Saving Isaac Newton: How a Jewish Collector Brought the Physicist’s Papers to America
An excerpt from ‘The Newton Papers’ reveals the scientist’s long-hidden, anti-rationalist, heretical obsession with alchemy
When Isaac Newton died on March 20, 1727, he left a mass of disorganized papers containing upwards of 8 million words. These manuscripts presented a picture of Newton quite unlike the one enshrined in Westminster Abbey as the paragon of English rationality. Complex and confusing, the papers were deemed “unfit to be printed,” and, aside from brief, troubling glimpses, they would remain hidden from sight for more than a century and a half. They passed through the hands of relatives, collectors, scientists, and scholars. In 1936 Sotheby’s held a historic auction that scattered the bulk of these writings to dozens of buyers all over the world. One of the men who set out to collect as many of these manuscripts as possible was a Jewish polymath, teacher, writer, researcher, linguist, and collector of rare documents, Abraham Shalom Yahuda.
Abraham Yahuda almost immediately grasped that the Newton papers that had been sold at Sotheby’s were uniquely valuable, both as collector’s items and as evidence of Newton’s beliefs. Less than two weeks after the sale, he wrote to his wife, Ethel, that he was “now excited” about an unpublished essay by Newton on biblical and theological questions that had been sold at Sotheby’s, which is “of the greatest significance for [Newton’s] personal view” on matters of faith. He set about trying to purchase the Newton papers and wrote to Ethel on July 28, “I am thrilled with the thought of acquiring them. He wrote a lot about the Bible and the Jews, about Cabbala and all sorts of Jewish questions.”
Nearly as quickly as Keynes had, Yahuda assembled his own Newton collection. He too secured good deals, from the dealer Gabriel Wells, who sold many lots to Yahuda at 15 percent commission, and from Maggs, who sold him a few lots at 20 percent commission. In his letters to Ethel, Yahuda boasts of “getting a great treasure which will be worth three times as much if not more very soon.” At the time of the sale, Yahuda explained, the dealers did not realize how significant the manuscripts were, but that was changing fast. Yahuda, for one, seems to have immediately grasped their importance. “To have over 1,500 pages written by Newton in his own hand on the most important questions is very thrilling indeed. But not only on Religion, Prophecies, Bibles, Faith, and Chronology, but also on alchemy, Mathematics and other purely scientific matters of the greatest importance for his studies and discoveries!!” It was almost too much of a good thing, and Yahuda, who hurried down to Victoria Station to give a check to Wells, would not “believe that I have the Mss. before I get them.”
Yahuda was scathing about the “Museums & Libraries” that had failed to secure the manuscripts for Britain and bragged that with the upcoming tercentenary of Newton’s birth in 1942, the papers would soon be worth five or ten times what he had paid for them. For all of August and September, as he set about acquiring as many lots as possible, Yahuda endeavored to keep the significance of what he was buying a secret, to keep prices low and the manuscripts coming to him. But it was already very clear to him that the papers revealed that Newton was “more a monotheist than a Trinitarian.” In some parts of the manuscripts, Newton himself had concluded that “Jehovah is the unique god.”
Just weeks after the sale, Yahuda was forming an appreciation of what the papers contained that went beyond what almost anyone else had understood about Newton. Extremely quickly he was able to imaginatively integrate Newton’s science with the new aspects of Newton revealed by the papers: his chronology and theology. He immediately rejected the notion that Newton’s nonscientific writings were worthless. Like Plato’s philosophy or Ptolemy’s geography, he explained in a letter of August 30, “the ‘results’ are antiquated but the work bears the stamp of Newton’s genius and it will always have value.” The speed with which he came to this conclusion suggests that he must have been well prepared to read the papers this way, but Yahuda himself felt that it was the papers that had changed him. “My occupation with Newton’s papers have [sic] opened a new world to me and I am constantly under the spell of his personality,” he confided to Ethel. “In these times of crises and ordeal he exercises a calming and reassuring influence upon me.” As Yahuda was writing, the Nuremburg Laws had stripped Jews of their citizenship in Germany and Jews were forbidden from marrying non-Jews. In March Hitler had reoccupied the Rhineland, violating the Treaty of Versailles and raising the specter of war. The position of Jews in Europe was increasingly precarious. Yahuda grasped the redemptive potential of Newton’s papers for the Jews, who could benefit from Newton’s sympathy with their faith at a particularly vulnerable moment. More generally Newton’s writings contained truths that could survive “destructions and Isolations.” Yahuda found a way to hope through the papers: “Eternity belongs to the heroes of the spirit.”
Yahuda invested quite heavily in the purchase of the Newton papers. He spent more than £1,400 (more than £50,000 [US$84,000] today) and sold some of his other manuscript stock to help fund the acquisitions. He didn’t consider his acquisitions risky, though. What he had bought was of obvious value to him. The papers (he ended up, by his own estimation, with 3,400 folio pages) were the “best and most valuable” work he had ever purchased.
Like Keynes, Yahuda had a certain claim to arrogance, to seeing truths that others could not. Where Keynes had been schooled at Eton and Cambridge, Yahuda’s education contracted within its span Jerusalem, where he was born in 1877; Basel, where he attended the First Zionist Congress in 1897; and Germany, where he settled in for a series of degrees at Frankfurt, Heidelberg, and Strasbourg universities—all in the pursuit of knowledge suitable for the study of ancient texts and languages.
The son of a rabbi, Yahuda was encouraged to study in the wider world but expected to observe Jewish law. An anecdote from his early education suggests something of his independence of spirit—and the tightly constrained world he inhabited, despite his travels. While studying in Frankfurt and living with an observant host family, he found himself unable to resist the urge to smoke a cigarette on the Sabbath. To soften the sinfulness of his act (and elude detection), he took a train to a nearby town. There he was unlucky enough to be seen by a relative. This almost comic breach had far-reaching effects: His observant family rejected him, and he thereafter embarked on a solitary life. He was well suited for it. He published his first book, Kadmoniyot ha-Aravim (The Arabs’ Antiquities) in 1893, when he was just fifteen. He continued his language studies in Heidelberg and Strasbourg, studying at the latter with the great Orientalist Theodor Nöldeke, who was clearly taken with the young scholar. A letter of recommendation written by his teacher describes Yahuda as a formidable linguist: “He not only speaks his native language, the Arabic of Jerusalem, but after becoming well versed in the written Arabic, he also acquired a thorough knowledge of the ancient and medieval Arabic language and literature.” Nöldeke goes on to say that in addition to being a fluent speaker of German and writing it better than most Germans, his student had an “excellent” command of the Hebrew literature, was no “stranger” to Assyrian, and that it would be an “easy matter” for him to learn English.
By 1904, at the age of seventeen, Yahuda had his doctorate. The next year he put his prodigious language skills to use, teaching Semitic philology at a liberal rabbinical school and at the Orientalisches Seminar at Berlin University, where he stayed until 1914. He spent the next nine years in Berlin, eventually heading the Department of Biblical Studies and Semitic Languages at the university and lecturing on the exegesis of the Old Testament, a subject to which he would remain devoted all his life.
That illicit cigarette was not an anomaly; Yahuda’s irreverent attitude persisted. He caused a stir by lecturing on the Bible without wearing a yarmulke. But his refusal to follow Jewish laws according to the letter did not mean he neglected the past. Instead he took a long view of history, seeking material to justify his own interpretations of tradition, however idiosyncratic.
In 1915 Yahuda was offered a professorship in rabbinic literature and languages at the University of Madrid, the first such position to be created in Spain since the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Directed to make an appearance before King Alfonso XIII, Yahuda took the opportunity to proclaim both his heritage and his independence: “I am not the first in my family who appears in audience before one of your majesty’s family,” he informed the monarch. “It was in the midtwelfth century, when one of my forefathers, Sheshet Benveniste, had the high honor of appearing before your majesty’s forefather, King Alfonso II.” The appointment prompted newspaper articles proclaiming Yahuda’s remarkable scholarly accomplishments, his common heritage with the Jews of Spain, and his tenacious devotion to his subject as guarantees of the wisdom of his appointment. He held his position for seven years, witnessing and participating in the extraordinary efforts of the international Zionist movement to secure a mandate in Palestine and making the first of a string of enemies in that movement, the beginning of a bitterness toward some of his fellow Jews and their ideas on how to run a Jewish state, which lasted his entire life.
Yahuda left Madrid in 1922 to embark on what would turn out to be a full twenty years of traveling, lecturing, and teaching. During this period he acquired a serious taste and facility for acquiring rare manuscripts, partially funded by money inherited by his wife, which led him to northern Africa, the Middle East, and western and eastern Europe. He taught in England at King’s College, University College, London, Oxford, and Cambridge and lectured at such places as the Royal Asiatic Society of London, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Yale University, and the University of Cairo. He spent the Nazi period in London, in the house on Ellsworthy Road where Keynes wrote to him. A visitor recalled extending his hand in the gloom of the foyer to “something formally elegant and stern,” thinking it was the professor. Instead he encountered a life-size bust of the scholar, the man himself presiding in the reception room next door.
Yahuda may have become a caricature of himself, but his learning was formidable. The fact remains that Yahuda, a Sephardic Jew born in Jerusalem to a family that had settled in Baghdad sometime after Spain expelled the Jews in 1492, was the first person to read Newton’s private theological writings who was both able to understand them on their own terms and—perhaps more crucial—willing to do so. Back in 1777 Samuel Horsley may have looked at them, but he said nothing of it in his Opera Omnia. David Brewster and Jean-Baptiste Biot both saw them, and while they came to different conclusions about what the religious writings meant for understanding Newton, they both were concerned primarily with Newton the scientist. And whatever Luard, working in the 1870s on that long-delayed catalogue with Stokes, Adams, and Liveing, may have thought privately about the writings, he went on the record to dismiss them as mere exercises in penmanship and evidence of an unhealthy obsession.
Yahuda turned the thing on its head. “His studies offer material about his concepts,” he wrote in an unpublished essay on the Newton papers, “the manuscripts even more than the printed works.” The theology manuscripts were not secondary; they offered a way of understanding Newton’s scientific concepts that was ultimately more revealing than the printed works. What seemed “odd” in fact offered a “true estimate” of Newton. “It is necessary therefore that the remaining manuscripts are examined very carefully, so that the many things which appear odd today, receive their deserved vindication: this is a duty, not only towards Newton and his country but also towards all of humanity.” Yahuda was a scholar of history, pushing for the hard work of seeing the odd, old world that Newton inhabited.
Finally, all the excesses of the archive could be welcomed. It was the very extensiveness of the theological writings—the obsessive drafting, the lengthiness of the treatises—that spoke of Newton’s desire to “extend the universalistic character of Christianity.” By this Yahuda meant that Newton envisioned a truer, deeper religion, one that surpassed mere sectarianism, that “did not see the problem of religion exhausted in Christianity or Judea, but wanted to include all antique religions and the spiritual development of all other peoples besides the Israelites.” This was a message with obvious resonance in a Europe rent by war.
Rather than condescending to the eccentricities of an old man, Yahuda granted Newton this significant objective. It was the natural reason for the exuberance, not to say obsessiveness, of the writing. Rather than arguing against the drafts, as nearly all previous commentators had done, Yahuda could argue on their behalf. The drafts were evidence not of insanity or senility but of a vigorous faith that did not waver even in the presence of staggering amounts of historical data or scriptural language of the most obscure kind. The recopying, the fact that Newton had rewritten sections two or even three times, was evidence of the difficulty of the task as well as Newton’s passion for it: “He strived for comprehension of the sense of the work and interpreted it completely several times with the highest degree of care.”
Yahuda’s vision of Newton looks very different from any of the Newtons previously conjured by his would-be biographers, scholars, and cataloguers. But then Yahuda himself looked very different from any other Newton scholar. He saw language, and specifically scripture, as a code in which history itself could be read. Language bore the traces of lived experience, and great books, such as the Pentateuch, bore the traces of the history of the peoples it described. Like the tombs of the Egyptians, the Bible was a testament to history, and like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the language within it could be studied to reveal its true meaning.
Yahuda was a forensic philologist, a practitioner of a brand of so-called Higher Criticism. “Lower Criticism” concerned itself with the nuts and bolts of transcription, the errors introduced into texts by lazy or unskilled scribes, the almost unavoidable mutations a manuscript underwent as it was copied over many years. Higher Criticism was after bigger game, capturing not simply the literal meaning of words written long ago but the entire worldview or culture in which those words were written. What did the writer of the text mean to accomplish at the time? What events surrounded its composition? Such questions seem plain enough, but when asked of the Bible, they become sensational.
Yahuda sought to trace the history of the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) through telltale clues—words, customs, manners, and thoughts—borrowed by the Jews from the Egyptians, with whom they lived in close contact during their time in exile. He called this “proving the Hebrew-Egyptian relationship.” He was not the first nor the only scholar to seek to understand the Bible this way; what was distinctive about his approach was his emphasis on the Egyptian, as opposed to Babylonian or Assyrian, influences on the Bible.
In a way, it was precisely what Newton had sought to do: reduce the profusion of language in the Bible to a set of distinct meanings from which certain conclusions could be drawn. In the hundreds, if not thousands of pages on revelation and prophecy owned by Yahuda, Newton sought to translate the wild images and dense metaphors of prophecy into equivalent terms that were more stable. If he could fix the motile meanings of those writings into a set of equivalences, much could follow: confirmation of the contents of true religion, the truth of prophecy in the past, further evidence of God’s omnipotence, and the true language of history. Similarly what Yahuda had done in his own work on the accuracy of the Bible was to demonstrate that the Jews had in fact walked over the ground it was said that they had, migrating from “Ur through Canaan to Egypt” and back to the Land of Promise. Incredibly enough it was possible to follow these long-effaced footsteps through the clues left in the language of the Bible itself. “In the development of the Hebrew language,” Yahuda argued, “one can follow the route of Israel’s wanderings during the last twenty-five centuries.”
For Yahuda, the Bible was a vibrant mix of cultures, practices, and perspectives whose very form testified to the cheek-by-jowl experiences of Jews, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Assyrians in the deep past. And yet he reserved a place of honor among the babble for the Chosen People who, he claimed, borrowed not so much “the vernaculars of primitive peoples in Israel’s surroundings” but the “languages of the most cultivated peoples of the world.” This was not cultural relativism. For all his celebration of diversity, Yahuda was unafraid to assign prestige to the Jews, so long and so frequently abused.
This was not scholarship content to dabble in eccentricities and obliquities. To say that Yahuda was unafraid of controversy is not to say enough. He loved the brouhaha, the duels with other scholars. He lived a life at once public and solitary, giving many talks and participating in much correspondence but without much in the way of fellowship. According to his archivists, “his enormous correspondence contains few sustained relations.” Thanks perhaps to the legacy of his difficult personality, little has been written about Yahuda himself, though his archive of personal correspondence and manuscripts is extensive and his role in the intellectual universe of émigré Jews in the first half of the twentieth century substantial. And he seems to have grasped a truth about Newton that few had.
Abraham Yahuda’s goal in acquiring manuscripts was ultimately historical: to reveal how biblical language had been shaped by the very history it described, or, as he put it, that “the Biblical narratives by their form, their style, their linguistic garb and peculiar coloring could only have developed in the course of the migrations of the Patriarchs from Ur through Canaan to Egypt and the return of the Hebrews from Egypt back to the Land of Promise.” He also wanted to claim the ground of Higher Criticism for himself, to take it back from practitioners such as Julius Wellhausen, perhaps the best known German biblical scholar of the time, who, in Yahuda’s view, had taken things too far. “In the long run,” he lamented, “it became customary to consider it as highly scientific to challenge everything Biblical and to alter the texts at one’s heart’s desire.”
For Yahuda this was a vision of criticism taken to extremes, the text reduced to nothing but error, the possibility of meaning dissolving amid a multiplicity of authors, leaving only commentary, a Talmud with no Torah left in it. He thought in particular that too many sources were being attributed to the Pentateuch and that too many “experts” were exerting themselves “in the art of text alterations and source-hunting.” Thus “the original text was distorted and disfigured and in its place was offered a quite new text of pure invention.” In Newton, who himself sought to return a blemished Christianity to its purer origins, Yahuda found a kindred soul. Interpreting ancient texts didn’t require robbing them of a fixed meaning. Both Newton and Yahuda sought instead to find a singular truth amid the variations. Even in the abstruse realm of textual criticism, much was at stake. As war raged in Europe, Yahuda made a case in a speech in New York for why it was so important to prove the accuracy of the Bible. Doing so was more than a “scientific concern”; it was a moral duty, so that the precious treasure that was the Bible was preserved from the “destructive theories of Higher Criticism” that may have contributed to the “spreading of those disruptive ideas which, to a large extent, paved the way in Germany to that ‘Kultur’ of racialism, paganism and self-deification as in the darkest ages of human history.”
Yahuda’s essays indicate that the value he attached to his Newton manuscripts was intellectual and cultural, not monetary. But a curious letter, written in 1940 as a testimonial by Albert Einstein at Yahuda’s behest, provides a hint that he once considered selling them. Though it is unclear how they first met, Einstein and Yahuda had corresponded intensively from 1933 through the end of the decade, trading opinions on the increasingly dire situation in Europe and the political and diplomatic maneuverings surrounding partition plans for Palestine. Neither man mentions any of Yahuda’s dealings in books and manuscripts, including his purchases in the summer and fall of 1936 of the Newton papers. Yahuda was more concerned with winning Einstein’s support for his views on how matters in Israel should be conducted, while Einstein warned that “such polemics” would not be productive.
In early 1940 Einstein helped arrange for Yahuda and his wife to travel to New York. In the late summer of that year Yahuda visited Einstein at his summer retreat at Lake Saranac in the Adirondacks. The two men evidently discussed Newton, for preserved in the archives of both men is a letter in Einstein’s hand dated September 1940 that details his views on Newton’s private religious writings. Prompted no doubt by Yahuda, the document is notable for what we can infer of both Einstein’s and Yahuda’s attitudes toward the Newton papers. For while it is possible that Einstein made a sustained investigation of the papers that Yahuda owned, there is no evidence in either man’s extensive personal archive that this was the case. Instead it seems much more likely that Yahuda was calling upon his famous acquaintance for a favor in helping him to dispose of his collection. A letter from Einstein declaiming the importance of the collection would serve as an excellent introduction to libraries that might be interested in purchasing the manuscripts.
“My dear Yahuda,” wrote Einstein,
Newton’s writings on biblical subjects seem to me especially interesting because they provide deep insight into the characteristic intellectual features and working methods of this important man. The divine origin of the Bible is for Newton absolutely certain, a conviction that stands in curious contrast to the critical skepticism that characterizes his attitude toward the churches. From this confidence stems the firm conviction that the seemingly obscure parts of the Bible must contain important revelations, to illuminate which one need only decipher its symbolic language. Newton seeks this decipherment, or interpretation, by means of his sharp systematic thinking grounded on the careful use of all the sources at his disposal.
While the formative development of Newton’s lasting physics works must remain shrouded in darkness, because Newton apparently destroyed his preparatory works, we do have in this domain of his works on the Bible drafts and their repeated modification; these mostly unpublished writings therefore allow a highly interesting insight into the mental workshop of this unique thinker.
Much as Stokes and Adams had before him, Einstein considered Newton’s private papers with an eye toward gleaning as much as possible of his method of discovery, what he refers to here as “the formative development” of his work in physics. Einstein implicitly links the process by which Newton developed his physics and his theology; by studying the one, we might gain an insight into the other. He describes Newton’s search for the secret truths of the Bible as deriving not from magical reasoning, as Keynes had determined, but from “sharp systematic thinking.” Newton’s so-called mental workshop (geistige Werkstatt) is metaphorically the same place where both his physics and his theology were created. Drafts are in no way evidence of dangerous obsession or weak-minded repetition but the evidence of a mind at work on the way to creation. Confirming the likelihood that Yahuda was seeking a testimonial to help him sell the papers to a library, Einstein added at the end of his letter that he considered it “highly desirable, that Newton’s writings mentioned above be united in one location and there be made accessible to researchers.”
While Einstein was happy to help Yahuda try to sell the papers and to support the cause of scholarship, later in his life he expressed a different view on the proper disposition of the papers. In an interview with the historian of science I. B. Cohen that took place just two weeks before he died in 1955, Einstein spoke about, among other things, Newton’s theological writings. He said that it was significant that Newton had “sealed them all up in a box,” an indication, Einstein thought, of Newton’s awareness of how imperfect they were. Newton had “obviously” not wanted to publish these speculations during his own lifetime. Einstein said, “with some passion,” that he hoped they would not now be published. Speaking as someone who had lived most of his life squarely in the public eye, he defended Newton’s right to privacy, even after death. Rather than lamenting the absence of a complete edition of Newton’s works, Einstein praised the Royal Society’s resistance to publishing writings that had remained unpublished during Newton’s life. Correspondence could reasonably be printed, having been made somewhat public during Newton’s life, but there was always the possibility that the letters contained certain “personal things which should not be published.”
Despite Einstein’s letter, Yahuda never did sell the Newton papers. In 1942 he traveled as a refugee to America, where, like so many other scholars uprooted by the war, he found a place at the New School for Social Research in New York. For several years he ran the school’s Center for the Study of the Near and Middle East and gave lectures on biblical literature, Islamic architecture and ornamental art, Semitic inscriptions, advanced Arabic, and a survey course on the history of the ancient Near East. No evidence suggests that he shared his Newton papers with his students.
Yahuda and his wife moved in the last years of his life to New Haven, Connecticut, and though he was not on the faculty at Yale University, he hoped to make connections with scholars there. Instead he was to be “lonely as never before.” In addition to the Newton papers, Yahuda had acquired over the course of more than forty years of collecting what was reputed to be the largest and most valuable assemblage of rare Arabic books and manuscripts in private hands. The bulk of these—an incredible 4,800 Arabic texts spanning a thousand years of history and ranging across astronomy, mathematics, literature, geography, philosophy, and medicine—ended up in the Princeton University Library, making it the largest repository of Islamic manuscripts in North America (which it remains today). Yahuda also sold some Arabic medical manuscripts to the U.S. Armed Forces Medical Library in Washington, D.C., as well as additional materials to Dublin’s Chester Beatty Collection.
In August 1951, while on vacation with his wife at Saratoga Springs, New York, Yahuda died of a heart attack at age seventy-four. His obituary appeared the next day in the New York Times, hailing him as a “noted expert on the Bible and orientalist.” He had died in many ways an isolated and angry man. His “learning was immense,” as the Times obituarist noted; his “reasoning and judgment, however, were not consistently sound.” The dispersal of his collection after his death was to be as fraught as his relationships were in life. Before he died he had sent some books and papers from his library to a warehouse in New Haven to await packing for shipment overseas. But he never packed them up or designated a recipient for them. Instead the books sat in the warehouse for several years until Ethel Yahuda, who on her husband’s death had inherited the entire library, valued at $80,000, began to prepare it for shipment. Despite Yahuda’s lifelong anti-Zionism, a result of his deep discord with the noted Zionist and Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann, among others, Ethel decided to donate all of Yahuda’s books and manuscripts—including the Newton materials—to the Jewish National and University Library at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She had been convinced by a Boston book dealer named Abraham Bornstein to honor the people of Israel with a bequest. More important than any quarrels Yahuda may have had during his lifetime was the legacy he could leave, in the form of his books and manuscripts, to the Jewish people. She made the announcement at a luncheon in Israel (which was attended by the president of Israel) on January 28, 1953. Soon afterward she began to arrange the material that had been sitting in the warehouse for so many years; the cataloguing and crating of the material was still unfinished at the time of her death in 1955.
Though she had publicly announced her intention to make the gift, she had made no written provision in her will regarding a donation to the university. One of the four trustees of the estate, a nephew of her late husband, objected to the donation of the library to Hebrew University. The resulting court case dragged on until 1966, when the Supreme Court of Connecticut ruled that the library should be donated to the Jewish National and University Library after all, having found that Ethel Yahuda’s intentions had been clearly stated orally to a number of people before her death. The case of Hebrew University Assn. v. Nye has subsequently served as an important precedent for honoring the intention of a donation in the absence of written documentation. The fate of the collection of Abraham Yahuda, a man for whom written language carried the promise of revealing deep and lasting truths, depended ultimately on spoken words. Following the court’s decision, the collection, including all of the Newton papers, was finally crated and shipped to Israel.
Reprinted from The Newton Papers by Sarah Dry with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2014 Oxford University Press USA and published by Oxford University Press USA. (www.oup.com/us). All rights reserved.
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