Rabbi Professor Yaakov Friedman is a Lubavitcher Chassid from Bayit Vegan in Yerushalayim. He is a leading scientist in Eretz Yisroel in the field of mathematics and physics, and is a trailblazer for whom the most advanced testing facility in the world is available whenever he wants, for his experiments. Today he is a top lecturer at Machon Lev where he combines mathematics, physics, and Likkutei Torah in his classes. * He told Beis Moshiach about the path that was paved for him since he was a child in Munkatch and then about attending the University of Moscow, about his attempts to preserve his Judaism under difficult circumstances, and about the nonstop encouragement he received from the Rebbe throughout the years in his scientific work, to the point that he was told that he is needed on the staff of Moshiach.* Part 1 of 2.
By Menachem Ziegelboim
Professor Yaakov Friedman, a famous scientist and Chabad Chassid, has faced many challenges in life, but one of the hardest ones was when he taught at the University of California for eight years. While he was there, he learned together with the philanthropist, R’ Berel Weiss, a Lubavitcher businessman who began investing in high-tech companies that were just starting to crop up at the time.
R’ Berel wanted his brilliant friend to take over the management of his business affairs. The two of them wrote to the Rebbe, with R’ Berel adding that he was offering Friedman three times the salary he was then getting, as well as a senior management position. He was sure the Rebbe would approve.
That same day they received a response from the Rebbe which stated that Professor Friedman should remain in the field of science until he received different instructions.
“It was not easy for me to accept this answer,” admits Professor Friedman. “The Rebbe knew this and perhaps he did not want it to be just an order, for some time later Professor Branover told me that he had been to the Rebbe and the Rebbe asked him to convey the following message. There were two reasons why I shouldn’t leave science. The first reason, said the Rebbe, if I allowed him to leave science, I would thereby erase part of his life and I have no right to do that. He put a lot of energy into it and there is no reason to throw away everything he learned. On the contrary, he should use it. The second reason shocked me no less. The Rebbe said, we are preparing the world for the Geula and when Moshiach comes he needs to reach every single person. Since there are people in the world for whom only the language of science speaks to them, on Moshiach’s staff there will be scientists who will convey what Moshiach says to those people in a way that they can understand. Although we do not send people to university, when someone is there already, by divine providence, and he already went through the track, we cannot allow him to transfer to another track.
“When I got this explanation, I understood that this is my place, in the world of science.”
FROM THE SHTETL TO THE BIG CITY OF MOSCOW
Professor Yaakov Friedman was born in Munkatch to religious parents. His father was a shochet who also oversaw all religious matters in the town. Munkatch, despite the Communist Revolution, was the biggest Yiddish speaking enclave in Russia, even more than the Jewish community in Moscow. Not surprisingly, until age seven, he did not know how to speak Russian; just Yiddish. When he had to go to school at age seven, the school refused to accept him since he did not know Russian. One of the teachers at the school finally agreed to accept him on condition that he sit in the last row and speak only when he felt comfortable.
“For the first half a year I played,” Professor Friedman recalls with a shy smile. “But after that I started to talk and I became the best student in the class.” He received his Jewish education at home. “On Shabbos we had to come up with excuses about why we couldn’t go to school and on Yom Kippur we would regularly be ‘sick.’”
From a young age, Yaakov did superbly in school, especially in maths and physics and he won some national competitions in first place. While the rest of the class tried to solve problems on their level, he was already a few levels above them. “On the way to shul we could not talk about Torah so we spoke about mathematics.”
When he reached draft age he had to enlist which would have made it impossible for him to keep mitzvos. The only way out of the draft was to attend university. Yaakov Friedman was a young boy when he went from the shtetl to the big city of Moscow, seeking to be accepted in the prestigious mathematics department at the University of Moscow, one of the most elite universities in the world. “I arrived in Moscow alone, with my t’fillin and siddur in my suitcase. I did not know a single Jew in Moscow with whom I could make contact.”
In order to be accepted at the university, he had to take difficult entrance exams and compete with talented students who came from all over Russia. About twenty students vied for every spot in the university, all of them top quality. “If you weren’t at the top, you did not bother taking the tests. There were special schools that prepared students for these tests and I just showed up from a nearly unknown place.”
Friedman, who had won all the math competitions in Ukraine, lived with the other contenders in the university dormitory. “It was a nice building, relatively speaking, with two students in each room. My roommate was a goy who also came from Munkatch, my competition. I had to deal with problems of food and my t’fillin. I could somehow manage with the food, for I ate only bread and vegetables, but putting on the t’fillin was a real problem. I could not put t’fillin on in his presence since he was an ardent communist and if he informed on me, I would be out of the running and have to go to the army.
“On the first day there I told him that I must shower twice a day. I had noticed that in front of the shower room there was a small foyer and I knew that was the only place where I could hide and put on t’fillin. Every morning I would go to that spot, close the door and turn on the faucet so he would hear the water running. After I removed the t’fillin I would wet my head so it should look as though I showered, and come out with the t’fillin covered with a towel. I would wait until he left the room and then put the t’fillin back in my suitcase.”
The Jewish boy from Munkatch successfully passed the exams and was accepted into the mathematics department. “It was a miracle that I was accepted altogether. Academia in Stalin’s time was closed to Jews, and only the mathematics department was open to Jews. About a third of the department was Jews but we could not fraternize socially.” All this did not stop Yaakov Friedman from brilliantly completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees.
As mentioned, he knew no one in Moscow with whom to conduct a Jewish life as he was accustomed from childhood. The only way he had of finding companionship was by meeting Jews from the local Jewish community, but they lived under the radar and it was nearly impossible to find them.
In the end, miraculously, he found one of the religious families in Moscow, the Lubavitcher Greenberg family, with whom he was in touch for the years that he lived in the city. He later met R’ Velvel Rappaport who was mekarev him to Chabad Chassidus. They learned Meseches Bava Kama together.
“Once a month there was a secret minyan where we went for an hour and a half. On the way, we reviewed all the sugyos in the Gemara that we learned that week.”
Friedman spent five years at the university and then his family finally received permission to emigrate in 5731. This was following American pressure. However, before they actually received permission to make aliya, he had to undergo officer training where he trained in developing anti-aircraft missiles. “This training course was the hardest of all. I lived on bread and water much like in the darkest days of the Jewish people.”
R’ Yaakov was about 22 when he moved to Eretz Yisroel. At a certain point, he went to visit his friend Velvel Rappaport who had made aliya before him and was learning in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Kfar Chabad. On his visit to the yeshiva, he met R’ Binyamin Zilberstrom, “and thanks to him I stayed in the yeshiva. I could not allow myself, as a 22 year old with outstanding academic knowledge, to remain with the Torah knowledge of a seven year old.” Within a year he caught up.
A year later he got offers from several universities to complete his doctorate and teach. He asked the Rebbe whether to remain in yeshiva and learn or to accept the offers. He was told by the Rebbe to return to university while still learning half a day in kollel. One of the offers he received came from Tel Aviv University. There, while completing his studies, he began lecturing. He showed up in his hat and jacket and with his tzitzis showing.
“When I entered the class for social science, the students went on strike and refused to learn because of my religious appearance. I was transferred to teach an advanced mathematics course. I had a lot to teach.” At the same time, he continued learning in a kollel in B’nei Brak.
He completed his doctorate and one of the assignments he was given was a difficult mathematical problem which was considered unsolvable. His mentor told him to work on it.
Then the Yom Kippur War broke out and R’ Yaakov was drafted. Before that, he was able to publish the first part of his solution to the “unsolvable” question in an American mathematics publication. At the height of the war, while in Syria, he received a letter from another soldier who wrote that he had also undertaken to solve this problem and he had also published an explanation. “He sent me a copy of his answer and I saw that he was on the right track to solving the mathematical puzzle but he still had problems that prevented him from reaching the solution. I wrote him back about his error and suggested an alternate solution to circumvent the problems.
“When the war was over, I went to my adviser and told him that someone at Hebrew University was working on the same problem. I got his approval to suggest that we collaborate so we could work on the solution together and that’s what we did. We saw that the problem was really very difficult and there were many pitfalls, but since we complemented one another, me more on the pictorial geometry side and him more on the algebraic formulas, we were hoping that we would be successful in solving the mathematical paradox together. We met once a week, each time for an entire night, and were able to get past more and more of the difficulties.
“He was a kibbutznik who knew nothing about Judaism. He didn’t even know the Shma. I remember being so surprised and saying, ‘A 36 year old who grew up in Eretz Yisroel and knows nothing?!’ I was surprised that someone could be born and raised here and not even know the Shma. Until today we are still in touch.”
“I wrote a report to the Rebbe every month about what I accomplished in my Jewish studies, in kiruv, and in my research. I saw that each time I wrote to the Rebbe and told him about various problems in the progress of my research, within a short time there was significant progress. With time I came to realize that there is a connection. The Rebbe did not have to answer with words each time.”
SURPRISING HISKASHRUS WITH THE REBBE
The first time that R’ Friedman wrote to the Rebbe was as a bachur in yeshiva in Kfar Chabad. At that time, he did not yet see himself as a Chassid, despite his enormous admiration for Chabad.
“There was open ruach ha’kodesh here. While I was in Russia, I would meet with the Ribnitzer Rebbe. I was a student at the time and when I was at the Admur it was the first time I was seeing a Jew connected to another world, a world beyond the one we see. When I parted from him, before I made aliya, he told me ‘When you are in Lubavitch, write to the Rebbe and give him regards from me.’ That sounded strange to me. Although I had a connection with a Lubavitcher Chassid, I myself wasn’t a Chassid. Later on I realized that he saw with his ruach ha’kodesh that I would become a Chassid of the Rebbe and indeed, I began writing to the Rebbe.”
A few months after he left Russia, R’ Friedman went to the Rebbe for Tishrei 5732. “The feeling was that the Rebbe lifted you to other worlds. When I walked in for yechidus for the first time, I wanted to sink into the earth in shame. The Rebbe began asking me about my academic pursuits and encouraged me to work with Professor Branover.”
R’ Friedman candidly tells about the difficulties in becoming a Chassid and mekushar of the Rebbe.
“The Rebbe always treated me with warmth but I felt an enormous distance. I felt very close to the Ribnitzer Rebbe, but to the Rebbe I felt like I was facing a king in the sense of distance. It made me feel tremendous bittul but I did not have a feeling of connection.
“This made things even more difficult for me, since I felt that my future was in Chabad. I knew that in other places you did not ask questions and you had to do everything with perfect faith, while in Chabad there was harmony between science and a life of holiness. The one who encouraged me to ask all my questions was R’ Binyamin Zilberstrom. With him I could get answers to any question on my mind. I knew that truth was to be found in Chabad and this is the path. On the other hand, I felt distant from the Rebbe. I poured out my heart to R’ Mendel Futerfas and he told me, ‘You need to connect in a different way.’ He advised me to write to the Rebbe every month. He also told me what to write and how to write, ‘and then you will feel that it is working,’ he said and he warned me, ‘Don’t expect the Rebbe to answer you, but you write, and you should know that he receives it.’”
He did as R’ Mendel told him. Every month he wrote to the Rebbe. Now and then he received a response. “In one of the letters that I received from the Rebbe after I arrived in Eretz Yisroel, the Rebbe urged me to find a shidduch. The truth was I wasn’t interested because I preferred pursuing my doctorate along with my Torah studies.
“About a year and a half after I made aliya, the Yom Kippur War broke out and I was drafted. Although the war ended three weeks later, they kept me in the army for nearly another year. I remember that one night, towards morning, I was standing guard and many thoughts were going through my mind. I felt in a turmoil because my doctorate studies had stalled and I couldn’t progress because of my army duty. Then the idea flashed in my mind that perhaps this had to do with the Rebbe asking me about shidduchim while I wanted to pursue academic degrees. There I was, standing and spending days and nights on guard duty without making progress in my chosen field. That very day I called my mother and told her I was going home in a week on furlough and I wanted her to look into a shidduch for me so we could meet during my visit.”
You said that R’ Mendel told you not to expect the Rebbe to respond to every letter but that you should know he receives them. Did you feel that that was the case?
Definitely. I remember that when I went to teach at the University of California, it was a very intense time. I had many things to take care of, primarily teaching and doing research. I felt that I did not have the time to write to the Rebbe every month. It wasn’t easy, but since R’ Mendel told me that I should commit, I did it.
The situation at home wasn’t easy, for my wife wanted more help with the little children and it was hard for her to see me devoting hours to writing to the Rebbe. I wrote a report to the Rebbe every month about what I did in my Jewish studies, in kiruv, and in my research. I saw that each time I wrote to the Rebbe and told him about various problems in the progress of my research, within a short time there was significant progress. With time I came to realize that there is a connection. The Rebbe did not have to answer with words each time.
One time I wrote to the Rebbe and mentioned that there were two people in the community who had various problems and they were asking the Rebbe for a bracha through me. That night the phone rang and it was the Rebbe’s secretary. My wife told him that I wasn’t at home and he said: Your husband wrote to the Rebbe about so-and-so and the Rebbe’s answer is that he should check his mezuzos. As far as the other person he wrote about, the Rebbe said to do a certain thing. Then the secretary said: The Rebbe said to say that he greatly enjoys the letters that your husband writes.
With his ruach ha’kodesh, the Rebbe sensed my wife’s dissatisfaction with my writing and these few words solved the shalom bayis problem of my spending so much time writing to him.
Boruch Hashem, till today I write a monthly report to the Rebbe. And today too I see that when I write to the Rebbe about certain difficulties, things get resolved. People who are familiar with my academic research can’t believe it’s possible to make progress like this on my own.
MATHEMATICS, PHYSICS, ASTRONOMY, AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
The last time Professor Friedman did a major scientific experiment was this past summer, following which he decided he has to look for another approach in the world of research.
“If I rely solely on experiments, there will always be doubts. There will be people who say, ‘Maybe there was some other factor that affected the results, a factor we don’t know about.’ From that point I started to look to what is happening with the stars and other galactic structures. This winter I published my first article with this new groundbreaking approach – finding answers in the world of astronomy to explain phenomena in physics.”
What does physics have to do with astronomy?
“Dovid HaMelech says, ‘The heavens relate the glory of G-d and the skies tell of His handiwork.’ Meaning, by means of the sky we can discover Hashem’s handiwork here in this world. Hashem put His wisdom into the galactic formations where he put precise rules into place and they do His will precisely. In the heavenly bodies we can see these laws in their pure state. If you identify these rules, you can make comparisons between them to the science on earth. When you identify the divine rules of heaven, this can open for you unlimited abilities in technology too, because the heavenly bodies are the point where all the scientists pull up short.”
When sitting with a world-renowned scientist, you end up getting a short lesson in science. In the briefest of terms, here is the field that Professor Friedman is involved with:
A hundred years ago, Albert Einstein devised his Theory of Relativity. Why did he need it? He constructed it because of three principles of physics that Newton developed, laws that he established after contemplating the constellations. Newton thought, maybe these laws apply not only to the heavenly bodies but here on earth too. It turns out he was right. The laws he established are the basic laws of physics.
Up until a hundred and fifty years ago, scientific experiments confirmed Newtonian physics. However, over time, scientists developed more precise measurements. Man had greater control and began to understand the processes even in terms of the impact of human behavior on the system.
In 1859, the first discovery was made that did not conform to Newton’s laws. (I won’t go into detail in terms of the astrophysical phenomena, but every time I study the subject in the Rambam, I am amazed by how he knew how to measure these things without the modern technology that we have today.) It turned out there was a small variance between what Newton said and what the new instrumentation revealed. A hundred years ago, Einstein was able to explain the process in question by way of the theory of General Relativity. When you factor Einstein’s conclusions into Newton’s teachings, you get accurate results.
This is the topic on which I wrote an article in the Europhysics Letters, a very distinguished scientific publication. While Einstein provided formulas that are very difficult to understand, I explained the processes in question in a more simplified manner.
Until now I was not involved in astronomy because I didn’t think it was important enough. Why deal with the stars when there is so much to do here on earth? I began my work as a mathematician and I earned my doctorate and professorship in this field.
At a certain point I realized that I won’t get far with mathematics because mathematics is a language, and every language is limited. I knew I had to think about how science explains the form in which Hashem created the physical world and runs it, at least according to the capacity of what human minds can conceive.
To be continued, G-d willing