by Paul Socken
Albert Einstein, the greatest physicist since Isaac Newton, was a Jew. That is a simple and obvious statement, but what does it mean?
Einstein’s relationship with his Judaism evolved as did his science — slowly over time, in complex fashion. The General Theory of Relativity was not born overnight, and neither was Einstein’s eventual strong affiliation with Judaism and Israel.
Walter Isaacson writes in his magisterial biography that both of Einstein’s parents were Jewish and traced their ancestry back more than 200 years in Germany. They had assimilated into German culture and were completely secular. Albert was born in 1879, and they were going to name him Abraham, but decided that it sounded too Jewish.
Albert attended a Catholic elementary school. Although the teachers did not discriminate against him, his fellow students did. They insulted him and beat him. He learned at an early age that being Jewish in Germany was to be an outsider.
In high school, a Jewish teacher was hired to provide Jewish students with instruction in Judaism and — initially — Albert took to it enthusiastically, keeping kosher and Shabbat. That did not last long.
Einstein encountered antisemitism when he launched his career as well. After graduating from university, and even after earning a doctorate and formulating the Theory of Relativity, he received no job offers and ended up working in a patent office in the Post and Telegraph building.
He was offered a professorship in 1909 at the University of Zurich, but there were strong reservations because of his Judaism. A letter from the faculty mentioned that Einstein did not exhibit any of the usual Jewish characteristics — “all kinds of unpleasant peculiarities of character, such as intrusiveness, impudence, and a shopkeeper’s mentality in the perception of their academic position.”
Because of his increasing fame as a genius of science, Einstein met with important people like Chaim Weizmann, a fellow scientist and ardent Zionist. Together, they went to America to seek support for the establishment of a Jewish university in Palestine, which would become the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. On his way back in 1922, he made his only trip to Palestine, where he stayed for 12 days and was received like a head of state.
Seeing Jews working on building a new state, he was deeply impressed. He wrote: “Today, I have been made happy by the sight of the Jewish people learning to recognize themselves and to make themselves recognized as a force in the world.”
If Einstein could not accept organized religion or believe in a personal God who intervened in history, he did consider himself religious in one sense: “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.”
Clearly, study of the universe inspired in him a sense of awe and wonder.
As he turned 50, Einstein’s appreciation for his Jewish identity intensified. He did not believe in free will or immortality, but he valued Judaism’s emphasis on social justice. “Striving for social justice,” he wrote, “is the most valuable thing to do in life.”
He declared that he was not an atheist: “We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but does not know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.”
To a schoolgirl’s letter inquiring about religion, he wrote, “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.”
Finally, he described radical atheists as those who “cannot hear the music of the spheres.”
In 1932, Einstein became a refugee. He left Berlin for America; his third visit. The Nazis raided his cottage at Caputh and he never returned to Germany. The Nazis even turned on his science, declaring it relativist — confusing relativity with relativism — and non-Aryan. They appointed the arch antisemite Philipp Lenard as the new chief of Aryan science.
Einstein was moved to write an article that year — “Why Do They Hate the Jews?” — in which he declared that Jews have always shared “the democratic ideal of social justice coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men.” In that spirit, he threw his support behind the struggle for civil rights in America.
He spent his last years promoting the concept of world government to prevent war and, as a result, was under scrutiny by the FBI, which had a file of 1,427 pages on him. He declared that he was not a German but “a Jew by nationality” and compared himself to Cervantes’s Don Quixote, because he resembled the great character of the novel in his tilting at windmills.
Einstein considered his relationship with the Jewish people “my strongest human tie once I achieved complete clarity about our precarious position among the nations of the world.” The Israeli diplomat Abba Eban met with Einstein in 1955. Einstein told him that he saw the establishment of the State of Israel as one of the few political acts in his lifetime that had a moral quality.
Albert Einstein began his life as a secular, assimilated German Jew — a brilliant mind focused on the universe beyond our tiny planet — and ended up a committed Zionist, a man clearly dedicated to the advancement of world peace and the welfare of his own people, a man very much of this Earth. He reached an understanding of the stars, yet his other great discovery was his own people and its culture.
Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.