For his final guest post, Tom looks at a topic right up our alley: Einstein’s thoughts about religion. The difference being that he knows what he’s talking about, having written a book on Einstein.
The Jewishness of Albert Einstein.
I’m a bit late to this particular party, but I hear that there was a bit of a media and blog hullabaloo about a letter by Albert Einstein that was auctioned last month for 170,000 pounds. That doubles the previous record for an Einstein letter, and at least part of the reason for its record price seems to have been its content — what seemed to some a startlingly blunt assessment of religion in general. He wrote:
“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”
To get down to cases close to home:
“For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.”
To be sure, he acknowledged, he was happy to identify himself as one of “the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity…” But clearly belonging to a community did not make him blind, deaf or dumb.
The reason I ignored this at first is that after fifteen years in the Einstein game I’m pretty tired of WWED appeals to authority, all that pouring through the great man’s quotations to find something to support whatever view one may have had in the first place.
The reason I’m picking it up now is that the letter raises a question that allows us with only a little leap of the imagination to begin to gather the intense pressure of the experience of being Jewish in Europe in the first few decades of the last century – especially if you were smart, prominent, public.
Just to get it out of the way: there is nothing surprising about this letter. Just five years earlier Einstein wrote that, when he was young he had experienced a bout of real piety, until:
“Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.”
That revelation remained with him throughout his life, and he never made a secret of it. He refused to claim a religious affiliation in the papers he filed with the Austro-Hungarian government to take up a professorship in Prague. Told he had to claim something, he declared he was of the “Mosaic” faith – a construction that conveyed his disdain for the whole notion pretty well, IMHO.
And so it went. In 1915, he told one correspondent that, “I see with great dismay that God punishes so many of His children for their ample folly, for which obviously only He himself can be held responsible,” …. “Only His nonexistence can excuse him.”
Those who followed this malign, non-existent deity were fools. When he visited Palestine in 1921, Einstein was much impressed by the sight of Jews constructing cities and a way of life out of raw dirt and effort. But the sight of traditional Jews praying at the Wailing Wall seemed to him the “dull-witted clansmen of our tribe.” They made such spectacles of themselves, “praying aloud, their faces turned to the wall, their bodies swaying to and fro,” that to Einstein, it was “a pathetic sight of men with a past but without a present.”
That’s enough: the point is that Einstein made it clear in public, and even more so in private communications that have been in the public record for decades now, that revealed religion in general and orthodox Judaism in particular had no hold on him at all. When he used the term God, it was mostly just an off-hand short-hand: “God does not play dice” was another way of saying, as he did in the EPR paper, that “no reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit” the excesses of modern quantum theory.
But all this begs the question why Einstein bothered to claim Jewishness, if Judaism itself as a practice and a body of belief had no hold on him.
Einstein himself gave two answers. The first was he saw in Judaism a framework and a fair amount of thought about how to live ethically with others. His take on the tradition pulled out of Judaism “the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men” and a passion for “every form of intellectual aspiration and spiritual effort.” This is religion as heuristic – and specifically, Judaism as a sustained body of inquiry into certain problems that interested him.
The second, of course, was that he had no choice. Whatever he may have believed, others defined him: “When I came to Germany,” he wrote some years later as part of an explanation for his conversion to Zionism, “I discovered for the first time that I was a Jew, and I owe this discovery more to Gentiles than to Jews.”
It was more than the casual anti-Semitism that he experienced or perceived, dating back to his failure to get an academic job after finishing his college degree. Rather, Einstein’s strong identification not just as a person of Jewish background, but as a highly public member of both the Berlin Jewish community and the nationalist Zionist movement, is one measure of just how rapidly the nature of German anti-Semitism changed in the immediate aftermath of defeat in World War I.
I go into this at some length in this tome – from which most of the above comes, in one form or another. See chapter ten if you’re interested. In this venue, I want to make just two points abstracted out of that much longer story.
First: as I suggested at the beginning of the post, any Captain Reynault response to this latest “revelation” of Einstein’s disdain for traditional faith is misplaced. Rather, it is just one more demonstration of the foolishness of the argument from authority for pretty much anything.
Second: the fact of Einstein’s Jewishness in the context of his blunt rejection of traditional Judaism offers one more reminder of contingency of the practice of science.
You can see that in this last anecdote:
On August 24, 1920 the Arbeitgemeinshaft deutcher Naturforsher zur Erhaltung reiner Wissenshaft — the Working Group of German Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Science — held a public meeting to denounce Einstein’s new physics. Nobel laureate Philip Lenard soon made the reason for such doubt explicitly, denouncing of “the alien spirit…which is so clearly seen in anything that relates to the ‘relativity theory.’”
Lenard could not make good on the (barely) implied threat then, but he (and others) did in 1933. Of course, nothing then or later could alter the significance of relativity; but German science suffered enormously, even if that abstraction “science” did not.
I don’t think, of course, that any such bald “it makes me feel bad so this science must be wrong” claims could have much pull these days.
Except of course, they do.
I began by chiding the What Would Einstein Do cult that invokes the great man in lieu of argument. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look at what Einstein did.
His resolute self-identification as Jew emerged out of his reaction to the anti-Semitism he witnessed directly. The expression of that viciousness included a direct demand to reject reason: physics could be rendered invalid by the origins of its discoverer. Einstein would therefore discover in Jewish tradition a defense of reason, and in his Jewishness he laid claim to a complementary style of thought to that of the fundamental physics he investigated.
Despite the snark above about contemporary battles, matters are different now. For me, the real value of the letter sold for such a ridiculous sum is that it reminds me of both the malevolent nearness in historical time, and (I hope, as well as think) the genuine distance we have moved from the time and place in which a public meeting could convene to denounce the religion/ethnicity of a few pages of mathematical physics.
That is: It’s not the God stuff in that letter that should catch your eye, that is, but the history to be plumbed in that little phrase, “with whose mentality I have a deep affinity.”
With that – I’m out of here.
Thanks to all who read, even more to those who commented, and most of all to my gracious host, Sean Carroll.
Image: Portrait of Einstein painted by Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, (nephew of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes), Wiki. Source: Wikimedia Commons.