Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz

{Originally posted to the Aish website}

In 1963, Stephen Hawking was stricken with ALS and given two years to live. This week, at age 76, he passed away after achieving universal fame as one of the most brilliant scientific minds of our – and perhaps any – generation.

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All this while confined to a wheelchair, writing a breakthrough book explaining his creative insights to the public by way of a synthesized speech box which sold more than 10 million copies.

His story, by any account miraculous, was surely worthy of a movie, and indeed became the basis for an award-winning 2014 film, The Theory of Everything, which won an Academy Award. Eddie Redmayne played Dr. Hawking.

The eulogies attesting to Hawking’s greatness are now making their way around the world. By definition, eulogies are a collection of complimentary reminiscences. In the immediate aftermath of death it is only proper to focus on the positive, to weep over what has been lost, to emphasize the qualities of the deceased which deserve our recognition and respect.

Stephen Hawking certainly possessed an abundance of unique gifts worthy of our admiration. Not only his scientific work but his attitude to living in many ways also merits remembrance. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he summarized his view on life in these words: “One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”

And on living with a disability, in an interview with the New York Times, he said, “My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.”

Some might say that no more should be said than these words of praise. But when the person we are remembering is of historic importance and his views on all subjects are granted the legitimacy of truth by virtue of his scientific brilliance, I believe it’s necessary to add some unfortunate details that, like for all people, remind us of the paucity of perfection.

Voltaire was correct: “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.”

And the truth is that in ways which are crucial to us as believers in the existence of God and His role as the Creator of the heavens and the earth, Stephen Hawking got it wrong. In the past, there was a small bit of ambiguity concerning Hawking’s opinion about a divine source for the universe. In A Brief History of Time, Hawking writes that the discovery of a unifying set of scientific principles known as the theory of everything would enable scientists to “know the mind of God.” But in a follow-up book about the quest for the theory of everything, titled The Grand Design, Hawking said the mechanism behind the origin of the universe was becoming so well known that God was no longer necessary. In direct response to a question by El Mundo’s Pablo Jauregui who asked about his references to God, this was the scientist’s response:

“Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”

Let us not distort Hawking’s views, nor be dismayed, disheartened or intimidated by them. Hawking was an atheist. He was a brilliant scientist, not a theologian. And it is not scientists who will ever give us the answer to the validity of the first verse in the Bible; it is theologians whose brilliance will give us support for what in the final analysis is a question of belief. Maimonides and Moses are better guides to God than masters of physics who have never found a satisfactory answer to explain first cause of the universe or the source of the laws which govern its existence if in fact there is no ultimate Lawgiver.

Just because Hawking was a genius in his field didn’t make him infallible when it came to areas beyond his specialty. This was illustrated all too clearly when Hawking became involved politically as a vocal supporter of the Palestinian movement. He gave full support to the BDS boycott of Israel movement as well as an ardent backer of those who rejected Israeli academics from scholarly acceptance.

His scientific brilliance didn’t translate into an understanding of the moral and ethical aspects of the Arab agenda of hatred against the Jewish people. People continue to make the mistake Paul Johnson, a leading British historian and author, fascinatingly identifies in his mind-boggling book, Intellectuals. Johnson tells the stories of the great minds of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, people such as Rousseau and Marx and Ibsen and Tolstoy and Hemingway and Sartre and Orwell and Baldwin and Chomsky and others… all of whom, as it turns out, “without an exception were miserable people who lived deplorable lives and many of them were guilty of depravity and severe anti-social behavior.”

Rousseau, who provided the modern ideas of education and the critique of capitalism, was paranoid, selfish, and had five children whom he placed in an orphanage – where the death rate was over 90% – as soon as they were born. Percy Bysshe Shelley, the great English poet, used poetry to spread political and moral messages – but he also married a 16 year old, who four years later he dumped for another woman, after which his first wife committed suicide. Karl Marx supported the proletariat but had nothing to do with them.  The only proletarian Karl Marx ever knew in person was the poor maid who worked for him for decades and was never paid for her labors, except in room and board, and two of his three children committed suicide. Tolstoy – the master author of War and Peace, and Anna Karenina – used to hang out with prostitutes, suffered from venereal diseases, was a philanderer and gambler.

After studying the lives of the most brilliant geniuses of past generations, Johnson comes to this remarkable conclusion:  “Beware of intellectuals. Not only should they be kept well away from the levers of power, they should also be objects of particular suspicion when they seek to offer collective advice.”

Genius has its limitations. I do not suggest that Hawking was similarly guilty of personal moral failings. I do want to emphasize, however, that as great a scientist as he was, he had a blind spot. His brilliance did not preclude anti-Zionism, if not anti-Semitism. Brilliant minds can make stupid mistakes. And the fact that Hawking sided with the Arab cause is just as insignificant in a moral sense as the advertisements which advertise a particular brand of car preferred by a well-known actress. Brilliance doesn’t travel well across other borders of wisdom than its own specialty.

Stephen Hawking’s death is the loss of a great man – but a man with great flaws. If we acknowledge them, we may well understand the reason why the word “imperfect” shares the exact same letters with the words “I’m perfect.” They are almost the same except for the spacing, which turns them into statements in opposition to each other.

“I’m perfect” can only go so far for human beings. Imperfect is our other reality. With regard to Stephen Hawking, the spacing can allow us either to stand in awe of scientific brilliance or be repelled by genius which failed to recognize God or the righteousness of His people’s cause.

May we respond to this challenge with the wisdom of our tradition.

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Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and an internationally recognized educator, religious leader, lecturer, and author of 19 highly acclaimed books with combined sales of over a half million copies. His newest book, “Redemption, Then and Now” (a Passover Haggadah with commentaries and essays) is presently available on Amazon and in Judaica bookstores.