designs.” Or as Hawking himself so memorably put it: “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet.”
- Rabbi Leah Jordan is Liberal Judaism’s student chaplain