Baby Einstein

An amusing pair of letters to the editor appeared in the New York Times Book Review on April 13, responding to a review of a book about the science of human reproduction.

Both letters were withering critiques of the illustration that accompanied the review, a graphic of a large, oddly shaped, complex organic molecule, featuring atoms of various elements and bonds of many sorts. One of the letter-writers, a professor of chemistry, sniffed that the graphic contained a “dozen brazen errors” and deemed it “a lesson in aberration.” The second, a graduate student in chemistry, denounced the drawing as “nothing short of atrocious” and upped the error count to more than two dozen.

It must have been difficult for the editors to quash the urge to respond mockingly, but somehow they managed understatement. “Our correspondents’ knowledge of chemistry,” they wrote, “may have kept them from noticing that the molecular entity [depicted]… spells out a familiar three-letter word.”

The letters and response are entertaining evidence for how limited scientists can be in negotiating the world outside their labs. It is a truism brought to mind too by the recent sale at auction of a 1954 letter written by Albert Einstein, in which the brilliant physicist described Judaism as “like all other religions, an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.” The letter, which fetched $404,000 from an unidentified buyer, also scoffed at the idea of the Jews as a chosen people.

In a 1950 letter, Einstein called himself a “deeply religious man” – in the sense that his mental exploration of the universe had provided him “a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate… the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms.” Yet, in that same letter he claims to be “agnostic” about – i.e. neither affirming nor denying –the existence of a Supreme Being.

So Einstein, awe-filled as he was by creation, rejected his religious heritage. Or maybe not. In a 1940 paper in Nature, he was not as dismissive as in the later, expensive, letter. In that paper, he admitted that “the doctrine of a personal G-d interfering with natural events could never be refuted… by science, for [it] can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.”

As Oxford professor emeritus of science and religion John Brooke recently noted, “Like many great scientists of the past, [Einstein] is rather quirky about religion, and not always consistent from one period to another.”

What is more important, like many great scientists, when he wandered afield – in his case, from physics to metaphysics – he easily got lost.

The celebrated University of London Professor of Psychology H.J. Eysenck put it bluntly. “Scientists,” he wrote, “especially when they leave the particular field in which they have specialized, are just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous…”

“Pigheaded” doesn’t seem like an adjective suited to Einstein, even rambling outside his field of expertise. Wrongheaded, though, might not be terribly off the mark.

Take his political philosophy. The thinker who presented the world with the subtle brilliance of the General and Special Theories of Relativity was a resolute socialist, considering capitalism to be “a source of evil.” He lobbied to end American nuclear testing and advocated supplying the United Nations with nuclear weapons. He insisted that a Marxist be appointed the president of a university to which he was to lend his name. (And when his partner in the enterprise objected, Einstein refused to be associated with the school, which became Brandeis University.)

Not that there’s anything wrong with Marxism, of course. No, wait! There is! Wasn’t that the political system that brought us the Soviet Union and its gulags, East Germany and the Berlin Wall, the curtailment of human rights in the People’s Republic of China and the cruel deprivation of the citizenry in North Korea? No, not so smart, that Einstein, at least not regarding politics.

Not regarding G-d and Judaism either. Like his forbear Abraham the Jewish patriarch (as described by Jewish tradition), the professor perceived the impenetrable “profoundest reason and… most radiant beauty” of the physical universe and was filled with wonder. But, unlike Abraham, Einstein did not come to recognize what it all pointed to, and what it required of him.

That latter point is key. Jewish ethical texts explain that only one who has overcome the human desires and imperfections of character with which we are all born can perceive the Divine clearly. The rest of us are hampered by the little voice in the back of our heads – not physically audible but clearly heard – that reminds us how confronting our responsibility to the Creator may seriously interfere with our personal wants. It is telling that many brilliant people – and Einstein is, sadly, no exception here – who were atheist or agnostic were not beacons of morality in their personal lives and relationships.

So it is ironic that Einstein considered religion “childish.” What prevented him from not only understanding light but seeing the Light may well have been his own childishness, the self-centeredness that he retained from babyhood.

Abraham transcended himself and so, fathoming nature’s sublimity, he perceived Divinity. Sadly, Einstein saw the pattern, the beauty, the subtlety and the power, but, humanly flawed, he missed the big picture.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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19 comments to Baby Einstein

  • joel rich

    According to the Isaacson biography, Einstein was frum for a short period in his youth.

    KT

  • lacosta

    please provide a link to the NYT book review letters

  • Eric

    Einstein won a Nobel Prize for his discoveries. But he also committed adultery.

    It is therefore clear that he WAS an expert on physics, and was NOT an expert on religion.

  • Garnel Ironheart

    The problems we have aren’t because scientists opine about politics and religion when they have no expertise in the complexities of either.

    The problems we have are because most politicians and religious “experts” have no expertise in the complexities of either.

  • Bob Miller

    Maybe quantum theory can explain Einstein’s evident philosophical inconsistencies. Or maybe it cannot. Or maybe it both can and cannot.

  • Melanie

    Western society’s tendency to trust any expert in anything on any other area is most glaringly ridiculous when applied to moviestars.

  • mb

    Would you say the same about our Rabbis and their comments about science, “especially when they leave the particular field in which they have specialized”?

  • Phil

    I imagine that Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, who posts articles on Cross-Currents from time to time, wouldn’t toot his own horn, so I’ll do it for him: He wrote a very fine essay about Albert Einstein in his book, The Biblical Echo. Check it out.

  • Phil

    I just read the two critiques of the molecule (and saw the graphic), and I get a sneaking suspicion that while the graduate student missed the three letter word, the professor saw it, and decided to write a satirical complaint.

  • Harry Maryles

    (Einstein’s) mental exploration of the universe had provided him knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate… the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms.” Yet, in that same letter he claims to be “agnostic” about – i.e. neither affirming nor denying –the existence of a Supreme Being.

    Since I am an observant and believing Jew, I hate to be the one to defend Einstein’s Agnosticism. But I think one has to be fair.

    From a scientific perspective one can easily see Einstein’s dilemma and understand his beliefs. Like our patriarch Abraham, he understood the ‘profound reason and radiant beauty’ of the universe, and their accessibility to human reason only ‘in their most elementary forms’. From this he concluded the possible existence ‘of something we cannot penetrate’.

    But as a scientist not being able to prove it or disprove it – and as someone who draws conclusions only from observable and conclusive data, he had no choice but to be agnostic on the matter. His conclusions are those of a rational mind that relies entirely on what exists in the physical world. And he left open the question of a metaphysical world which he cannot physically experience.

    We Jews do not rely solely on physical evidence for our beliefs. We conclude that there exists ‘something we cannot penetrate’ in much the same way Einstein did. We rely on a vast amount of evidence indicating God’s existence. But even with all that evidence, God’s existence cannot be conclusively proven. Nor do we require physical proof.

    In fact physical proof works against the very nature of belief. Irrefutable proof would no longer make it a belief but a provable fact. That would take away Bechira Chofshis. And it would mean there could be no such thing as an atheist or an agnostic.

  • Nachum

    What’s the chiddush? Einstein and a bevy of other Jewish intellectuals signed, in about 1949, an extraordinarily stupid letter condemning Menachem Begin as a fascist and demanding that he not be allowed into the US. The man may have been a genius, but he didn’t know when he was out of his element.

    On the other hand, Einstein was an early and enthusiatic supporter of YU, even helping them survive during the Depression by fundraising in some of his circles and lending his name in public support. (Hence the naming of the medical school after him.) He thought the very idea of the school was fantastic, and stated that he wished that, when he had been growing up, there’d have been a similar way for him to learn both Torah and science. So he clearly felt that Judaism was important.

  • OP

    “So Einstein, awe-filled as he was by creation, rejected his religious heritage. Or maybe not. In a 1940 paper in Nature, he was not as dismissive as in the later, expensive, letter. In that paper, he admitted that “the doctrine of a personal G-d interfering with natural events could never be refuted… by science, for [it] can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot.””

    Heh, what? This statement is entirely consistent with his views expressed in that expensive letter. It’s a backhanded way of saying that belief in a personal God relies on sustained scientific ignorance.

  • David

    “Einstein won a Nobel Prize for his discoveries. But he also committed adultery.

    It is therefore clear that he WAS an expert on physics, and was NOT an expert on religion.”

    I suspect that there are far more experts on religion who have committed adultery than experts on physics who have won Nobel prizes…

  • Michoel

    mb asks:
    “Would you say the same about our Rabbis and their comments about science, “especially when they leave the particular field in which they have specialized”?”

    Yes, if a Rabbi with no scientific training offered opinions about the best course of treatment for a cancer, then that would invite criticism. However, opinions about what the Torah says about science, are not scientific opinions. They are Torah opinions, and therefore entirely within the realm of subjects taht Rabbis should be commenting on.

    To say otherwise, is not to merely disagree with the science of Rava and Abaye, but to disagree with their right to express themselves on scientific subjects, even while seeing clearly that they held themsleves entitled to express their opinions.

  • Ori

    Michoel: To say otherwise, is not to merely disagree with the science of Rava and Abaye, but to disagree with their right to express themselves on scientific subjects, even while seeing clearly that they held themselves entitled to express their opinions.

    Ori: Not necessarily. Back in Talmudic times there was a lot less science to go around. Rava and Abaye might have known as much science as anybody else in the area. Even a thousand years later a Renaissance man could know most everything secular there was to know.

    Today we are blessed with a lot more knowledge, and cursed with an inability to process more than a tiny fraction of it. Your Rabbi probably doesn’t know the best way to treat a particular form of cancer. Neither does your family practitioner with years of medical training and decades of medical experience. Both would tell cancer patients to go to a specialist.

    The huge breadth of what humanity knows, and the relatively narrowness of what each of us knows, makes expressing opinions a lot more hazardous than in Talmudic times. That doesn’t mean Rabbis can’t tell us what the Torah says about a scientific issue, but it does mean that the precedent of the Talmudic sages is not applicable.

  • DF

    Michoel’s comment directly above this is a valiant attempt to respond to mb’s quite pointed question, but ultimately it fails. Rabbinic literature is replete with rabbinic pronoucements on science, not merely pronouncements about what the Torah says about science. Thus, mb’s point remains valid, to wit, that if we can countenance rabbis waxing forth on matters quite clearly beyond their education, we should not be surprised to see Einstein doing the same. And, lest one respond with the simplistic “there is nothing beyond a rabbi’s education”, then surely a physcist like Einstein, whose field of study encompassed the universe, could say the exact same thing.

  • Michoel

    Hello DF,
    Science is amongst those things that Torah scholars “may” be able to comment on intelligently. It is within the range of knowable subjects, that for the most part, bias does not automatically preclude knowledge of, for religious people. Granted, most Rabbis probably do not have that much knowledge. “What the Torah says about science” is certainly something Torah scholars can and should comment on. But knowledge of G-d is something that Einstein and other agnostics clearly cannot comment on intelligently, and it is something that it is altogether not shayach for them to understand.

  • DF

    I disagree completely, and assuredly, Eisntein and others disagree as well. On the contrary, Physcisists have a very clear picture of God, although that portrait is very different from the picture portrayed in rabbinic literature. They have no compunctions in expressing their views of metaphysics in the same way rabbis fee free to discuss evolution and the Big Bang.

    In general, Michoel, I suggest you rethink your position that knowledge of God is something “not shayach” for certain people to grasp. We dont have to go as far as scientists. Men such as Churchill and Lincoln wrote of how, at times, they felt as though they were walking with God. And we dont have to go to world leaders either. The humblest housekeeper in Alabama can feel the presence of God. She may have knowledge of God that would not be articulated in the same way the Rambam would say it, but that doesnt mean she doesnt know God. Knowledge of God is not limited to anyone – not rabbis, not scientists, not presidents, not Jews.

  • Michoel

    “for certain people to grasp”

    What I actually wrote is that it was not shayach for “agnostics” to grasp. I stand by my view.