Albert Einstein may have been the most famous Jew of the 20th century. His biographer Walter Isaacson described that “when he arrived in New York in April, , he was greeted by adoring throngs as the world’s first scientific celebrity, one who also happened to be a gentle icon of humanist values and a living patron saint for Jews.” Over the course of his lifetime, Einstein became a committed Jew and a Zionist, a commitment that resulted in his being offered the presidency of Israel, an honor that he declined. In 1955 he stated near the end of his life, he stated, “My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human tie.” Einstein explained his route to Jewishness in his popular 1934 book, The World As I See It: “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 stars that I belong to it.” He went on to note, “In the philosophical sense there is, in my opinion, no specific Jewish outlook. Judaism seems to me to be concerned almost exclusively with the moral attitude in life and to life. I look upon it as the essence of an attitude to life which is incarnate in the Jewish people rather than the essence of laws laid down in the Torah and interpreted in the Talmud.” Einstein was quite emphatic that his Jewish identity was not religiously motivated. In 1921, he told the rabbis of Berlin who had urged him to become a dues-paying member of the Jewish religious community, “I notice that the word Jew is ambiguous in that it refers (1) to nationality and origin, (2) to the faith. I am a Jew in the first sense, not the second.”
So Einstein highlighted several of the features that foster Jewish identity – nationality (or race or group membership), the culture emanating from group membership, and shared religious belief. In the United States, religion remains a powerful force in Jewish identity, as do an inner commitment to being Jewish and significant Jewish friendship ties. The National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001 observed, “Most American Jewish adults observe in some way the High Holidays, Passover and Hanukkah. Majorities also read a Jewish newspaper or magazine or books with Jewish content, regard being Jewish as very important, and report that half or more of their close friends are Jewish.”
Einstein believed that anti-Semitism was a major force in promoting affiliation to the Jewish community as when he wrote, “It may be thanks to anti-Semitism that we are able to preserve our race.” Yet, the writers of the American Jewish Yearbook 2007 have shown that anti-Semitism is simply not present at levels where it would serve as a threat and cohesive force, noting, “The American Jewish community in the U.S. – the largest concentration of Jews in the world outside Israel – experienced remarkably low levels of expression of anti-Semitic expression, both behavioral and attitudinal in 2006. This followed a 50-year pattern that reflected the strengths of a pluralistic society, even as intergroup tensions in general continued to concern political leaders and social analysts.” This has translated into a different set of feelings about being Jewish in the United States with most contemporary American Jews viewing themselves as Einstein did — both assimilated and Jewish.
If being Jewish were in the blood, then what better way to find the markers of Jewishness then by studying blood itself? In his 1977 book The Genetics of the Jews, Arthur Mourant, one of the foremost cataloguers of blood groups during the 20th century, explained the advantages to this approach, “In popular anthropology since time immemorial…the visible and physically measurable body characteristics preceded the hereditary blood characteristics as the principal human taxonomic markers. Because of the precisely known mode of inheritance of blood characters, the latter have now superseded them… The hereditary diseases are, in general, too rare to be of value in studies of limited population samples…” So measuring blood groups is more precise than measuring heads and easier than identifying rare genetic diseases.
Mourant’s journey to Jewish population genetics was long. As an Oxford-trained geologist, he joined the Geological Survey of Great Britain during the 1920s to catalog the coal deposits in Lancashire. Unable to obtain an academic post in geology in Depression-era Britain, he returned to his native island of Jersey and set up a laboratory offering
medical tests. But running that laboratory was not satisfying, so in 1939, he entered St. Bartholomew’s Medical College in London. Upon his graduation with a medical degree in 1943, he became a Medical Officer in the National Blood Transfusion Service. The demand for blood products was great during the war and Mourant became a leader in the field.
After the war, he directed the UK Medical Research Council’s newly established Blood Group Reference Laboratory, the international standard for the World Health Organization.
A blood group is determined by the presence or absence of certain sugars, proteins, or fats on the surfaces of blood cells and other types of cells. Differences in blood groups limit the possibilities for blood transfusions — blood can be transfused only for a compatible type. Transfusions among individuals of noncompatible types result in transfusion reactions in which antibodies in the recipient’s blood break down the transfused red cells.
The presence of these antibodies was recognized first in 1901 by Karl Landsteiner, a Viennese pathologist. As he noted later in his Nobel Prize lecture of 1930, “My experiment consisted of causing the blood serum and erythrocytes (red blood cells) of different human subjects to react with one another. The result was only to some extent as expected. With many samples there was no perceptible alteration, in other words the result was exactly the same as if the blood cells had been mixed with their own serum, but frequently a phenomenon known as agglutination – in which the serum causes the cells of the alien individual to group into clusters – occurred.” Following Landsteiner’s lead, serum banks were created that collected serum from individuals of known blood groups and used these sera to test new individuals to determine their types. It was just such a laboratory that Mourant headed after the Second World War.
In the ABO system, there are four genetically encoded blood groups: A, B, AB, and O — O represents the absence of A or B. People with the O group are also known as “universal donors,” because they can give blood to anyone. The study of ABO blood groups made it immediately clear that there are different frequencies among different peoples. In Europe, the average frequency is 40 percent O, 40 percent A, 15 percent B, and 5 percent AB. In other populations, the balance changes.
Mourant was among the first to appreciate the utility of using blood groups as population genetic markers and the first to apply these to Jews. His catalog had varying data for the different blood groups and for other genetic marker systems (including G6PD). He concluded that the blood group data correlated with the known facts of Jewish history – although population geneticists at the time and today would agree that it is hard to draw major conclusions from a single genetic marker system.
The major Jewish communities were relatively homogeneous, yet distinct from one another. Each of the communities bore some resemblance to the local, non-Jewish population. In Mourant’s words, “Each major Jewish community as a whole bears some
resemblance to indigenous peoples of the region where it first developed.” Recent studies in Jewish population genetics have drawn upon analysis of the whole genome and have tended to confirm what Mourant observed – relative homogeneity within Jewish groups, distinctiveness between Jewish groups and some resemblance with local, non-Jewish populations. But Mourant was the first to study what was in the blood.
Yehuda Kurtzer’s first book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, is now available
Do the Jewish People need more books? And are books the key to Jewish innovation? In the 1920s Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “It could hardly be asserted that the great urgency of the present moment is to organize the science of Judaism or to prompt both Jews and non-Jews to the endless writings of books on Jewish subjects. Books are not now the prime need of the day. But what we need more than ever, or at least as much as ever, are human beings—Jewish human beings, to use a catchword that should be cleansed of the partisan associations still clinging to it.”
Rosenzweig then, and we in the business of Jewish education now, sense that the conditions in which modern Judaism is struggling for a continuous foothold require something more than the perpetuation of Jewish knowledge for knowledge’s sake; that our seeking, studying, teaching and learning needs to focus on human outcomes. Accordingly, the trend in the so-called innovation sector focuses heavily on just the “Jewish human beings” that Rosenzweig calls for: on innovators themselves, on people with ideas who fall between the margins of the institutions.
And yet it has always seemed ironic to me that with all the advances in our knowledge of Jewish history, and the successes of Jewish Studies in the academy, that we know now more about the Jewish past than we have ever known before; but as a community, we tend to care about the past less than ever. To paraphrase Leon Wieseltier, our collective ignorance of the classical Jewish past may be the scandal of contemporaryAmerican Jewry. I am concerned that the fixation on new programs – even in the embodiment of new individuals to lead the Jewish community – is alone insufficient to make a credible claim for the legacy of what this generation of Jewish life is going to leave behind, that we are substituting program leadership for the thought-leadership that ultimately has kept intellectual history in productive parallel with actual Jewish history.
I see the classical rabbis as the paradigmatic bridge-builders between the perpetuation of ideas and the programmatic work of innovation: they were architects not only of an extraordinary literature – one that they tied to the authenticity of the Bible through an ideology of calling it a second Torah, the oral Torah – but also of systems for Jewish life to enable Judaism to change productively through a period of existential challenge.
So I am not sure that a book – even if it is not the book that Rosenzweig derides – turns the tide for the innovation sector (which is not to say I was not grateful for the philanthropic experimentation that brought it about!). But it does make me hopeful that we are remembering the legacy of the transmission of ideas that has helped define Jewish life in the past as we do the work of redefining Jewish life in the present.