In this first installment of Anash.org’s new article series, Chabad historian Rabbi Nochum Zajac explores the Rebbe’s unique relationship with Professor Elmer Offenbacher, founder of the AOJS.
By Rabbi Nochum Zajac and Anash.org staff
Yiddishkeit and Science have long been thought of as entities that are mutually exclusive of each other. Many frum Yidden believe that pursuing science is, as a rule, contradictory with Torah values; after all, many scientific theories are at odds with what we know to be true.
At the same time, scientists tend to see observant Jews and the forces that drive us, such as emunah and unwavering adherence to Torah, as being naive and irrational. Many of the mitzvos that we hold dear are written off as ‘outdated,’ belonging to a time before scientific progress and discovery changed our understanding of the world.
It is in this climate that Professor Eliezer (Elmer) Offenbacher founded the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists (AOJS) . A frum Jew and longtime physics professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, Dr. Offenbacher spent his career encouraging the integration of science and Yiddishkeit. In Teves of 5708 (1948), he established the organization at a meeting of a dozen frum Jews who were engaged in research of various sciences. Of those gathered, ten were graduate students and two held PhDs.
Over the years, he founded many additional branches nationally and internationally, including chapters in London, Paris and Yerushalayim. If today it is taken for granted that an Orthodox Jew can be a successful scientist, it is in no small part a product of AOJS and its landmark achievements.
From its early years, the Rebbe maintained a special relationship with AOJS, and was in direct contact with many of its members. Some of the most interesting of these interactions took place between the Rebbe and Dr. Offenbacher, who founded and directed the organization for many years.
Chabad historian Rabbi Nochum Zajac conducted extensive research, drawing from, among other sources, the autobiographical notes shared with him by Dr. Offenbacher’s son, Rabbi Dr. Natan Ophir (Offenbacher). Below are several accounts that bring to light the attention the Rebbe gave to Dr. Offenbacher and his endeavors.
“On Dec. 24, 1951, I met with the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” Dr. Offenbacher writes. “This was his first year as leader of Chabad. He had seen a publication of the AOJS and invited me to his residence. I took along another member of the board, Dr. Walter Feder, a medical doctor. We met for two hours at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.”
The professor goes on to describe the events of that evening, including his decision to marry his wife, Esther, who accompanied him to 770 for the yechidus.
“During the two-hour private audience, we described AJOS and the Rebbe outlined his positions on six topics. This included a proposed joint publication directed towards college students. The Rebbe offered us financial assistance for publications and expressed willingness to receive AOJS groups in his office.
“Other topics on which we exchanged views included the study of science and Yira’as Shomayim, separation from as opposed to integration with outside culture, the involvement of scientists in questions of science and Halacha, philosophic questions arising from scientific developments (and whether to discuss this with college age students).
“At the audience we had discussed, amongst other matters, the question of how long each of the six days of creation were. I attempted to explain that science could be reconciled with the Torah, by assuming that each day of creation stretched a lot longer than 24 hours. However, the Rebbe held firmly to a literal interpretation of 24 hours, stating that this has not been disproved by science.”
In a follow up letter on March 25, 1952, the Rebbe asked Dr. Offenbacher to to help Dr. S. B. Ullman, who specialized in cancer research at McGill University in Montreal. A picture of this letter is included below, and is being publicized now for the first time. The Rebbe wrote:
“Dr. Ullman believes that he is being persecuted at McGill by an influential member of the department, and that one of the reasons is Dr. Ullman’s record of outspoken defense of Judaism. I am writing to ask you if there is anything that can be done for Dr. Ullman.”
Dr. Offenbacher then continues to detail the exchange of letters that followed; these details are included in the full article by Rabbi Zajac.
“I remained in contact with the Rebbe for a few years. Contact with the Rebbe was renewed when Professor Yirmiyahu (Hermann) Branover first visited the USA in 1973. Branover became acquainted with the AOJS during his visit. He thanked us for a letter we wrote on his behalf, and even credited it as a significant factor in his release from the Soviet Union.”
A few months before his passing, Dr. Offenbacher gave an interview to JEM as part of the My Encounter project. JEM has graciously allowed us to publish here some additional details which Dr. Offenbacher related in regards to his yechidus with the Rebbe.
Dr. Offenbacher was of the opinion that everyone could be involved in the integration and synthesis of Torah and Science. The Rebbe disagreed and maintained that for the majority of the population it is better to keep a distance from the outside world of culture and science and only yechidei segulah—select individuals—can engage with it successfully without being negatively affected, and that certain segments of the Jewish population had assimilated due to their involvement with the sciences
The Rebbe maintained that it’s better not to raise questions in the minds of college students, because people under the age of thirty generally don’t have ideas of their own and usually they are merely repeating things that they have heard.
Dr. Offenbacher invited the Rebbe to speak at AOJS events, an invitation which the Rebbe declined. However, the Rebbe expressed his willingness to receive AOJS groups privately in his office, where he would give them his advice and blessings.
We invite you to read Rabbi Zajac’s full article on the Rebbe’s relationship with Dr. Offenbacher, complete with sources. We thank Rabbi Zajac for sharing his extensive research with Anash.org for the benefit of our readers. Stay tuned for future articles on the Rebbe’s fascinating interactions with members of this unique association.
Special thanks to Rabbi Shmuel Super, Rabbi Dr. Natan Ophir, and JEM for making this series possible.
Readers who can shed additional light the content of this article are encouraged to do so in the comments, or by emailing [email protected].