Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the publication of the gravitational field equations of Albert Einstein’s general relativity. Since Einstein is my favorite Jewish icon, I want to briefly discuss his influence on my life. I will also touch on the lives of a few other Jewish icons who seem worthy of mention.
Even when we are young, we start noticing people because of their appearance, demeanor, or accomplishments in life. Something about them may strike a chord deep inside and often has no rational basis. They grab our attention and sometimes we are not sure why.
The Jewish icons who stick out to me are mavericks in some way, willing to challenge the status quo. They were creative types and trailblazers who “stood for something” and made a difference. They were not purposely antagonistic for its own sake, but they could stand alone and apart from the crowd if it were necessary in order to avoid betraying their inner compass.
Sandy Koufax was such a Jew. Holding the record when I was a boy for the most no-hitters, Koufax was the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who wouldn’t play on Yom Kippur, even in a World Series. Although not particularly observant, he was a man of principle and willing to “stand for something.” That somehow appealed to me, even as a child living in San Bernardino County.
Over the next several years, there were other Jewish icons who crossed my path. My favorite biblical character was Elijah the Tishbite because he challenged unscrupulous authority and exposed the hypocrisy of lying prophets. Also, he had a really nice flying chariot, which seemed to anticipate flying machines of the future.
I also highly respected Zionist leaders and the heroism that produced the modern state of Israel. Strangely, I idolized both David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, two people who at times antagonized each other and yet in their own unique ways were both central to the Zionist story.
Einstein was particularly harsh on the Irgun in his letter to the New York Times because of the King David Hotel incident. I’ll have to agree with Einstein on this one. Recklessly endangering civilians is never justified, because of the possibility of human error, even if people are notified in plenty of time to get to safety. The British unfortunately were a stubborn bunch. Begin should have had a better feel for the British mentality.
Begin accurately pointed out, however, that terrorists and freedom fighters are differentiated in that terrorists deliberately target civilians. He further argued that the Irgun was not guilty of terrorism because it tried to avoid civilian casualties by warning the hotel 27 minutes prior to the explosion.
In the same way, Netanyahu in 2006 challenged Hamas and Hezbollah to call potential targets well ahead of time as the Irgun did in 1946 so Jews could get out of harm’s way. Of course, Hamas and Hezbollah never have because they are true terrorist organizations specifically targeting Jewish civilians.
I know that I’m dating myself by my choice of popular icons, but Mel Brooks has to be on this short list. The first time that I saw his movies, to say that I laughed until my side hurt would be an understatement. I laughed until I couldn’t breathe. Genius comes in so many forms.
I don’t necessarily agree with everything that Baruch de Espinoza said, but he certainly was a Jewish original. Einstein admired him and everyone would have to admit that he had chutzpah. Unfortunately, the Talmud Torah congregation of Amsterdam issued a writ of cherem against Baruch de Espinoza in 1656 when he was only 23. They proclaimed, “By the decree of the angels…we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of all the Holy Congregation… the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel…”
Ouch! They didn’t even give him a chance to grow out of it. They just threw him out because they considered him dangerous. Really? Catholic priests molesting children, as documented in the new movie, Spotlight, would be dangerous. A young Jew trying to understand an infinite God? Not so much.
Hey, we all evolve and change with time. Having eaten only meat stamped “kosher” for more than 20 years, I have some feel for observance. Also, having regularly attended synagogue for 30 years, I can sense how being excommunicated by shul friends would have been horribly painful for Espinoza. They couldn’t even give the young fellow time to find his way.
Like Espinoza, Jesus the Nazarene was a Jew whom other Jews loved to hate. Admittedly, he was not God. And he didn’t fulfill all of the prophecies concerning the Messiah. But, although his messianic resume was incomplete, he was a fiery Jewish revolutionary who for two thousand years has remained a popular icon among the nations of the world and will, no doubt, continue to give meaning to Christians long after Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Bob Dylan, or even Marilyn Monroe, a convert to Judaism, lose their attraction. When a planet uses your birthday as a starting point for its calendar, you’ve definitely made an impact.
Although for most of the last two thousand years we probably would have been willing for Jesus to be a Greek or a Palestinian, contrary to what Mahmoud Abbas often says and Jeremiah Wright said on October 10, Jesus was not a Palestinian. A person using Google can come up with some very interesting quotes in this regard, written by witnesses who claimed to have personally known him.
Matthew 2:1 says he was born in Bethlehem of “Judea.” John 4:9 specifically calls Jesus a “Jew,” which meant that he was a member of the tribe of Judah, from which Judea got its name. After all, Yehudi comes from the word Yehuda. In a book sometimes characterized as anti-Semitic, Jesus said in John 4:22 (KJV) that “salvation is of the Jews.” Interesting. Tell that to Mahmoud Abbas and Jeremiah Wright.
Have you ever been in a shopping mall and gone into one of those T-shirt or poster stores? If so, you saw Albert Einstein there right along with the likes of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Marlon Brando. Usually the likeness is one of his later bushy-haired photos when he perhaps was sticking his tongue out at generations to come.
Time magazine called Einstein the man of the century. Fields of inquiry as diverse as atomic energy, black holes, quantum mechanics, electronics, the evolution of the universe, GPS, lasers, etc., were all impacted by him. An imperfect icon, he was sometimes unkind to his first wife, Mileva, and ended up getting a divorce and marrying his cousin. He always did it his way.
Einstein is my favorite Jewish icon because of his brash independence and originality. Although living his life in the world of objective thought, his influence permeates society. Although Einstein would, no doubt, have avoided doing so and would have disagreed with me, no human thinker, in my opinion, did more to show that certain dreams of science fiction and even religion are theoretically possible from a scientific point of view.
Because of Einstein’s equations, we would someday learn about the development of the universe after the first instant of creation, speculate about interdimensional entities jumping through hoops of warped space-time called Einstein-Rosen bridges, or learn of the existence of a singularity where the entire future of the universe might theoretically be perceived in an infinitely small period of time.
For a thousand years, scientists will continue to find applications for Einstein’s equations. The scientific method involves making predictions and then testing those predictions through experimentation. False theories are subsequently discarded. So far, Einstein’s relativity has always been substantiated. Biblical prophets were vindicated when their prophecies came to pass. So far, the predictions of relativity have never failed.
Einstein brought a sense of childlike wonder, awe, and mystery to science that has inspired generations of scientists. But he called his relationship to other Jews his “strongest human bond.” Although he belongs to all mankind and to the ages, in a very special and intimate way, he belongs to us.
Those are a few of the many reasons that Albert Einstein is my favorite Jewish icon.
Yoeli’s Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.
You may write to Eli Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org