By Andrew Adler
I’ve thought about J. Robert Oppenheimer for quite some time, long, in fact, before Christopher Nolan’s three-hour biopic extraordinaire hit theaters on July 21. Maybe it’s because Oppenheimer and I attended the same New York City elementary and high school: Ethical Culture Fieldston (albeit he was Class of ’21 and me Class of ’75).
The key word here is “ethical,’ which at this place was no mere bit of fanciful nomenclature. In Oppenheimer’s time, and in mine, the core curriculum included a class called, simply, ‘Ethics.’ As fledgling students, we sat on the floor and listened to stories demonstrating a particular point of view; as we matured, stories gave way to discussion, which in turn gave way to debate. A half-century or more later, I recall those sessions vividly.
The Ethical Culture Schools were founded in the late 19th-century by Felix Adler (no relation of mine, I had to affirm on countless occasions) as a progressive school for the children of working-class parents. Adler was Jewish in a Reform flavor, but the school (and the governing Ethical Culture Society) was not a specifically religious institution. Instead, it was grounded in what would be called secular humanism: a framework of moral imperatives that depended less on God as it did on good.
Many of my classmates were Jewish – in that respect, Oppenheimer (and his younger brother, Frank, a fellow alum) would have likely fit right in. Moving on to Harvard (skipping Eighth Grade along the way), his Judaism was less opportune to surface – this was a time when quotas would soon limit the number of Jewish students admitted to elite colleges and universities.
Still, J. Robert (his given first name, Julius, was forever tucked under that single initial) knew who he was in heritage and defining identity. Decades later, when in 1942 he was named head of the Manhattan Project laboratories at Los Alamos, his Jewish/Ethical/Pan-spiritual temperament would find their way to the foreground of his conflicted self.
Well before heading up the development of an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer was acutely aware that European Jews were under siege. In this respect he could argue – to himself as well as others – that Nazi evil had to be confronted and defeated, regardless of longer-term consequences.
On July 16, 1945, the push of a button triggered history’s first atomic detonation – Trinity was successful. As has so often been quoted since, upon witnessing the blinding light of that explosion, the “father of the A-bomb” summoned up a line from the Hindu sacred text the Bhagavad Gita: Now I am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.
I can imagine that at this moment, Oppenheimer began his transition from dedicated scientist to conflicted humanist. He knew that others – most notably, Los Alamos physicist Edward Teller (himself half-Jewish) — were striving to design and construct a thermonuclear device: the hydrogen bomb, in which fission’s kilotons multiplied a thousand-fold to produce fusion’s megatons.
The Soviet Union would soon detonate its own atomic bomb, and eventually, its thermonuclear cousin. Increasingly convinced that humankind was tumbling toward oblivion, he adopted a contrary posture. But amid this era of Red Scares and the Rosenbergs, contrarians seldom prospered. In 1954, after testifying at a hearing convened by the Atomic Energy Commission, Oppenheimer’s perceived Communist sympathies prompted the government to yank his security clearance. The physicist was now a pariah. He died in 1967 at the age of 63.
Circling back to his time at Ethical Culture, I wonder how Julius Robert Oppenheimer remembered those formative years as a secularized American Jew, developing his earliest notions of what constituted universal justice. Intellect unbounded, he could then lose himself within layers of pure science, unaware of the forces that would presently ravage the earth, and which – carrying him to the very edge of morality’s cliff — would send him tumbling over its precipice.