Albert Einstein’s letter on God, in which he described the Bible as “pretty childish,” sold not long ago for more than $400,000. That letter is far from the definitive word, however, on Einstein and religion. In fact, there exists a vast library of personal letters and other archival material that reveal Einstein’s lifelong search for spiritual fulfillment.
This essay is meant neither as an apologia nor a critique of Einstein’s latent spirituality. It is merely a rumination on his frequent personal religious musings – musings that, had he subjected them to his usual rigorous scrutiny, may well have led him to discover the rest of the equation.
I embarked on my research into Einstein’s spirituality in the hope of finding allusive, little-known remarks by the father of general and special relativity that would perhaps provide a subtle whisper of regret or resolve about his lifetime of non-observance.
Like a thresher separating wheat from chaff, I plowed through a profusion of seemingly agnostic concepts and morally objectionable behavior on Einstein’s part in order to catch fleeting glimpses of his elusive pintele Yid (Jewish spark). What I extracted was an ephemeral spirituality that Einstein himself, and all his biographers after him, grappled to define.
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Einstein was born in 1879 in the small town of Ulm, in Bavaria, to irreligious parents. His pious grandfather taught him Chumash, Rashi and some Gemara. A spiritual child, the budding genius thought much about God, writing little poems in His praise and singing songs to Him at home and as he walked the streets.
When he was 5, his parents enrolled him in a large Catholic school, with more than 2,000 students from all strata of society, which was closer to home and less expensive than the Jewish school. The only Jew among some 70 classmates, young Albert was frequently insulted and physically abused while making his way home from school. As he opened the door to his house, the stench of non-kosher wiener schnitzel would waft through the air, revolting and infuriating him.
Although the boy remained steadfast in his refusal to eat treif, his parents rebuffed his pleas to keep kosher. His father regarded the kosher dietary laws as “anachronistic, superstitious nonsense.” But what could young Albert have expected of freethinking Jews who were not fully comfortable with the citizenship they had been granted only eight years before his birth and who chose to cast off their Jewish identity?
As recounted by Robert N. Goldman in Einstein’s God (Jason Aronson, 1997), a book that proved invaluable to my research, a Jewish custom Einstein’s parents did retain was hosting a needy scholar at a weekly meal. But perhaps because Shabbos held no significance for the Einsteins or perhaps because the food was not kosher, the “guest day” came to be observed on Thursday and the invitee was not a yeshiva bochur but a medical student.
The steady caller at the Einstein residence was one Max Talmud. Albert admired and respected Max, who was eleven years his senior and assumed the role of his mentor. Max inundated the wunderkind with gifts of popular-science books. Such works, infused with atheism and revolutionary concepts, would not have been considered acceptable reading material for a youngster in a religious home but in the Einstein household they were revered above Judaica.
Young Einstein indulged himself to his heart’s delight and soon began to entertain doubts about his religious beliefs and the Bible stories he had previously cherished. He sought out additional sources of enlightenment in the writings of Darwin and others, and before long his outlook was no different from that of any emancipated Reform Jew.
The new secular knowledge shattered Einstein’s equilibrium, leaving him feeling betrayed and disillusioned, with no one interested enough in him to restore his equanimity. His religious fervor became totally invested in science, mathematics and violin lessons. As a result of Einstein’s being swept away by the sciences, his bar mitzvah, scheduled for the Sabbath following his thirteenth birthday, was aborted, along with any hopes of future Jewish scholarship. Because his bar mitzvah was canceled, he suffered a fair amount of shame as something of a community outcast.
Having lost confidence in his religion, he began from age 16 to describe himself as having no religious affiliation, extrinsically to ensure employment but intrinsically because of his disillusionment with Judaism.
At age 32 Einstein was confronted with a challenge that jarred his religious consciousness. He was lecturing at the University of Zurich when he learned he was being considered for a full professorship outside Switzerland, at the German University of Prague. He intensely aspired to that post, as the pay and prestige were infinitely promising. There was, however, one major problem: Prague at the time (1911) was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Emperor Franz Joseph had ordained that instructors register their religious affiliation.
Einstein had to weigh a choice between declaring no religion (and relinquish the position) or admitting he was a Jew. Under no circumstances would he say he was a non-Jew, as many others of Jewish birth had done. It was a critical decision, but, after wrestling with his conscience for some time, he pronounced himself a Jew. That symbolic step was a precursor to his rediscovering his Jewish roots in Prague.
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There was something about majestic Prague, the city of a hundred towers and one of the first European Jewish settlements, that awakened Einstein’s soul: the ancient synagogues, dating from the 11th century; the town clock with its Hebrew lettering; the Yiddish-speaking townsfolk of diverse cultural backgrounds; the old Jewish cemetery.
Walking among the cemetery’s 12,000 tombstones dating back to 1439 and reading the Hebrew inscriptions, the names and epitaphs, reminded him of his religious heritage. When the Jewish community urged him to express himself about God, he said, “What we [physicists] strive for is just to draw our lines after Him.”
After teaching in Zurich and Prague, Einstein returned to Germany at the age of 35 and became a professor at the Prussian Academy in Berlin. His experience in Prague had imbued him with a sense of belonging to his people, and only five weeks after his arrival in Germany he proudly proclaimed his Jewishness.
It was after the First World War that Jews, escaping hunger, hardship and persecution in Russia and Poland, converged on Berlin. Their assertive demeanor aroused growing resentment among the native Jews, who were trying hard to conceal their origin. Nationalist German groups demanded their immediate deportation, but Einstein empathized with his uncultivated eastern European tribesmen and used his good offices to raise money for their support. He even wrote a newspaper article in their defense.
The assimilationist aspirations of mainstream Jewish Berliners seemed to Einstein nothing but “mimicry,” and he declared publicly, “I have always been annoyed by the undignified assimilation cravings and strivings which I have observed in so many of my German Jewish friends.”
Of the Germans he said, “I don’t love the Germans they’re not religious.”
In 1916, Jacob Grommer, an outstanding mathematician and scholarly yeshiva student pursuing the rabbinate, collaborated with Einstein (whose arithmetical skills were not exceptional) on his general theory of relativity. Einstein assumed the responsibility of providing for Grommer’s livelihood.
In 1923 Einstein was invited to deliver the inaugural speech at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, the site were Alexander the Great first glimpsed ancient Jerusalem and where Titus mobilized his military for the destruction of the Holy Temple. He began with, “I am happy to read my address in the country whence the Torah and its light emanated to all the enlightened world…. I consider this the greatest day of my life. Hitherto I have always found something to regret in the Jewish soul, and that is the forgetfulness of its own people – forgetfulness of its being, almost…. This is a great age, the age of the liberation of the Jewish soul.”
Einstein sounded like a biblical prophet to many when, in 1930, he told a group of British Jews, “To you I say that the being and faith of our people depends less upon external factors than that we remain true to our moral traditions which have carried us through the centuries in spite of the heavy strains which broke in upon us. In the service of life, sacrifice becomes a grace. Within the traditions of the Jewish people exists a striving toward righteousness and understanding that should be of service to the rest of the nations both now and in the future. Do not bemoan the sadness of fate, but in this occurrence see rather a motive for both being and remaining faithful to the Jewish community.”
As the situation of European Jewry deteriorated in the years prior to World War II, Einstein, who had emigrated to America in 1933, sponsored Jewish refugees – so many, in fact, that immigration officials declined to honor his applications. They knew his income was inadequate to guarantee support for so many. Nevertheless, he continued his efforts to rescue Jews with affidavits and money.
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When he retired in 1946, friends were aghast to find Einstein speaking as if he had a direct link with God. Actually, he had been referring to the Creator all his life. His close assistant, Leopold Infeld, said Einstein used the word “God” more often than a Catholic priest.
In fact, Einstein had always been enthralled by the word “God” and with the biblical stories of his childhood. The Nobel Prize-winning Russian physicist Peter Kapitza said of him, “Einstein loves to refer to God when there is no more sensible argument.” Einstein liked to proclaim that “the mathematician God smiles . He knows how far we are from real depth of understanding.”
He also said, “If I had been born in eastern Europe, I would probably have become a rabbi.” (In fact, a portrait of a bearded rabbi permanently graced the walls of Einstein’s book-laden study. Biographer Goldman suggests Einstein might have seen himself as that rabbi.)
When, at age 73, he was asked about creation, he said, “…We must be satisfied to acknowledge the ‘miracle’ without there being any legitimate way for us to approach it.”
In an article titled “Religion and Science” in the Nov. 9, 1930 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Einstein concluded that there was no conflict between the two but that religion was “the strongest and noblest mainspring of scientific research.”
Einstein’s friend and chauffeur noted that Einstein composed a number of songs to honor God, which he heard Einstein sing to himself many times. He also heard Einstein say that anyone who loves nature must love God, and that ideas per se stemmed from God.
About American Jews who put material values ahead of spirituality, Einstein said, “The dance about the golden calf was not merely a legendary episode in the history of our forefathers – an episode that seems to me in its simplicity more innocent than that total adherence to material and selfish values threatening Judaism in our own day.”
Three weeks before his death in 1955, he acknowledged, “To us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future has only the significance of a stubborn illusion.” At the same time, he sent Kurt Blumenthal, the man who had brought him into the Zionist fold in Berlin 35 years earlier, this message: “I thank you, even at this late hour, for having helped me become aware of my Jewish soul.”
Einstein’s obituary in The New York Times included his statement that “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”
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It would be a fundamental mistake to judge Einstein by pre-21st century standards (or even to judge him at all). The inescapable fact is that Einstein lived not in an ivory tower but in a time of war and conflict. And he faced up to those circumstances with a strong sense of humanitarian responsibility.
Although physics, the core of his identity, eclipsed his rudimentary Jewish training, it did not weaken (except in his early years) his identification with the Jewish nation or his loyalty to his brethren. In the wake of the Holocaust he forswore his allegiance to the country of his birth, forgoing all the glory he could have derived from it.
Although German remained his first language, after the Holocaust he took to calling it his “stepmother tongue.” He never forgave the Germans. When in 1946 he was invited to rejoin the Bavarian Academy, from which he had been forced to resign in 1933, he responded: “The Germans have slaughtered my Jewish brethren. I will have nothing to do with them .”
Beneath his surface there was unfathomable complexity. It is within that complexity that we find the spirituality we were seeking. A scientist of lesser fame would not have had the courage to entertain, much less to articulate, such profound spiritual thoughts, which may have inspired countless others.
That he did not redirect his life toward Torah and mitzvot after achieving a sense of belonging to the Jewish nation, after acknowledging the concept of God through the realm of physics and after having “become aware of my Jewish soul” remains a tragedy. But Einstein lived in the pre-baal teshuvah era. There were no kiruv professionals canvassing Berlin or, later, Princeton for potential returnees. Would he have been receptive had an Orthodox leader of his stature offered to guide him? Perhaps, though of course we will never know.
Equally significant are the lessons we learn from Einstein’s spiritual decline. Young Albert, the budding genius who might have blossomed into a Talmudic giant – the brave boy who, despite his Catholic schooling, clung to the teachings of his grandfather and clamored for religious observance in his home – succumbed to the influence of an assimilated Jewish friend.
Einstein’s life story should serve as an impetus for committed Jews to view our non-committed brethren with an attitude of altruism and benevolence: “What is my obligation to this floundering Jew? How can I help him or her discover, or rediscover, true Judaism?”
Einstein’s sporadic but sincere religious reflections point to the pintele Yid whose beseeching resounded within his conscience. Countless Jews are in a similar state of inner turmoil.
Sorah Shapiro, a journalist, is the author of “City on Fire,” an anthology on 9/11 and the Twin Towers; “Nation on Fire,” an anthology on terrorism in the Holy Land; and “Trials and Triumphs,” a collection of inspirational stories. Her new book, “Whither Thou Goest: The Jewish In-Law’s Survival Guide” (Devora Publishing) is available at all major Jewish bookstores and Barnes & Noble and online at Amazon.com.