by Rosemary Fox
Perhaps one of the most recognized geniuses of the twentieth century was Albert Einstein. It is hard to imagine growing up in the twentieth century with out hearing a mother comparing her son to the famed physicist.
Albert Einstein was born March 14, 1879 in Ulm, a small town in Germany. His parents Hermann and Pauline were descendants of the Jewish German community having many generations living on German soil. Ulm was a small town in which the Jews retained their own separate Jewish identity yet lived at ease with the rest of the German community. After several business failures, Hermann Einstein moved to Munich, where Albert's younger sister, Maja, was born. In Munich, the Einstein did not fit in with the local Jewish community since they were not observant in any manner. Albert was nourished in a family that had broken with tradition and disagreed with conventional customary Jewish views and ideas. He was sent to a Catholic school on pretense that it was convenient and there he remained an outsider, a pattern that repeated itself through out his life.
Nothing in his childhood suggested any vestige of genius. Just the opposite, there was reason to believe young Albert was slow! Even at the age of nine, he lacked the ability to speak fluently. His parents suspected that maybe he was less than normal since he required extra time to compose answers to questions posed to him. His teacher remarked to his father that it does not matter in which profession he would choose, he would never succeed.
Einstein himself remarked that his slow development and backwardness aided him in developing his theories. "The normal adult never thinks about space and time. These are thoughts that he has thought about when he was a child. But since my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up. Naturally, I could go deeper into the problem than a child with normal abilities." (This of course gives hope to distraught mothers and fathers who can not accept their young child's lack of interest in schoolwork. Don't worry, maybe they will be the next Einstein.)
At the age of six, Einstein was taught the violin. Although he did not take to it at this time, later it was to become his trademark. He loved to play although, he never was to win acclaim for it.
As Einstein progressed from elementary school to Gymnasium, he remarked that the teachers in the elementary school appeared to me like sergeants and in the Gymnasium, the teachers were like lieutenants." Forty years later while speaking to the State University of New York, he noted that "the worst thing seems to be for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force, and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the healthy feelings, the integrity, and self confidence of the pupils. All that it produces is a servile captive."
While at the Gymnasium, Einstein developed an attitude of not giving a damn about accepted beliefs. He learned the virtues of skepticism, questioning and doubting, which of course are valuable tools for a scientist.
By the age of twelve, Einstein had attained in his own words a "deep religiosity." He reached the conviction that much of the stories in the Bible could not be true. Yet he said, "I want to know how G-d created this world. I am not interested in this or that phenomenon, in the spectrum of this or that element. I want to know His thoughts, the rest are details." His personal beliefs were simple, "G-d is subtle, but no malicious." Or "G-d does not play dice with the world." Einstein utilized this view to crystallize his view that complex though the laws of nature might be, difficult though they were to understand, yet they were understandable by human reason.
Einstein's G-d was not the G-d of other men. He said that he believed in Spinoza's G-d who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, but not in a G-d who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men. Einstein's G-d appears as the physical world itself with its remarkable structure operating at the atomic level with the beauty of a Swiss watch.
He did not believe in the afterlife, but in the goodness and virtue of man in this world. Thus Einstein's G-d was only the Master of the Physical and not the mover of man's fate. Einstein's G-d existed only in the physical world, it was not the intimate G-d of the Jews, the personal savior.
After his father's business failed in Munich and the family left for Milan. Einstein was to finish, receive his diploma and continue into University. Einstein had his own opinions and instead left school with out the valued diploma and joined the family in Italy. He spent two years in Italy, and finally at the urging of his family applied for acceptance in the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School (ETH) in Zurich. Being only sixteen, a full two years younger than the average student, and lacking a diploma, he applied enclosing an essay tackling one of the most hotly disputed scientific subjects, the relationship between electricity, magnetism and the ether. The ETH was duly impressed and accepted him.
During his time in the ETH, he was to renounce his German citizenship which he so loathed, and also he announced that he was severing all formal connection with the Jewish faith. The renouncement of his German nationality was strange for a lad of sixteen and caused him some problems. However the renunciation of his Jewishness is even more bizarre since he had absolutely no connection with the religion, having received no formal Jewish education, nor receiving much tradition from his father. It probably was a rebellion against accepted ideas and concepts which he himself had to develop. Both renunciations were later rescinded. He later received German citizenship when he accepted a distinguished teaching position in Germany. He reinstated his Jewishness as both an outcomes of anti-Semitism in Germany and his personal involvement with Zionism. He later remarked that he could not understand how one could divest himself of his Jewishness.
During his student years his legendary reputation as the absentminded scholar began. With his head totally immersed in his studies, he was not responsible for minor things like remembering the keys to his room or if he were to visit a friend for the weekend, to remember his suitcase. At that time, it was assumed that a person who could not remember his own personal belongings would not amount to much. Yet Einstein had much satisfaction with the academic life and enjoyed his obsession with the riddle of time and space.
It was during these student years that he met his first wife, Miliva Maric. She was a Serb who later became a Catholic, but her religious beliefs had no importance for Einstein. It was not until much later in his life that they married and had two children. The marriage was not successful, Einstein was first given over to scientific investigation and nothing came close to occupying his mind, not even that of a wife and family. After World War I, they divorce after living several years apart. Several years later, he married a distant cousin, Elsa Lowenthal, a Jewess and a widow with two daughters. Elsa had the distinct advantage over Milva, in that she had no understanding of physics, but could accept her husband's erratic need for intense study, and his total immersion in his thoughts. She became his faithful companion and supporter until her demise.
As Einstein's thoughts began to become published, the scientific world began to study his ideas. His fame in the scientific world spread and was invited by prestigious institutions to lecture. He participated in many scientific congresses and made the acquaintances of the greatest minds in Europe.
He eventually accepted a position at the Kaiser Wilheim Institute in Germany and was forced to accept Germany nationality. During World War I, he became an outspoken advocate of pacifism. This put him at odds with many of his countrymen who were involved in a war. He believed that the inherent goodness in man would eventually create a state of non-belligerence. He envisioned a central European governmentthat would keep war away. He supported the League of Nations and spoke out advocating pacifism until the rise of Hitler. Then he realized his error and actually suggested to President Roosevelt the possibility of the Atomic bomb. Einstein did not directly participate in the development of the bomb, but he was consulted by it developers.
As the Nazi's began their rise to power, Einstein became a popular figure being Jewish and a pacifist and was subjected to Nazi ridicule. A pamphlet was printed up signed by scores of German scientists condemning Einstein's ideas. Einstein despised the use of people for political purposes. Einstein was a world famous figure, his pacifism and connections with scientists in other countries made him scorned by the Nazis. They published booklets that attacked and made light of his advances. Although his reputation in the scientific world remained intact, the average German began to view him as a Jewish parasite.
In addition to his sin of being a pacifist and a Jew, Einstein was recruited by Chaim Wiezmann to help raise money for the World Zionist Organization. Together with Weizmann, Einstein toured the States and was a valuable instrument to raise money for the building of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Through Weizmann, he became a Zionist a cause to which he was willing to help until the end of his life.
He was offered to become the head of the Hebrew University, but he refused because he did not like Dr. Judah Magnes concepts of the University. His outspokenness in this matter caused Weizmann much distress. Einstein was a political innocent and expressed himself in a straight manner accusing Magnes who had control over the American money, but could not properly understand the atmosphere that was necessary for an intellectually free environment for proper scholarly development. Never the less, with the continuing Nazi persecution, he proposed that the Hebrew University become a haven for the many German-Jewish scientists that were ousted from their positions.
Einstein's view of Arab-Israeli problems was based on concessions. This put him at odds with many other Zionist leaders. Yet as anti-Semitism increased in Germany and Europe, he began to realize the need for a Jewish homeland with a national sovereignty. In the 1930's he began to take pride in being a Jew and even appeared in a synagogue playing his violin and wearing a black skullcap.
Just prior to World War II, Einstein and his family immigrated to the United States. He was warmly received by the scientific world. He was beloved by the Jewish world as their intellectual champion. Yet even in America, there were many that viewed his German citizenship, which he had renounced for the second time, and his pacifism, which he has also rejected, as a threat to America. Never the less, he was given a position in Princeton, and he lectured widely. After Wiezmann's death he was offered the presidency of Israel, which he rejected as out of place. He had no need for the flattering of foreign heads of state.
Einstein died in 1955, leaving a legacy in thought and ideas. All in all, Einstein's genius changed the face of the modern world. Prior to Einstein, the laws of physics were based on Newton. Einstein harmonized the universe and updated the rules and concepts that were able to bring forth our modern world. Whereas Einstein was the master of the physical rules of the universe, he never was able to accept the spiritual side of the universe.
from the September 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine