How my parents' rows made me a scientist

By Robert Winston, May 16, 2008

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 steel-tipped 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 maternal 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 child-care 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 half-Jews 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 god-given 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

Last updated: 3:08pm, August 19 2008



Thu, 12/04/2008 - 18:09

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Robert Winston thanks for stuff.