Albert Einstein was often asked about his views on God. In the 1920s and 1930s, he insisted that he was not an atheist and that he believed “in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”
Yet in 1954, near the end of his life, Einstein wrote a letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind – that sold at Christie’s Auction House recently for $2.9 million – that borders on belligerent toward God, Judaism, and the notion of a “chosen” people:
“[t]he word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends…. For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything ‘chosen’ about them.”
For those of us who claim Einstein as “one of our own” and feel connected to our own Jewish identity, his “God Letter,” as it is called, is likely to make us feel uncomfortable. How are we to reconcile our embrace and celebration of Einstein with the content of this letter?
Quite simply, we must not – for lack of a better word – deify him.
Einstein may have been a brilliant scientist and great humanitarian, but he was not a theologian. As physicist Brian Greene remarked in an interview for WNYC, the National Public Radio station in New York City:
“The fact of the matter is, Einstein’s expertise in physics and in the ability to understand the force of gravity and the nature of space and time and matter and energy doesn’t give him any special insight into the nature of God.”
In that same radio interview, I said that it’s all right for Einstein to say different things about God and Judaism at different times in his life; as a human being, his life and experiences made him change his perspective.
As a scientist, Einstein had a passion and a drive to join together disparate theories. Indeed, for much of his life, Einstein was looking for a ““unified theory”” that could bring together quantum mechanics and gravity. That’s part of the job of science –– to find connections and explanations for a variety of phenomena. Think of Newton and his laws of motion, or Maxwell discovering the relationship between electricity and magnetism, or, yes, Einstein and his most famous equation linking matter with energy. A bedrock principle of science is that the universe makes sense, and we can help figure it out. A single, simple explanation for everything would be deeply satisfying.
That principle bleeds into how we view religion, as well. We want there to be a “unified theory” of our lives and of God, since that will help us make sense of the tragedies, the losses, and the setbacks we experience. It can feel deeply unsatisfying when we can’t figure it out.
Yet that’s not how religion, or even our understanding of God, works. Theology isn’t static; our views on God change throughout our lives because our experiences often lead us to reexamine who we are and how we understand ourselves.
To me, the most important question about God isn’t “Who is God?” or “What is God?” but rather “When is God?” When do we find moments of transcendence? When do we find moments of deep connection? When do we bring more compassion, kindness, and justice to the world? These aren’t simply intellectual questions; they are questions that are at the core of who we are as human beings.
Einstein was one of the most brilliant thinkers in history, changing the way we understand the universe. But as a human being, he was subject to contradictions, limitations, and life’s challenges…just like the rest of us.
Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds, and is being incubated at Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His writings about the intersection of religion and science have been published in the books Seven Days, Many Voices and A Life of Meaning (both published by the CCAR Press). He is an internationally sought-out teacher, presenter, and scholar-in-residence.