Guest Post: Tom Levenson on Einstein, Religion, and Jewishness

By Sean Carroll | June 6, 2008 9:11 am

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.

Many thanks to Tom for chipping in this week. His previous posts are here and here, and don’t forget the Inverse Square Blog.


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.

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  • mks

    Gr8 post! Thx 4 it.

    And the revealing quote sums up it all. “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.”


  • mks

    “Only His nonexistence can excuse him.”

  • Barry

    It should be no surprise that Einstein spurned the religious aspects of Judaism but embraced it culturally. Most Jews, at least in the US I gather, view Judaism akin as a nationality, akin to being Italian, Irish, British, etc. Ask a stranger you just meet what their background is and they will respond “I’m Polish”, “I’m Italian”, and usually if they are Jewish they’ll say “I’m Jewish”. This response reflects their affinity with the cultural rather than the religious aspects of Judaism.

  • Xenophage

    raised their hands to signal that they did not believe in evolution

    Our rancid government doesn’t believe in thermodynamics, either – hence lethal fuel and food crises barely hatched. Einstein denied quantum mechanics. Einstein ceased to be a productive scientist after 1930. How big is a Great Dane puppy at birth?

    Judaism is virtuous and insular, placing it at double disadvantage against multi-level marketing schemes. That it respects scholarship is damning – the world is about quantity not quality, about today not tomorrow, about gluttony not ascetism. Judiasm as religion is as whacked out as any other faith-based initiative.

    Einstein would therefore discover in Jewish tradition a defense of reason

    Universities facing an unending flood of hyper-qualified Asians plus forced free entry of diversity manure have pragmatically abandoned anti-Semitism. The Janus of revulsion has ceded its middle ground to situational ethics. No pressure, no diamonds.

  • Celestial Toymaker

    Einstein’s identification of himself as a Jew was a mirror image of his friend Fritz Haber’s rigid assimilationist tendencies, which led him to convert to Christianity and espouse Prussian-style nationalism during the First World War.

    Haber’s discovery of a method for industrial production of ammonia freed Germany from Chilean supplies and enabled not only the production of nitrate fertilisers, but also explosives for munitions.
    Haber was also prepared to work on producing and testing Chlorine gas in the trenches, if it would help Germany win the war.
    His wife’s disagreements with his actions, led to her suicide.

    But it did Haber no good.
    Just before his pension was due he was driven from his university post.
    Forced to leave Germany, he was preparing to get a job at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem when he died.
    The same University which Einstein helped create as a possible refuge for the Jewish scientists being denied jobs in Germany.

    Einstein had come under attack from German Nationalists in the early 1920′s.
    The accusations were similar to those which appear in the murky regions of the internet today.

    See also here:

    Hitler, the shadowy propagandist Paul Weyland and Nobel Prize Winner Philip Lenard began a campaign against “Jewish Science” and for “Deutsche Physik”
    Relativity was the main target and Einstein was accused of plagiarism – an accusation picked up by Henry Ford’s “Deaborn Independent”
    These attacks, which Einstein initially took with amusement, increasingly led him to identify himself culturally as a Jew.

    In reality, Einstein may have been somewhat politically naive and idealistic.
    But he was very far from being nationally chauvinistic, or accepting religious dogma, as all his actions during the subsequent period showed.

    In the immediate post-war period, Weyland re-surfaced in the USA, to which he was granted an entry visa.
    In 1953, he began to make accusations against Einstein to Herbert Hoover, who had already recommended Einstein not be employed on state projects in 1940.
    The accusations led to an investigation and 1500 page FBI dossier.
    In 1954, Weyland and his wife were given US citizeship.

    Weyland’s story is here:

    See also Walter Isaacson: “Einstein, his Life and Universe”, Chapter 13

  • Plato

    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.’”

    Still goes on.

  • sn

    I read when I was a kid that when Einstein heard about the hundred “scientists” against him, his reaction was that
    “if I was wrong, one would have sufficed” or “one fact would have sufficed”.

    Pretty cool, huh?

  • LHC Master

    This is off-topic, but congratulations Sean on making it to the BBC !

    Now, I will proceed to read the paper :)

  • http://ReRamsden Ray

    I suspect that for many of us, most religions would be fine if we could just get God out if them.

  • wolfgang

    > he began to make accusations against Einstein to Herbert Hoover

    I assume you mistake Herbert Hoover with Jay E. Hoover.

  • dm

    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”

    I’ve read the old testament several times, but I would never summarize it by using phrases like “democratic ideals” and “social justice” and “mutual aid and tolerance among all men”.

    “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.”

    If you substitute “american indian” for “jew”, you might get something like this: “When I came to New York, I discovered for the first time that I was an american indian, and I owe this discovery more to the White Man than to the indians.” The indians claim to their land is only 150 years old (not 2000 years), but they never did get their own country again. Maybe they will 2000 years from now. Or maybe they’ll assimilate, like most other cultures…

  • Sam Cox

    I noticed on several occasions that Sean objected to the use of the word “God” in scientific discussion. His reasons are obvious. Using the word “God” is like using the word “love”, “tolerence” or any other general concept, because what we mean exactly when we use those words must be qualified in some way.

    Belief in God is not some kind of a philosophical home base…there are 6 billion people in the world and there are 6 billion slightly- or greatly- different ideas of what “God” exactly might be. I was raised to believe that tolerence of other people and their views is important and good, however I have heard other people expound on the notion that tolerence is some kind of an unpardonable sin. Engineers speak of tolerences all the time- and find different semantic meaning in that word.

    Einstein had his own personal ideas about what “God” might be.

    From what I have learned about him I feel Einstein’s ideas about diety changed profoundly during his life. We might assume (foolishly I think) that the views Einstein expressed about diety later in his life are necessarily the more philosophically mature.

    Actually, the holocaust and Einsteins guilt over having some part in the development of nuclear weapons, as well as his disillusionment about the mixed way his work (and he, himself) was received, both by the public and the scientific community during the latter 40′s and early 50′s all probably soured any positve perception he may have had about the notion of “God” earlier in his life.

    Einstein was not a theologian. However, studying Einstein’s theological perspective is very instructive, because Einstein was reasonably open and very curious throughout his life. I don’t subscribe to the notion that scientifically, Einstein’s career ended at age 30…just because his quest for unification was unsuccesful, for example.

    Rather I think we should remember the horror of that era…his renounciation of German citizenship, his forced departure from his homeland, and the fact that he had many very “heavy” matters weighing on his mind besides science.

    Einstein made no pretense about being an authority on theology, but like most of the rest of us, he did not hesitate to share his (evolving) thoughts on the matter. I think the fact that he did is good, and his religious ideas do reflect the skepticism and openess to a variety of possibilities which characterize the scientifically inclined.

  • John R Ramsden

    Einstein wrote:

    “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,”

    This is simply restating the age-old question of why God allows bad things to happen, to which a theologian could write chapter and verse (and many doubtless have!) in reply.

    Several answers suggest themselves, even to an ignorant agnostic such as myself. For a start, if all badness was prohibited then we’d be like clockwork toys in a clockwork universe, with no freedom or choice, or even consciousness to think bad thoughts.

    Also God (if he exists) must consider not only today, but future generations. What is bad now, like earthquakes and volcanoes and floods, which may kill thousands now, will benefit life in the future by creating fertile land. In fact without these there would be no land – We’d all be two miles underwater if all land was washed flat and there was no plate tectonics to push up more.

    In the same vein, perhaps some bad things are best brought to a head, or the foolishness of human decisions made plain, where delays might make their consequences even worse.

    For example, a major cause of WW1 (which Einstein was lamenting in the above quote) was the interlocked system of alliances. I don’t know the exact details; but the inevitable consequence, stemming from a trivial start, was a domino effect or escalation where each country in turn mobilized in response to an adversary threatening one of its allies.

    But imagine WW 1 or 2 with nuclear weapons (or in the case of WW 2 *more* nukes). Suppose Adolf had laid his hands on them first – There’s no doubt he’d have used dozens if he could, and probably won!

    Finally (and this is ammo for fighting anti-evolutionists on their own ground), there’s a curious, seemingly redundant, phrase in the account of creation [Genesis ch 1, v 10] “.. and God saw that it was good”.

    Assuming the word “saw” is not a loose translation of something more precise like “ensured” (unlikely, as the translators were, in their own words, diligent), that suggests it wasn’t a foregone conclusion. In other words, God chose not to foresee all aspects of creation, as one assumes he could had he desired, and therefore this was and still is an experiment!

  • Celestial Toymaker

    #11 “I assume you mistake Herbert Hoover with Jay E. Hoover.”

    Whoops! Yes, of course, it was J.Edgar

  • fh

    JRRamsden, indeed it is the theodicy problem in theology, libraries have been filled with purported answers to this, and yet none of them seem even remotely sufficient once you truly realize the scope of the problem.

    You don’t just need to justify that evil can exist in the face of a good god, but that every single last minute detail of evil that exists is being allowed. You don’t just need to argue that the Holocaust was for the greater good in the end for future generations, you need to argue that the same good could not have been achieved if a single additional child had survived.

    In the end these arguments always return to “God is mysterious and it’s really complicated so better don’t question it, as we have no way of understanding how this is good for us in the end.”

  • Lawrence Crowell

    One quote which I think is most telling is:

    ” … coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.”

    In recent times the telling of lies by the state, bald faced lies told without any apparent sense of shame by a government which is supposed to be a “democracy,” has reached dimensions paralleled by Bismarkian Germany or the corrupt Austro-Hungarian aristocrats. An example of youth being told lies is seen with the military recruiters in high schools peddling this war based on fraud.

    The virtues of Judaism lie in part with its historical status as a minority religion. I suspect that if historical circumstances had been different and Judaism swept a portion of the world it would culturally be similar to Islam. It would not have inculcated the sense of social justice which has marked the culture of Judaism in modern times. The God of the Torah is not a particularly “nice guy,” and even calls himself jealous. YHWH in fact calls for the extermination of the “Jebusite, Hittites, Perizites, … with no mercy. The gift Judaism imparted to the world is the idea that the world exists in categories, as can be seen in the creation story. There the central Judaic concept of kodesh or separation can be seen in that the world is created in dualistic or distinct categories — light from dark, dry land from sea and so forth. The next crucial element is the idea that God operates by law, which we humans must obey, and with the implication that so too the world also obeys “laws.” So the 10 commendments in addition to the Leviticus, Deuteronomic “Mosaic code” of 613 laws comes the idea that God is not purely whimsical or fickle —- though the story of Job examines this bit with some criticality. The add to this considerable tempering necessary for a minority religion and the result has been a fairly religio-cultural thread which has a measure of learnedness.

    It is likely for this reason that the proportion of Jewish intellectuals is remarkably high, and why two of the 20th centuries most luminary scientists, Einstein and Feynman, were Jews. The catalyst for getting the Jewish intellect moving came after Napolean when Jews began to leave the Stetls. I reject any notion of there being a genetic basis for this, but Christianity is a majority religion and in a triumphal sense proclaims itself as “inerrant and true,” declaring its revealed truths supereme over all. These is a relative paucity of southern Baptists who become great thinkers.

    The problem with all religions is that they propose a “top-down” system of cosmology. Laws or rules are derived from the top, and handed down. We hapless humans are meant to obey, with various agricultural analogues given through the bible. Science has taught us that if there is some heirarchy to the physical world, say a heirarchy based on complexity, that things are more bottom-up. A more accurate view might be that all heirarchies are in some ways subjective and really fundamentally don’t even exist. In “da-mix” of this of course is Charles Darwin, the devil incarnate to many religious folks, who told us that life was interrelated. We appear to have outgrown the need for religous ideas about things, just as children outgrow Santa Clause.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • –PatF in Madison

    There is another interesting anecdote about Einstein and his dismissiveness of religion. In 1912, Einstein was a professor in Prague but was going to move back to Zurich for another position. He recommended as his successor Paul Ehrenfest who was, at that time, desperately searching for a job. However, it seems that Ehrenfest’s wife was Christian, he was Jewish and the laws of the Empire forbade marriages between the religions. They got around that by renouncing all religious affiliations. When Ehrenfest ran into the religion requirement of the Empire, he refused to choose one.

    Einstein wrote to him:

    “I am frankly annoyed that you have this caprice of being without religious affiliation; give it up for your children’s sake. Besides, once you are a professor here, you can go back to this curious whim again – and it is only necessary for a little while.”

    Once again, Einstein indicates here that religion was simply not worth discussing.

    The Ehrenfest job search did not end in Prague. He later got a position at Leiden which did not require a religion.

    (The quote is found on page 59 of:
    Segre, Gino, _Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics_, Penguin Books, New York, 2008)

  • Robillard

    Well he may have a been a clever ‘cultural’ jewish atheist, but he didn’t have the courage to admit it – could’ve stopped a lot of bloodshed if he had. Maybe they woulda had him shot, but ..well…OK

  • Erik

    Boooooring! Why post this at all? Who cares what religion Einstein DIDN’t belong to? What matters is what he contributed to the world, all else is just humanistic crap!

  • Phil

    As a philosophy student and avid logician I could not help but notice this small mistake in what was an otherwise splendid article:

    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.

    To beg the question means to assume the truth of a conclusion in the premise on argument or alternatively to assume a proposition in an argument which is not obvious. It does not mean “to raise the question” which I surmise is your intended meaning here.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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