Elchanan Poupko

Einstein’s Judaism Matters More Than His Faith

Albert Einstein, at home in Princeton, New Jersey, June, 1954. (AP Photo, File)

Einstein was by far the greatest scientist of the 21st century and history as a whole. Space travel, GPS, laser beams, nuclear energy, supercomputers, science fiction, and so much for the world of medicine have changed because of him. In fact, it is very difficult to know what we would have today had Einstein not taken the world of science forward the way he had.

Einstein’s name became synonymous with genius, and he is a celebrity to this day. There are hundreds of books about him; his name has become synonymous with genius, and he is the archetype for the absent-minded brilliant professor. And yet—like the Jewish people—Einstein was extraordinarily particular in his Judaism, which helped make him so universal. As Rabbi Sacks like to say, “non-Jews are proud of Jews who are proud of their Judaism and embarrassed by Jews who are ashamed of their Judaism.” Einstein was a proud Jew like few others in his place, and in ways that are often underappreciated. As we go through his life, his Judaism surfaces in many very different ways. This begins with his very early childhood. 

Einstein was born to a secular Jewish family in 1876 in Ulm, Germany. When he was five years old and sick at home, his father gave him a gift that would change the world forever—a compass. Young Albert was fascinated by the compass. This would be the distinguishing mark of Einstein’s work throughout his life. Whether it was being good at explaining his discoveries to the masses, using thought experiments rather than pen and paper, or discovering relativity while staring at the clock tower in Bern, Switzerland, Einstein’s genius was a contrast between imagining the impossible and looking at the tangible.

Einstein’s parents sent him to a Catholic school, and since Bavarian law required education in his own faith, his parents hired one of his cousins as a Hebrew tutor. It is fascinating to note that at the time he was 10, Einstein was deeply religious and almost fully orthodox. He had a deeply religious soul, wrote hymns to Hashem, and yearned to grow his spirituality.

Interestingly, when reading Euclid, some say while seeking a way to reconcile science and religion, at the age of twelve, Einstein decided religion was not for him.

There are two lessons to see here: one is to never underestimate the impact of Jewish education on a child. Yes, Einstein eventually left organized religion. Yet when comparing his extraordinary devotion to the Jewish people throughout his life and contrasting it with his Jewish peers who either converted to Christianity or hid their Judaism, it is hard to say his Jewish education made no difference to him.

Another point I heard from the historian Henry Abramson is that sometimes—such as in Einstein’s case— a bad attempt to reconcile science and religion causes more damage than good.  

Throughout his teen years, Einstein distinguished himself with his imagining and thought experiments. And here there is a powerful lesson about delegation. Throughout some of his greatest discoveries, Einstein knew what he was good at and what he was not. Sometimes, he delegated some of the math or even the actual experiment to those who did it better than him. He always kept his mind on the bigger picture. Interestingly, while he was a child, a Jewish medical student named Max Talmud lived with his family, the way Yeshiva students also used to live with families, and little Albert loved reading his science magazines.

Due to his family’s financial difficulties, they moved to Italy and then to Switzerland, where Einstein eventually ended up at the polytechnic in Zurich.

Interestingly, already in 1896, Einstein renounced his German citizenship because of how much he deplored Germany’s militaristic, war-minded, and nationalistic nature. Einstein was stateless for five years.

It is through these years that some of Einstein’s teachers spoke ill of him and his laziness as he showed little interest in subjects he was not good at. It was also a time Einstein felt truly terrible about himself. Einstein said he was only a burden on his family and that “it would have been better had he not been born”—a powerful case of never giving up and always hoping for a better future. It may also help explain his humility later in life.

After graduating, Einstein famously had a hard time getting a job. From 1902-1908 he worked a low-level bureaucratic job in a patent office in Zurich. There is no question that, in some way, this downgrade is what enabled some of his freest and greatest thinking. Judaism teaches us that sometimes the greatest light comes out of the greatest darkness, and that is exactly what happened. Riding the bus home, he looked at the clock tower and asked himself what would happen if the trolly went at the speed of light, how time would stop there and continue moving for him. It is how we know that if someone goes to space-time will go slower for them.

 It was during this time that Einstein made his greatest discoveries. 1905 is also called the year of miracles for him. This was the year he published three of his greatest papers, all while working as a patent bureaucrat.

Interestingly, the Nobel prize and Einstein are almost a case of a mismatch. When Einstein got his Nobel prize in physics in 1921, it was given to him for his discoveries in quantum mechanics and not for his theories of time and relativity, which were much harder to prove.

Einstein received several promotions, became a professor in Zurich, and in 1913 was inticed to move back to the Kaiser Institute in the University of Berlin.

In 1920, as pogroms and many hardships led Jewish refugees to flee Eastern Europe to Germany, Einstein worked tirelessly to help those secure visas and academic positions. While some German Jews or Jews in academia

In 1921 Einstein embarked on his first visit to America, where he was greeted as a true celebrity. Thousands waited to greet him, and Einstein went on to visit the White House and America’s most prestigious institutions.

Einstein spoke alongside Weitzman on the 67th Street Armory in New York City. Eight thousand people stood inside, and another 3000 stood outside. While many Jews were enthusiastic about Einstein and his Zionism, the more established Jewish community resented it and even reserved for him the derisive term “Ostyud,” a condescending term used to describe Eastern European Jews. 

To make things worse, Einstein asked for $15,000 a speech (today close to $250,000) while agreeing to speak for the Zionist cause and the Hebrew University for free. Felix Frankfurter, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, and Louis Brandeis worked together to thwart the success of his visit. “I am not keen on going to America, but am just doing it on behalf of the Zionists,” he even wrote. 

With antisemitism and Nazism on the rise, most Jews in America and Germany believed in the need to “lower profile.” Some even converted to Christianity. Due to both his Jewishness and his devout liberalism, Einstein was the exact opposite. The more antisemitism he saw, the more Jewish and Zionist he became. Einstein’s support for Zionism was seen negatively by many in the American Jewish establishment. 

His visit to America highlighted the vast differences between Einstein and the American Jewish establishment. Einstein ignored the establishement, and went on to speak in major Jewish communities about the importance of Zionism. During this visit, he said that he had “discovered the Jewish people.”

Judge Brandies famously wrote in a personal letter at the time of Einstein’s visit: “The Zionist [clash] was inevitable. It was one resulting from differences in standards. The Easterners—like many Russian Jews in this country—don’t know what honesty is & we simply won’t entrust our money to them. Weizmann does know what honesty is—but weakly yields to his numerous Russian associates. Hence the split.”

To the dismay of the American Jewish establishment, Einstein insisted on charging hefty sums for his lectures at universities while agreeing to speak for the Zionist cause for free.

 In 1923 Einstein headed over to visit Israel. The primary goal was to advance the building of his friend Chaim Weizman’s Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus. So much about this visit captures the discussion of what Einstein’s Judaism meant back then, yet it is so relevant today. On the one hand, Einstein, when visiting the Western Wall, made highly critical remarks about the orthodox population of the city, the dependence on charity money, the those who he felt were clinging too much to the past. On the other hand, he was there when his colleagues and more equivalent friends would never have come. This is a lesson for us as we sometimes hear from Jews who disagree with us on some issues but don’t take into account that the very fact that they are in the conversation might be an astonishing thing. 

 It would be his only visit to Israel. Einstein met with Lord Herbert Samuel, visited Jewish schools, and met with Chief Rabbi Kook. While meeting and in a letter that is available online, Rabbi Kook was excited to share with Einstein that the theory of relativity is well grounded in Kabbalah. 

Einstein then went to visit Tel Aviv where he felt much better and much more comfortable. When being given honorary residency to the city, he said he received the same honor from the city of New York, yet receiving it in Tel Aviv makes him “10 times happier”. 

“I know of no public event,” he told The New York Times, “that has given me such pleasure as the proposal to establish a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The traditional respect for knowledge that Jews have maintained intact through many centuries of severe hardship has made it particularly painful for us to see so many talented sons of the Jewish people cut off from higher education.”

When the Nazis took power in 1933, Einstein was in the UK. Later, the nazis robbed all of his property and then took away his citizenship. Several countries offered him citizenship, but he ended up taking American citizenship and keeping his Swiss citizenship. It is interesting to note that he never set foot again in Germany and said he had no interest in interacting with Germany again. 

As the war progressed, once again, the Jewish side of Einstein came out in a way that few knew about. Einstein pushed every bit of influence he had to get Jewish academic visas and help get Jews out of Nazi Germany. One of the requirements of immigration was to have $2000 in a bank account. Einstein created as many accounts with this amount as he possibly could and convinced others to do the same. He did everything he could to get German Jews academic positions in the US.

“Even while still in Europe, during a final 1933 stay in Belgium, Löwenthal had complained that the Einsteins’ temporary home had turned into “an asylum for the unfortunate, invaded from morning to night by people who need help.”

“Einstein personally petitioned for so many refugees that, by the end of the 1930s, his once-influential signature at the bottom of an affidavit had ceased to carry weight. Beyond the visa race, he toured the fundraising circuit for Zionist institutions, refugee groups, and other Jewish causes. He graced daises at dinners, fiddled in benefit concerts, and donated his books and manuscripts for auction.

During the time of the war, Princeton’s Jewish population was controlled by quotas and was at less than 5% (“25 Jews into each 750-man class. Less than a decade earlier, in 1938 and 1939, incoming Princeton freshmen asked in a survey to name the “greatest living person” had ranked Einstein second. Adolf Hitler was first, both years)”. Jewish students were afraid to tell people they were Jewish.

Einstein helped establish the University’s first Jewish student society. He attended their first Shabbat service and dined with the Jewish students who were not yet sent out to military service on Passover. Students noted that he observed along with them the rituals and text of the entire traditional Seder. And so, Einstein, the anti-nationalist who opposed organized religion and despised unbridled nationalism, also knew vividly he was Jewish in the clearest way possible. It is noteworthy that early in his life when asked to write what religion he belonged to, he left it blank, but by the time he got married, he insisted on writing that he was Jewish. 

One of Einstein’s most famous sentences was to say: “What the individual can do is give a fine example and have the courage to firmly uphold ethical convictions in a society of cynics.” Einstein did not just say it; he lived up to it. Einstein upheld his convictions by denouncing both Senator Joseph McCarthy and Joseph Stalin at the height of their powers; he championed the rights of African Americans in the heyday of Jim Crow. Many people don’t know that in the 1950s, Einstein was constantly supervised and even intimidated by the FBI. Politicians that did not like what he had to say used the FBI to monitor and even try to intimidate Einstein—to no avail. Einstein was a man who did not shy away from taking a strong moral stance on public issues. This leads us to the issue of the nuclear bomb. 

Some criticize Einstein for the use of the nuclear bomb in Japan. Without getting into the debate on the US decision about Japan, it is important to note that Einstein did not write the famous letter to president Roosevelt asking him to build the bomb. It was his friend, the Jewish physicist Leo Szilard who asked him to sign on. Einstein knew that German scientists might be trying to build one too. 

It is important to note Einstein’s friendship with Fritz Haber cannot be ignored. Another Jew who was close with Einstein and helped him mediate some of his marital troubles. Haber received the Nobel prize in 1918 but should never have received it. Haber converted to Christianity, and when WWI broke out, he was happy to help Germany use his invention to produce mass-destruction chemical weapons.

Shortly after the Holocaust, Rabbi Robert Marcus from Jersey City was deployed at the infamous Buchenwald camp. In his days doing the sacred work of rehabilitating the most tortured and emaciated people he had ever seen, and while missing his own family, he wrote to Einstein, asking him for guidance. 

Einstein wrote back to Rabbi Marcus:

“A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion….”

Einstein always saw the beauty in humanity and how we are all part of something so much greater and more profound than us. We are each a universe to ourselves, but we are also all connected. 

Einstein continued to champion Jews in the face of persecution, especially in the field of academia. In 1945 Einstein sent a letter to Dr. Samuel Belkin commending him on the establishment of a Jewish medical school. Dr. Belkin then asked him to have the school named for him, and Einstein agreed. 

 In 1946, the Albert Einstein Foundation for Higher Learning, Inc. was established in order to raise funds for the founding of a “university without quotas…where no barriers exist because of race, sex, color, or creed.” This University was to be “a Jewish contribution to American education” and “a great school where democracy is enhanced through its practice.” 

Einstein famously said: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” We will never know what exactly Einstein thought of every part of religion, but we will always know what a proud Jew he was. When Israel’s first president died, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion offered Einstein to be next. It says a lot that he donated his writings to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and that he died while on his way to write a speech for Israel’s day of Independence. Einstein was the ultimate universalist—yet he loved the Jewish people with all of his heart and soul. Almost more importantly: he never tried to hide that. Einstein always stood proudly and openly as a Jew, no matter how convenient or inconvenient it was. 

So did Einstein believe in God or not? To the Jewish people, that question should not matter, the same way the question of whether Raoul Wallenberg believed in God or not. It does not change the good that he did. Einstein put himself out to save Jews under difficult circumstances, took pride in his Judaism, and was there for others no matter what. He was never shy about who he was and never stood idly by from helping his brethren.

(The article is based on my notes for my lecture series “Jews of the Nobel” given in Park East Synagogue, New York).

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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