Young Albert received his first exposure to religion in a local Munich Catholic elementary school. It seemed an appropriate choice to his proudly secular parents, Hermann and Pauline, who had rejected the Jewish rituals of their ancestors as outdated superstitions—that is, until their son seemed rather too influenced by Catholic religious instruction.
A distant relative was then hired to tutor Albert in Judaism—again, to a far stronger effect than anticipated. He became fervently religious and started keeping kosher.
This stage ended abruptly at age 12, when a poor Jewish medical student, Max Talmud (later Dr. Max Talmey), whom his parents hosted for weekly dinners, gave popular science books to the boy which introduced him to the Positivist critique of religion (the notion that the only authentic, “positive” knowledge is that which can be verified by observation and experiment). The books characterized Judaism and Christianity as belief systems operating largely on fear of God’s punishment. Young Einstein suddenly saw a punishing God as a dishonest trick played on children to scare them into obedience. He also came to believe that the miracles in the Bible conflicted with scientific knowledge and therefore could not be true. It was, he later wrote, a “shattering experience,” which led him to distrust all religious authority, as symbolized by his refusing to have a bar mitzvah. Instead, he turned to scientific inquiry “to free myself from the chains of the ‘merely-personal,’ from an existence which is dominated by wishes, hopes, and primitive feelings. Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of human beings and stands before us like a great, eternal riddle….The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation, and I soon noticed that many a man whom I had learned to esteem and to admire had found inner freedom and security in devoted occupation with it” (Albert Einstein: Philosopher Scientist).
One such man he grew to admire was the 17th-century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. A man of the Age of Reason, Spinoza asserted that everything of importance could be proven, including truths concerning the existence of God (who, he believed, was identical to Nature), human psychology, and ethics. Spinoza openly rejected the divinity and literal truth of the Bible. While in his time Spinoza was regarded by most Christians and Jews as an “infamous atheist,” centuries later the romantic poet Novalis called him a “God intoxicated man.” Einstein identified so strongly with Spinoza, he wrote what may be the only poem in praise of Spinoza—“To Spinoza’s Ethic.” The first verse reads: How I love that noble man / More than I can say with words. / Though I’m afraid he’ll have to stay all alone / Him with his shining halo.
Einstein’s own views caused storms of protest reminiscent of those surrounding his hero: Was the scientist a religious believer or a confirmed atheist? Einstein endeavored to find a congenial point between the polar opposites of Positivism and traditional religion. Whereas Spinoza’s spirituality was grounded in what was knowable, Einstein’s was inspired by the mystery and wonder of what he did not know—the reality beyond human understanding. As he wrote at the age of 50 in his “credo” Mein Weltbilt, “My World View” (1930):
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed….A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and this alone, I am a deeply religious man (Ideas and Opinions).
In a sense, Einstein’s approach to God reflected the classic talmudic notion of yirat shamayim, “awe of heaven.” While most of us may feel awe when gazing at a grand vista, or a star-filled sky on a clear dark night, Einstein’s awe extended beyond what he could see to the awesome power behind it. While traditional Jews studied the books of the Torah, Einstein studied the book of nature, sustained by the experience of “cosmic religious feeling” emanating from the natural world.
Einstein believed that a religious outlook was essential to living a good life: “The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy, but hardly fit for life” (Ideas and Opinions). Although he rejected the notion of “a God who rewards and punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves,” he stated that belief in a personal God is “preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook on life.”
Still, some religious leaders dismissed Einstein as an atheist. How, they asked, does his notion of “cosmic religious feeling” translate to moral action, to the observance of ethical commandments? “Who would lay his life down for the Milky Way?” chided the American Catholic leader Fulton J. Sheen (later to become bishop and one of the first popular television personalities). Sheen quipped that the “s” should be removed from Einstein’s “cosmical religion” (Einstein and Religion by Max Jammer).
Einstein did eventually change his position on the relationship between religion and ethics. In 1930, influenced by both Positivistic thinking on the separation of ethics and religion and academic Western philosophy, he argued that a person with cosmic religious feeling “has no use for the religion of fear and equally little for social or moral religion.…A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.” In a similar vein, Einstein declared, “There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair.” But nine years later, Einstein rejected the Positivist conception of ethics: “Scientific method can teach us nothing beyond how facts are related to and conditioned by each other.…One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is and yet not be able to deduce from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations.…Intelligence makes clear to us the interrelation of means and ends. But mere thinking cannot give us a sense of ultimate and fundamental ends. [This is] precisely the most important function which religion has to perform in the social life of man.…The highest principles…are given to us in the Jewish-Christian religious tradition” (Ideas and Opinions).
Einstein also came to regard religious values as a bulwark holding back humanity from a descent into barbarism. Most likely, the ascent of Nazism influenced his change of heart—just as the rising tide of antisemitism in Germany and in the Arab world led him to fervently support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
A hero to the Jewish people because of his celebrity status as a scientist, Einstein was offered many honors, including the presidency of Hebrew University, Brandeis University, and even (in 1952) the State of Israel. He declined all. In a letter expressing his regrets for not accepting Israel’s presidency, Einstein described himself as being “unsuited to fulfill the duties of that high office.” He concluded with the affirmation: “My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation in the world.”
Later in Einstein’s life, his scientific explorations reflected his religious thinking, particularly in his quest for a Unified Field Theory that would encompass matter, gravity (which his general theory of relativity covers), and electromagnetism. This pursuit, explained Jewish philosopher and historian of science Émil Meyerson, was similar to the sense of wonder a scientist experiences in discovering underlying unity in nature: that the same atoms underlie living and inanimate matter, and that living creatures which appear very different share the same basic DNA (even if it is structured differently).
Just as the kabbalists believe that “all is one” and the Shema prayer affirms that a fundamental force unites all things (Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One, Deuteronomy 6:7), Einstein, to his dying day, sought to discover a unifying principle of the universe.
Einstein was under no illusion that he had come close to a solution, but his awe of nature and its order, as well as his endeavors to understand its great mysteries, never waned.
William Berkson is director of the Jewish Institute for Youth and Family; author of Fields of Force: The Development of a World View from Faraday to Einstein (Routledge 1974) as well as Pirkei Avot: Timeless Wisdom for Modern Life (Jewish Publication Society, 2010); and a member of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia.