Happy Yom Yerushalayim From Talmudology

The Nobel Prize, Jerusalem, and Being a Mensch

As we celebrate the liberation of Jerusalem with prayer and festive meals (and in Jerusalem itself, with parades and barbeques) let’s remind ourselves of a person who personifies the essence of a commitment to Jewish tradition, science and Zionism: Robert Aumann.

As we have mentioned before, in 2005 Aumann was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. It recognized his work on conflict, cooperation, and game theory (yes, the same kind of game theory made famous by John Nash, portrayed in A Beautiful Mind). Aumann worked on the dynamics of arms control negotiations, and developed a theory of repeated games in which one party has incomplete information.  The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences noted that this theory is now "the common framework for analysis of long-run cooperation in the social science."

Jews have been yearning for the land of Israel, and for Jerusalem, for close to 2000 years – ever since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70, and the ensuing exile of the Jewish people. In our central prayer, which we recite three times a day, we ask the Lord to “return to Jerusalem Your city in mercy, and rebuild it and dwell therein.” Jerusalem is mentioned many thousands of times in the scriptures, in our other prayers, in the Talmud, and indeed in all our sources. So when the state of Israel was established in 1948, my brother and I made a determination eventually to make our lives there.
— Robert Aumann. "Biographical." From Nobel.org

Aumann’s speech to the Swiss Academy was a moving testimony to the Zionist dream, in which he was proud to have played a part. And Aumann knows the price of this dream; his oldest child, Shlomo, was killed in action while serving in the Israel Defense Forces in the 1982 Lebanon War.

Here is what the good Professor said in Stockholm. It is surely the only Nobel Prize Banquet Speech ever to mention the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem.

.ברוך אתה יי אלו-ינו מלך העולם הטוב והמיטיב

Blessed are you, God, our Lord, Monarch of the Universe, who is good and does good.

After partaking of a meal with fine wines, we recite this benediction when we are served with a superb wine.Your Royal Highnesses, we have, over the years, partaken of many fine wines. We have participated in the scientific enterprise: studied and taught, preserved, and pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge.

.למדנו ולימדנו, שמרנו ועשינו

We have participated in the human enterprise – raised beautiful families. And I have participated in the realization of a 2000-year-old dream – the return of my people to Jerusalem, to its homeland. And tonight, we have been served with a superb wine, in the recognition of the worth of our scientific enterprise. I feel very strongly that this recognition is not only for us, but for all of game theory, in Israel and in the whole world – teachers, students, colleagues, and co-workers. And especially for one individual, who is no longer with us – the mother of game theory, Oskar Morgenstern.

So, I offer my thanks to these, to the Nobel Foundation and the Nobel Committee, to our magnificent hosts, the country of Sweden, and to the Lord, who is good and does good.

For me, life has been – and still is – one tremendous joyride, one magnificent tapestry. There have been bad – very bad – times, like when my son Shlomo was killed and when my wife Esther died. But even these somehow integrate into the magnificent tapestry. In one of his beautiful letters, Shlomo wrote that there can be no good without bad. Both Shlomo and Esther led beautiful, meaningful lives, affected many people, each in his own way.
— Robert Aumann.

Robert Aumann and his cousin, Oliver Sacks

In 2015 the late great neurologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote a moving piece called The Sabbath. In it he recalled growing up in the orthodox Jewish community of north-west London. “Though I could not understand the Hebrew in the prayer book” he wrote “I loved its sound and especially hearing the old medieval prayers sung, led by our wonderfully musical hazan.”

But Sacks had a secret: he was attracted to men. His father made him admit to this, but Sacks asked that he not tell his mother. Sacks continues:

He did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” (She was no doubt thinking of the verse in Leviticus that read, “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”)

The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.

Sacks wrote about his homosexuality for the first time in his 2015 autobiography On the Move: A Life. And he found love later in his life, with his partner Bill Hayes, with whom he lived until Sacks died in 2015.

The cruel treatment Sacks received from his mother must have been a life-long burden, but Sacks found some solace in the behavior of his cousin - Robert Aumann. Let’s let Sacks tell the story:

During the 1990s, I came to know a cousin and contemporary of mine, Robert John Aumann, a man of remarkable appearance with his robust, athletic build and long white beard that made him, even at 60, look like an ancient sage. He is a man of great intellectual power but also of great human warmth and tenderness, and deep religious commitment — “commitment,” indeed, is one of his favorite words. Although, in his work, he stands for rationality in economics and human affairs, there is no conflict for him between reason and faith.

He insisted I have a mezuza on my door, and brought me one from Israel. “I know you don’t believe,” he said, “but you should have one anyhow.” I didn’t argue.

Towards the end of his life Sacks paid one last visit to Aumann.

I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy — my mother’s words still echoed in my mind — but Billy, too, was warmly received. How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear by Robert John when he invited Billy and me to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.

The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?

Robert Aumann, is not just a Zionist or a Nobel Laureate. He something far, far more important. He is a mensch.

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