Albert Einstein Biography – Who was he and how Jewish was he?
I just finished Walter Isaacson’s biography of Albert Einstein. I sought out the biography to better understanding various quotes which have been circulating as of late. There are the witty quotes about relativity of time and sitting with a pretty woman and there is the 1914 letter to his first wife:, ”A. You will see to it (1) that my clothes and linen are kept in order, (2) that I am served three regular meals a day in my room. B. You will renounce all personal relations with me, except when these are required to keep up social appearances.” And: ”You will expect no affection from me . . . You must leave my bedroom or study at once without protesting when I ask you to.”
One has to wonder, what was he really like behind the Warhol-like posters, tongue sticking out, and unkempt hair?
If you’re also wondering, you can read this summary or you can read the biography. Walter Isaacson never disappoints – he has a great book titled “In the Plex” on the early years of Google and another on Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson, clearly Jewish himself, also provides plenty of information about Judaism and Jewish people in his books, most especially when talking about Einstein.
One can best sum up the contradictions between a cold-hearted spouse and witty affable man with a pipe, sailboat, and violin by looking at different stages of his life. He came from a very secular Jewish family and had more Christian than Jewish education which, Isaacson suggests led him to seek out more about Judaism. He had some informal Jewish education in his single digit years and actually kept Shabbos and Kosher for a time despite his family doing neither. Then he got into secular philosophy and that was the end of any formal religious practice for the rest of his life.
Through his 20s he was a “dissenter” as he described his religion in a government document. At the same time, he was a “dissenter” from any sort of ideas society would impose upon him and quite aloof in terms of human relations. He would write letters to eminent scientists and tell them everything they did which was wrong and then ask them for a job at the end of the letter. This also goes for professors for him he did not care for and for whom he would later rely on to find employment. As such, he found employment in the Swiss patent office. I chuckle at this because it’s quite often that one finds those near the bottom of their scientific profession working at the U.S. Patent Office making, sometimes, 1/3 of what they could make in the private sector.
Though much of this information didn’t come out until the 1980s when letters were found (which ex-relatives didn’t destroy but were asked to), it turns out during these younger years Einstein had an illegitimate child, a failed marriage, an typically absentee father (though he was very involved before the divorce) and occasional teaching positions with few attendees. Then came his breakthroughs. As such a “dissenter” from religion, society, and structure Einstein gave up his German citizenship (well before WWII) hating rigidity of German society where he was born and opted for Switzerland and a whole lot of thinking. Most of his papers, as he himself would describe, were of little consequence – except for relativity. (He never failed math, incidentally – the closest he came was a bad grade in college because he refused to attend.)
I’ll refrain from getting into the science for the purpose of this article. Rather, Einstein was catapulted into stardom for his theory that the New York Times regularly misunderstood and said they didn’t understand. Yet they kept writing about Einstein and he became famous to a level which seems to be largely unknown today in a fractured society with so many media outlets. At that time, heroes were simple and uncomplicated.
Returning to the Jewish issue, as Einstein got older it seemed he was more aware and involved in being Jewish. Though intermarried to his first wife, his second was his Jewish first cousin. Throughout his life he continued to reject things like monogamy and had many female “friends” but he was acutely aware of anti-semitism. He didn’t, before the rise of Hitler, seem to lose any speaking positions or professorship jobs at various universities but he had friends who did and anti-semites who spoke out against him and his “Jewish science” which was less grounded in the reality and experimentation and more based in abstract thought and reasoning.
Einstein, for his part, believed in a form of an omniscient G_d or Creator. However, he did not believe that this Creator cared about us or that we matter, in a large break from Jewish thought. On top of this, as he got older he retreated from a free-wheeling philosophy to one of formalism. A hydrogen atom, when excited, releases a certain discrete quanta of light when energy is added but the direction which the light travels is seemingly random. Einstein said to Neils Bohr on a trolly ride where they lost track of time and position, “I do not believe that G_d plays dice.” Bohr responded, “Who are you to tell G_d what to do?” Einstein believed there is no free will – merely causation in a big dance that plays itself out. Bohr, who I learned from the book is also Jewish believed like a Jew – we have free will and can decide or destiny.
Einstein then went on for years to agitate against those that argued otherwise and worked for decades on a “unified theory” to explain all natural phenomena according to formula. That has remained unsuccessful to this day. When pressed as to why he was no longer rebelling and was sticking to his rules, complete with finagle constants and the like (which have been shown to be very wrong) he repeated, “a good trick shouldn’t be repeated” and he was left behind as science advanced.
Instead, Einstein became a celebrity and figure in places like the pacifist movement (arguing that if just 2% of people didn’t show for a draft they couldn’t jail everyone). After WWII he would change his mind about this. Einstein fund-raised for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem which holds his archives today. When traveling to Israel and seeing the Western Wall (pre-state) he thought the religious Jews praying there were relics of an old time and went with the reform and typically Chassidic opinion on the formation of a state – he was for Jews living in Israel but not for the formation of the state. He was extremely against Menachem Begin and violence used to try and make the state happen. He further felt that it would hurt Judaism and make it nationalistic instead of religious in character. However, after 1948 he changed his stance going from a “Satmar” opinion to a “Rav Schach” stance stating that since it’s there we have to keep it and do what we can to make it stronger. He did not think the state would help Jews economically but 70 years later it’s clear how wrong he was.
There’s much more that can be said about Einstein from his transformation from a radical anti-people person to an affable professor as he matured. In terms of his Judaism he reminds me of my own grandfather who was born in 1918 and worked as a chemist for his career. On the one hand my grandfather might tell me, “I’ll have you know that I donated a large sum of money to help Jews in Argentina [during the financial crisis there] move to Israel” while perhaps lighting Chanukah candles or attending a Passover seder. On the other hand, my grandfather also claimed to believe that everything was part of a natural order. Judaism was more cultural and defined by how other’s treated us rather than an internal value system which guides every aspect of our lives regardless of what the outside world has to say about us. (My grandfather was completely faithful to my grandmother though!)