Richard Feynman on Judaism

October 8, 2008

Richard P. Feynman to Tina Levitan, February 7, 1967

Dear Miss Levitan:

In your letter you express the theory that people of Jewish origin have inherited their valuable hereditary elements from their people. It is quite certain that many things are inherited but it is evil and dangerous to maintain, in these days of little knowledge of these matters, that there is a true Jewish race or specific Jewish hereditary character. Many races as well as cultural influences of men of all kinds have mixed into any man. To select, for approbation the peculiar elements that come from some supposedly Jewish heredity is to open the door to all kinds of nonsense on racial theory.

Such theoretical views were used by Hitler. Surely you cannot maintain on the one hand that certain valuable elements can be inherited from the “Jewish people,” and deny that other elements which other people may find annoying or worse are not inherited by these same “people.” Nor could you then deny that elements that others would consider valuable could be the main virtue of an “Aryan” inheritance.

It is the lesson of the last war not to think of people as having special inherited attributes simply because they are born from particular parents, but to try to teach these “valuable” elements to all men because all men can learn, no matter what their race.

It is the combination of characteristics of the culture of any father and his father plus the learning and ideas and influences of people of all races and backgrounds which make me what I am, good or bad. I appreciate the valuable (and the negative) elements of my background but I feel it to be bad taste and an insult to other peoples to call attention in any direct way to that one element in my composition.

At almost thirteen I dropped out of Sunday school just before confirmation because of differences in religious views but mainly because I suddenly saw that the picture of Jewish history that we were learning, of a marvelous and talented people surrounded by dull and evil strangers was far from the truth. The error of anti-Semitism is not that the Jews are not really bad after all, but that evil, stupidity and grossness is not a monopoly of the Jewish people but a universal characteristic of mankind in general. Most non-Jewish people in America today have understood that. The error of pro-Semitism is not that the Jewish people or Jewish heritage is not really good, but rather the error is that intelligence, good will, and kindness is not, thank God, a monopoly of the Jewish people but a universal characteristic of mankind in general.

Therefore you see at thirteen I was not only converted to other religious views but I also stopped believing that the Jewish people are in any way “the chosen people.” This is my other reason for requesting not to be included in your work.

I am expecting that you will respect my wishes.

Sincerely yours,

Richard Feynman [1,2,3,4]

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