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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776
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Einstein and Jewish Thought about God

god and einstein

Albert Einstein, likely the most creative scientific mind, has often been justifiably cited for his support of Jewish values and his faithfulness to his Jewish identity. But rarely, if ever, have his ideas been examined for their relevance to Jewish religious thought, mainly because his conception of God is not one of a personal God but rather equated with natural processes. However, I believe that a closer examination will disclose that although Einstein himself denies any conviction of a personal God, his language open the door to something akin to a personal God which in many crucial respects strikingly parallel a Jewish conception.

In this vein it may be observed that Einstein was not entirely consistent in his expressed perspective on God, but this nonetheless does not in any way undermine the potential enormous value of his related insights. Moreover, this does not in any manner diminish his genius since like the rest of the human species, Einstein was an evolving human being who was gifted in his intuition as well as intellect. Sometimes these two were in conflict and in such cases we should look at such conflict in a larger context to more soundly ascertain where we may acquire insight.

The idea of a personal God includes within it the notion that God in His relationship to human beings is something more than just the sum total of the physical universe and the laws which govern it. The latter belief may be regarded as reducing to “pantheism” which Einstein denies in one memorable statement comparing humankind to a child lost in a library. Here he asserts “I am not an atheist and I don’t believe I can call myself a pantheist.” Einstein then goes on continues “The child only dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is” … “our limited minds can grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.” We encounter here in Einstein’s thought something else well beyond the physical universe and its laws, and that something else is compared to human intelligence and consciousness but extrapolated to dimly understood distant higher levels. He refers to it in the final words as a “mysterious force” it may be noted here, however, that force is not force in the physical sense as conveyed by the the adjective “mysterious.” We find this same “intelligence” enshrouded in mystery when Einstein also expresses “to know what is impenetrable to us really exist and manifest itself as the highest intelligence – this knowledge is at the core of true religious sentiment”.

It is significant here that the Hebrew word for universe is “Olam” bearing the same root as “alam “ meaning “hidden” or what may strike us as “mysterious” Moreover ,Jewish thought extending from Talmudic, Kabbalistic and philosophical landscapes abounds with allusions to God possessing attributes including intelligence which are at best dimly understood. The Rambam speaks of attributes entirely “other” and indirectly grasped while Levi Gershon take takes human attributes to infinite levels of perfection in reference to Hashem. In both perspectives the realm of the mysterious occupies the greater space of Hashem’s existence. Here Einstein’s thought, predicated largely upon his intuitive capacity, runs a parallel course to our Jewish sages.

However we find ourselves ensnared in an apparent difficulty when we try to reconcile these Einstein statements with others where he asserts “I do not believe in a personal God “ and “I believe in a Spinoza God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God concerned with human affairs.” Here we have Einstein speaking from the standpoint of his intellect based on his perceptions of human history. The cited earlier statements however have him speaking from his intuition and the two are clearly at odds. It should be firstly noted in this connection there is no reason that a superior intelligence may not involve itself with human events. Secondly it should be noted that Einstein’s perceptions as a scientist fail to achieve the same degree of focus in history as they do of nature.

Here proving more on target would be the intuitive observation of Blaise Pascal founder of probability theory and an astute student of history. Upon being asked by Louis IVX for an example of a Devine intervention responded “Why the Jews your majesty, the Jews” in clear reference to their survival. This is moreover, strikingly consistent with earlier Jewish sources when it is asserted in the Talmud, “The continued existence of the Jewish people is proof of God’s providence (Talmud Balvi, Yoma 69b).

The idea, moreover, that the “superior intelligence” hidden behind the universe is a benevolent one rooted in some form of awareness is well articulated in the writings of contemporary Talmudic scholar and first class physicist Gerald Schroeder just as it was in earlier centuries expressed by Maimonides as well as Nahmanides. The unlikelihood that the universe could through random combination be produced in the span of 13 ½ billion years is astronomical in terms of so many factors, including, as Schroeder points out the availability of carbon needed. Further, the notion that mind is less basic than matter in the scheme of creation is refuted by both design and the existence of energy as a non-physical reality. The “bridge” between this fit and some infinite form of mind concerned with humankind becomes most plausible. Einstein recognizes the hidden intelligence behind the universe and discloses a deep appreciation for it but unfortunately neglects to bridge the gap to an infinite mind concerned with humankind.

The Shema itself explicitly refers to this “bridge” when it speaks of Hashem’s “glorious kingdom” immediately following the immaterial reality asserted in “The L-rd is one.” Einstein in expressing his thoughts about God was moving a good distance in the right direction based upon his gifted utilization of intuition, philosophy and science, but fell short of reaching the goal of full awareness of a personal God. However the overall consistency of his creative use of these resources with Torah should not surprise us since enlightened human thought and science itself are included within the “glorious kingdom of God.”

Howard Zik

About the Author: Howard Zik is the author of Jewish Ideas. Creator of the Blog: Encountering Holiness and Philosophy


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