How my par­ents’ rows made me a sci­en­tist

Jewish ar­gu­ment is key to our suc­cess in the sci­ences — and to a proud re­li­gious iden­tity


MY MOTHER was highly ar­gu­men­ta­tive. In­deed, some of my most vi­brant early mem­o­ries are of the rous­ing ar­gu­ments be­tween my mother and fa­ther. Th­ese dis­agree­ments were not nec­es­sar­ily ac­ri­mo­nious and they clearly had a most pas­sion­ate and deeply lov­ing re­la­tion­ship. It was a mas­sive tragedy for my mother when my fa­ther died ridicu­lously young, af­ter a mere 11 years of a very strong and happy mar­riage, when I was just nine.

My fa­ther was eclec­tic with an ex­tra­or­di­nary range of in­ter­ests. He was al­ways de­vel­op­ing new crazes; my mother tol­er­ated th­ese with res­ig­na­tion and sel­dom ar­gued about them, pre­fer­ring to keep a slightly aloof aca­demic at­ti­tude. When I was seven, my fa­ther be­came mad keen about archery — see­ing him­self as some kind of English yeo­man. So I was forced to dress in the green fin­ery of a Robin Hood cos­tume and with my par­ents, I vis­ited the Man­sion House rev­er­en­tially shak­ing hands with the new Lord Mayor of Lon­don and with Win­ston Churchill.

My fa­ther pur­chased six or seven re­ally pow­er­ful yew long­bows from Ga­m­ages in Lon­don. Dur­ing the bit­ter win­ter of 1947, when the snow was two feet deep, he propped his mas­sive straw-filled round archery tar­get on the side­board in the warm din­ing room. Bind­ing a leather guard around his right wrist to pro­tect him­self from the painful bow­string re­coil, he filled his quiver with heavy steeltipped ar­rows and, draw­ing his most pow­er­ful bow — like King David — to its full ex­tent, loosed them across our mod­est-sized din­ing room.

Af­ter a few days, bits of ma­sonry plas­ter were scat­tered over the din­ing room floor. This was no typ­i­cal Jewish house­hold. One Mon­day, my mother’s protests grew vol­u­ble. The tar­get (with too few holes in its gold cen­tre) was re­luc­tantly taken down and it be­came starkly ob­vi­ous, even to my fa­ther, that much of the pit­ted din­ing room wall had been de­mol­ished.

That evening my par­ents had a hor­ren­dous ar­gu­ment. It con­cerned the con­tent of a West End play they had seen over the week­end but what the pre­cise dis­agree­ment was, I do not know. My fa­ther chased my mother at in­creas­ingly high speed around the din­ing-room ta­ble while I, trem­bling with a mix­ture of ex­cite­ment and hor­ror, cow­ered in the cor­ner. The ar­gu­ment came to a dra­matic head when my fa­ther, frus­trated at the light-foot­ed­ness of mother’s eva­sive tac­tics, picked up his full mug of warm co­coa from the ta­ble and fu­ri­ously hurled it at my mother.

My mother was not merely ar­gu­men­ta­tive — years of ten­nis at St Paul’s Girls School and at univer­sity en­cour­aged con­sid­er­able agility. She ducked — and the mug flew past her head and shat­tered, splat­ter­ing the whole of the pock-marked wall be­hind her.

Noth­ing more was said and we went to bed. Next morn­ing there was a long si­lence at the break­fast ta­ble — for once my par­ents were short of words. Then, sud­denly look­ing up from his corn­flakes, my fa­ther said: “You know — I’ve been think­ing. It’s about time we had this room re­dec­o­rated.”

My mother was much more re­li­gious than my fa­ther, and as a rabbi’s daugh­ter felt it highly im­por­tant to su­per­vise a thor­ough Jewish ed­u­ca­tion for her chil­dren. She al­ways taught in He­brew classes, and later en­cour­aged me to do the same. My fa­ther tol­er­ated my mother’s re­li­gios­ity and sup­ported her in­sis­tence on our ob­ser­vance and our ed­u­ca­tion. But on a Shab­bat morn­ing he of­ten avoided the shul, where he was quite a prom­i­nent mem­ber, and would some­times curl up in the lounge with a Balzac novel, chuck­ling qui­etly.

The re­laxed at­ti­tude to au­then­tic Ju­daism in my par­ents’ house­hold and the bril­liance of my mater- nal grand­fa­ther as a su­perb teacher of He­brew and Ara­maic was hugely in­flu­en­tial.

My grand­fa­ther in­tro­duced me to the na­ture of Jewish ar­gu­ment through his in­ci­sive teach­ing of Talmud and Rashi. I grew up strictly re­li­gious and at St Paul’s school where we had a reg­u­lar morn­ing minyan, ate lunch sep­a­rately with fel­low Ortho­dox boys us­ing plas­tic cut­lery and spe­cially kept plates. The meals were aw­ful — of­ten cheese, which I still loathe — but the school was won­der­fully tol­er­ant. Al­though im­por­tant events and some teach­ing oc­curred on Satur­days, I was never made to feel my at­ten­dance was even de­sir­able. Leav­ing early on Fri­day af­ter­noons dur­ing win­ter months was never a prob­lem.

At the school Scout sum­mer camp, the cu­riosi­ties of my ob­ser­vance were a source of some won­der, but never ridicule or crit­i­cism. We dug holes in a field for the camp la­trines, and th­ese were screened with high hes­sian pan­els. One evening, I took a huge paint­brush and scrawled across a panel in large black He­brew let­ter­ing. The cho­sen po­suk (verse) was from the se­drah, Balak: “Mah tovu ohalecha…” — “How goodly are thy tents, oh Ja­cob, thy dwelling places, oh Is­rael”. But un­like those whom Bi­laam came to curse, I never en­coun­tered the slight­est an­tisemitism at school.

In­deed, be­ing proud of my Jewish back­ground — al­though I went through some pe­ri­ods of be­ing to­tally re­li­giously un­ob­ser­vant — has been one fac­tor in find­ing my­self ac­cepted in our es­sen­tially tol­er­ant Chris­tian so­ci­ety. Un­like many Jewish ac­quain­tances, I have never been aware of se­ri­ous an­tisemitism; the vast ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple with whom I have come into con­tact have been in­trigued, some­times in­ter­ested, but never hos­tile to my be­ing a Jew.

Even my friend Richard Dawkins — with whom I have had se­ri­ous ar­gu­ments over the na­ture of athe­ism — has al­ways shown re­spect, even though he clearly feels I am let­ting the “cause of science” down. Sadly, when­ever I have come across an­tisemitism, it has usu­ally been from so-called “co-re­li­gion­ists” — or at least peo­ple of Jewish birth. Th­ese peo­ple of­ten seemed ashamed or even an­gry about their Jewish back­ground.

Why did I re­main so proud of this her­itage? My mother’s ar­gu­men­ta­tive in­flu­ence was im­por­tant. She felt it cru­cial to be ab­so­lutely open about her Jewish­ness and to pro­mul­gate Jewish val­ues in a non-Jewish sec­u­lar so­ci­ety at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. She did this as a se­nior so­cial worker, em­ployed by a large lo­cal gov­ern­ment agency in the field of child­care and adop­tion. She cer­tainly pro­moted Jewish val­ues when she was mayor of her lo­cal bor­ough, and as a gov­er­nor of var­i­ous non-Jewish schools.

And if there was ever an ex­am­ple of be­ing “a light unto the na­tions” this was in the spirit with which she founded the ex­hi­bi­tion, The Jewish Way of Life. For years she tire­lessly toured the coun­try with this col­lec­tion of Jewish mem­o­ra­bilia, pho­to­graphs, doc­u­ments and re­li­gious arte­facts, and it is won­der­ful to see that the Board of Deputies has re­launched and main­tained this proud an­nounce­ment of Jewish val­ues and ob­ser­vance.

It is also a mat­ter of pride that, through the great gen­eros­ity of Trevor Pears and his Foun­da­tion, a CD-ROM of the ex­hi­bi­tion is be­ing made avail­able to all school­child­ren through­out the UK in the year of her death.

Many non-Jews do not al­ways ap­pre­ci­ate that our ar­gu­men­ta­tive­ness goes so deep. Jews ar­gued since the be­gin­ning of his­tory. Uniquely amongst all peo­ples, we even reg­u­larly openly ar­gued with God. In Ge­n­e­sis, when God tells Abram he in­tends to de­stroy the wicked city of Sodom, Abram replies, al­most sar­cas­ti­cally, “Wilt thou in­deed de­stroy the righ­teous with the wicked?.... Shall not the Judge of all the Earth deal justly?”

From Moses through to Job, th­ese ar­gu­ments con­tinue, of­ten in at­tempts to find ra­tio­nal an­swers to our ex­is­tence. Through­out his mys­te­ri­ous pun­ish­ment, Job pa­tiently suf­fers but es­sen­tially is stead­fast in his faith in God’s jus­tice. But fi­nally be­yond provo­ca­tion, he rails against the ir­ra­tional­ity of God’s pun­ish­ment.

At the very end of the story God speaks from the whirl­wind, “Who is this that dark­eneth coun­sel by words with­out knowl­edge?” God asks Job where he was when He laid the foun­da­tions of the earth? Do we un­der­stand where we come from, where we are go­ing, or what lies be­yond our planet?

This her­itage has been a key in­flu­ence in my science. To the Jew, the more we re­search the world around us, the more we en­counter puz­zles about the na­ture of hu­man ex­is­tence. Surely this has been a fac­tor in the Jewish search for ra­tio­nal­ity.

Per­haps it is not so sur­pris­ing as it seems that, al­though Jews con­sti­tute no more than 0.2 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, at least 176 Jews and halfJews have been awarded the No­bel Prize — 23 per cent of all in­di­vid­ual re­cip­i­ents world­wide be­tween 1901 and 2007.

This com­mit­ment to ra­tio­nal­ity spills over into many other aca­demic or in­tel­lec­tual pur­suits. In 1978, Pro­fes­sor Ar­pad Elo in his book The Rat­ing of Chess Play­ers, Past and Present scored the 50 most highly ranked in­ter­na­tional chess play­ers; ap­prox­i­mately half were of Jewish de­scent.

My mother and fa­ther used to ar­gue con­stantly about genes and en­vi­ron­ment — and which was more im­por­tant in a child’s char­ac­ter. Some con­ven­tional thought has it that this in­tel­lec­tual abil­ity is ge­net­i­cally en­dowed. It seems much more prob­a­ble that the en­vi­ron­ment in which Jews have learnt and been en­cour­aged to think is the sig­nal in­flu­ence.

Be­ing pre­pared to think ra­tio­nally about bi­ol­ogy, to ex­plore Jewish val­ues and to use them to for­mu­late my views has been im­mensely im­por­tant in my science, and the way I have prac­tised medicine with pre­dom­i­nantly non-Jewish pa­tients. To openly make my Jewish views a mat­ter of pub­lic de­bate also seemed es­sen­tial.

This week’s par­lia­men­tary ar­gu­ments about em­bryos and stem cell re­search are good ex­am­ples. As a Jew it seems un­think­able to me that a fer­tilised egg has a soul. How can it have the same moral sta­tus as a fully formed fe­tus with a de­vel­op­ing brain, or a hu­man baby just be­fore birth?

From a Jewish per­spec­tive, it be­hoves us to ex­am­ine the sci­en­tific facts in de­tail. How can it be ra­tio­nally ar­gued that a hu­man life be­gins at fer­til­i­sa­tion when we can ob­serve that fer­til­i­sa­tion is a con­tin­u­ous process, and that most fer­tilised eggs do not, even un­der the most op­ti­mal cir­cum­stances, de­velop into peo­ple? To ar­gue life be­gins at con­cep­tion im­plies that the sperm and egg are dead. To blandly as­sert that a unique hu­man is formed at con­cep­tion, ig­nores the fact that twins or triplets can be con­ceived from a sin­gle act of fer­til­i­sa­tion. Do twins share the same soul?

My mother would have ar­gued that the moral im­per­a­tive here is that we are re­quired to use our god­given intelligence to use this mod­ern knowl­edge re­spon­si­bly. We must en­sure when­ever pos­si­ble that th­ese tech­nolo­gies are em­ployed wisely to pro­tect, nur­ture and main­tain healthy life.

As a Jew, it seems im­por­tant that I fol­low in my mother’s foot­steps. It is not good to avoid con­tro­versy or ar­gu­ment, if im­por­tant moral prin­ci­ples are at stake. And to wear that Jewish­ness openly and to pro­mul­gate those solid val­ues is very much in the spirit of what she achieved through her com­mit­ment to es­tab­lish­ing The Jewish Way of Life. Lord Win­ston is Pro­fes­sor of Science and So­ci­ety at Im­pe­rial Col­lege Lon­don, and Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Fer­til­ity Stud­ies. To ob­tain a copy of the Jewish Way of Life CD-ROM, email or visit

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