Einstein on Orthodoxy, Judaism, and Faith




"A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth."

                                        Albert Einstein

Walter Isaacson’s rich biography of Einstein captures the essence of the man and of the iconoclastic scientist while illuminating important influences on his emotional and intellectual development that one would not normally consider in thinking about the world’s greatest scientist.  References to the role of religion in his life shine a very important light on Einstein’s evolving sense of his own Jewish identity during the dark time of Jewish and world history that would define his personal journey.

According to Isaacson, at the age of 12, Einstein’s exposure to science produced a sudden reaction against religion, just at the time that he would have been studying for his Bar Mitzvah.  This tension between what is demonstrably true through science and what is only understandable through faith is one of the great dilemmas of human consciousness. 

The book notes that, while as a child Einstein had embraced the Jewish religion, at this juncture he turned decidedly away from faith and, in particular, ritual:

"But at the time, his leap away from faith was a radical one. ‘Through the reading of popular scientific books, I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression.’ … As a result, Einstein avoided religious rituals for the rest of his life. . . . Einstein’s rebellion against religious dogma had a profound effect on his general outlook toward received wisdom.  It inculcated an allergic reaction against all forms of dogma and authority, which was to affect both his politics and his science."

Einstein would formally renounce Judaism in 1896, at the age of 17, but his exposure to "virulent anti-Semitism in the 1920′s" would lead Einstein "to begin to reconnect with his Jewish identity":

The year before Einstein died, he wrote to a friend:

"At that time I would not even have understood what leaving Judaism could possibly mean. . . . But I was fully aware of my Jewish origin, even though the full significance of belonging to Jewry was not realized by me until later."

According to Isaacson, Einstein would later come close to embracing the following position on faith, written by Aaron Bernstein in a series of volumes titled People’s Books on Natural Science:

"The religious inclination lies in the dim consciousnes that dwells in humans that all nature, including the humans in it, is in no way an accidental game, but a work of lawfulness, that there is a fundamental cause of all existence."

Maimonides, the greatest Jewish philosopher and also a man of medicine who has been described as a "religious rationalist", faced this conflict and addressed the tension between faith and reason in his writings such as the definitive Mishneh Torah, finding a middle ground where both coexist.  In some respects Einstein’s unfinished quest for a unifying theory of everything may be profoundly based on faith in the existence of that unseen relationship which binds everything together– that something which is empirically unverifiable but that we must believe in to bring sense to the cosmos.  Faith and Science may, indeed, meet at the intersection of String Theory, but that’s another, longer story…      

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