Melbourne’s The Age once called him “a man who has done more than anyone in our time to change the climate and perspective of scientific thinking”. “Like Newton, like Darwin,” The Age said, “Einstein has remade the outlook of his and following generations”. Abba Eban described him as “the most decisive intellect of the age”. Einstein’s fellow Jews offered him the supreme compliment of inviting him to become president of the State of Israel, though the offer was not accepted.
How relevant was Einstein’s Jewishness to his career and discoveries?
His own words are unambiguous: “My attachment to the Jewish people has become my strongest human attachment”. He called Israel “the only place in the world where Jews have the opportunity to conduct public life in keeping with the ideals of their tradition”.
He regarded the leading Jewish values as “the striving after knowledge for its own sake, the strong love for justice, the search for freedom”. He could have added the belief in one God which implied there was order, unity and harmony in the universe and made possible his own scientific work.
Yet Einstein was not a conventionally religious Jew. He thought there were three stages in religion, fear, morality and a cosmic sense. He failed to see that there is a higher as well as a lower kind of fear, and people become religious not because they are afraid of God but because they are in awe of Him and His creation.
He saw that religious people stand for morality, but he did not entirely acknowledge that without a basis of religious belief, morality constantly shifts its ground. He rightly saw that religion has a cosmic sense, but did not appreciate that religion raises one’s sights to the heavens whilst also bringing its insights down into the market place.
Jewishness was good for Einstein, and he was good for Jewishness. But the full depth of Judaism eluded him.
* This article first appeared in 2004.