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The Ethical Culture School

To the Editors:

In his review of In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist, by S.S. Schweber [NYR, May 11, 2000], Jeremy Bernstein states: “Oppenheimer…was educated at the Ethical Culture School in New York. This leads Schweber to devote several pages to a somewhat tedious digression into the ideas of Felix Adler, who founded the school. What any of this had to do with Oppenheimer is not entirely clear.”

I have not read Schweber’s book, but as a graduate of the Ethical Culture Schools, I can tell the reviewer that the philosophy of Dr. Felix Adler had an enormous impact on all of us.

The school, an outgrowth of the Ethical Culture Society, was in a sense a religious school—a nondeistic, humanist religion that taught ethics as a part of the curriculum beginning in first grade. The society and the school were dedicated to what, in Oppenheimer’s day, were advanced liberal concepts of social justice, racial equality, and intellectual freedom. They were havens for secular Jews who rejected the mysticism and rituals of Judaism, but accepted many of its ethical teachings. Additionally, because the institutionalized anti-Semitism of the times established rigid quota systems against Jews in private schools, the Ethical Culture School had a disproportionately large number of Jewish students. Ethical was the only one that did not discriminate because of race, color, or creed.

For these reasons it seems to me that Bernstein’s comment “What any of this had to do with Oppenheimer is not en-tirely clear” is incomprehensible. Although I could not understand much of the physics that Oppenheimer spoke about, I, along with many of my fellow alumni from Ethical, could very well understand most of his social and ethical comments. We all drank from the same philosophical fount.

Rosalind Singer
Berkeley, California

Jeremy Bernstein replies:

In 1975 I wrote a profile for The New Yorker of the physicist I.I. Rabi who had known Oppenheimer since the late 1920s. He had a deep affection for Oppenheimer and an equally deep understanding of him. His testimony in favor of Oppenheimer at his hearings stood out like a clarion. This is what Rabi said about Oppenheimer and the Ethical Culture School, at which his wife had attended classes with Oppenheimer:

From conversations with him [Oppenheimer] I have the impression that his own regard for the school was not affectionate. Too great a dose of ethical culture can often sour the budding intellectual who would prefer a more profound approach to human relations and man’s place in the universe.*

I had this comment of Rabi in mind when I wrote what I did. I never did discuss this with Oppenheimer but it was clear to me, and much more so to Rabi, that his problem was identity, something which his attendance at the Ethical Culture School did not resolve.

  1. *

    Jeremy Bernstein, Experiencing Science (Basic Books, 1978), p. 67.

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