One degree of separation to Einstein

Not only did Einstein call his relationship to other Jews his “strongest human bond,” he also practiced Judaism for a while as a child. Although he did not come from a particularly religious family, he went through an intensely religious phase when he was about 11 years old. For instance, he would not eat pork, in accordance with Jewish tradition. Also, he composed religious songs to God and sang them on his way to school.

(U.S.S. Enterprise with sailors spelling out Einstein's Equation -- Wikimedia Commons)
(U.S.S. Enterprise with sailors spelling out Einstein’s equation — Wikimedia Commons)

Even as a child Einstein was inspired by thoughts that imparted some sense of awe and mystery. Judaism provided that awe and mystery then. Physics would later do the same.

As Judaism once provided Einstein a link to God when he was a child, physics eventually took its place as the conduit to at least something remotely resembling God in the mind of Einstein. That something was truth. Physics is the study of reality at its most basic and profound level. In my opinion, that’s why Einstein loved physics so much. It represented the “mysterious truth” that religious people traditionally seek in God.

Einstein said, “Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” There you have it. Or so it would seem. But Einstein had a more nuanced attitude toward God than may be readily apparent from a casual reading of just one quote.

Although Einstein did not believe in a personal God, he spoke of an “illimitable superior spirit.” If he did not believe in a god who punishes his creatures, what exactly did God mean to him? The concept of God is never easy to explain because it defies definition in any form.

Everyone has an opinion about Einstein. Both theists and atheists have their favorite Einstein quotes in an attempt to support their positions. This is possible because his understanding of his own feelings about God seemed to evolve over time.

Einstein’s influence was not only in areas of science and religion. His opinions were sought out on a host of other issues, like Zionism and world peace. Einstein seemed to either directly or indirectly touch everyone in the 20th century, including me.

Although the modern era’s most famous Jew, Albert Einstein, never rode in my minivan, John Archibald Wheeler, a friend of Einstein, did ride in it when he was 88. So all six degrees of separation were not required to connect me to Einstein. Just one.

I was a guest at Kipfest 2000, the occasion of Kip Thorne’s 60th birthday celebration at the California Institute of Technology, because of my research into possible interfaces between science and religion. Although the physics conference officially had nothing to do with religion, Kip Thorne was an easy-going fellow and let me tag along as long as I was discreet in my inquiries to the physicists in attendance.

I got the opportunity during the breaks between lectures to interact with John Archibald Wheeler, Stephen Hawking using his electronic voice synthesizer, James Hartle, and several others. I was later in Kip’s home and was able to take a picture of Hawking sitting on the couch talking with Kip in the family room before they placed him back in his wheelchair.

(Yoeli Kaufman and Stephen Hawking at Kip Thorne's home.)
(Yoeli Kaufman and Stephen Hawking in Kip Thorne’s home.)

The conversation between Professor Wheeler and me was relatively brief. The conference at Beckman Auditorium had recessed for lunch and I noticed him walking in the opposite direction of the Athenaeum. He must have been planning to take the long route. So my wife and I offered to give him a ride in our minivan. He must have recognized my eagerness to talk to him. So he passed on his walk and obliged the young fellow who at the time was less than half his age.

There was a small cassette recorder between the front seats that I had been using to record the lectures. Sensing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I reached down and turned it on to record our conversation. I asked about his most famous friend and he told us the story that he has often told on other occasions of how Einstein humorously predicted, in response to a student’s question about his home, that his house would never become a place of pilgrimage for people coming to look at his bones. After the short conversation with Professor Wheeler that I will never forget, my wife had the honor of escorting him across Hill Avenue to the Athenaeum.

Wheeler worked with both Einstein and Niels Bohr, assisted in the building of both the atomic and hydrogen bombs, introduced the term black hole to describe the strange collapse of super massive objects and worm holes to describe tunnels in space-time, and had as his graduate students such famous physicists as Richard Feynman, Kip Thorne, Hugh Everett III, and Israeli physicist Jacob Bekenstein. Max Tegmark described Wheeler as the “last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing.”

No one was as audacious as Einstein, but Richard Feynman and John Archibald Wheeler certainly would have been candidates if any were needed. Feynman once told Kip Thorne, “Some people think that Wheeler’s gotten crazy in his later years, but he’s always been crazy! He was referring to Professor Wheeler’s unpredictable genius and audacious creativity. Coming from Richard Feynman, that was a tremendous compliment.

(Yoeli Kaufman and John Archibald Wheeler)
(Yoeli Kaufman and John Archibald Wheeler)

Randall Thomas Davidson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, once asked Einstein about any effect that relativity might have on religion. Einstein replied, “None. Relativity is a purely scientific matter and has nothing to do with religion.”

The overwhelming majority of physicists at Kipfest 2000 would have agreed with Einstein, I’m sure. Their area of expertise was physics research, which proceeds by means of the scientific method and experimentation. There is no way to do an experiment on a spirit.

Although there is no way to do experiments on God Himself, religions typically do make pronouncements about the physical world that can be tested. In this sense, relativity may have plenty to say about certain statements of religion.

The conversation between Einstein and Eddington took place about 10 years before Einstein wrote his essays on cosmic religion. With Eddington he seemed to be referring to religion in the sense of religiosity or institutionalized religion. When Einstein was asked to define his religion on a different occasion, he referred to himself as a “deeply religious nonbeliever.” Such was the way of Einstein.

Einstein at a different time summed up true religious sentiment and its effect on him as follows: “To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties – this knowledge, this feeling … that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.”

He also said, “I want to know how God created this world… I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details.” So Einstein wasn’t so interested in what theologians had to say about God. Einstein wanted to know what God Himself was thinking.

Einstein further explained, “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” As HaShem revealed Himself to Moshe in Exodus 3, He simply “is what He is.” He needs no frail human beings to defend Him, for He is able to defend Himself.

HaShem is at once both the Ultimate Unknowable and yet revealed in the smallest details of His creation. By observing the artwork of God, we perhaps are able to understand an infinitely small portion of the Divine Artist’s thoughts, which is what Einstein would have wanted.

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

About the Author
Yoeli Kaufman earned his bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and then worked as an analyst and Arabic translator for U.S. Army Intelligence. His master’s degree was in Educational Administration from Temple University in Philadelphia. Eli now regularly writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, and Diario Judío México.
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