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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

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Abraham Yahuda. (Collage Tablet Magazine; original images Schwadron Portrait Gallery, the National Library of Israel, and Wikimedia Commons)
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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 Less than two weeks after the sale, he wrote to his wife, Ethel, that he was “now excited” about an unpublished essay by Newton on biblical and theological questions that had been sold at Sotheby’s, which is “of the greatest significance for [Newton’s] personal view” on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.

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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