Remembering Einstein

by Nathan Roi

More than 650 young Russian-speaking people (including 50 children,) living in the United States, came to Princeton University to participate in a Limmud FSU event centered on the life and work of Professor Albert Einstein. Another 240 could not be accommodated at the sold-out event which took place from 11-13 May. 2012.

The past president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund, who has overall responsibility for the huge literary estate which Einstein bequeathed to the university attempted to answer questions from the audience in two packed sessions: how is it that Einstein is, to this day, held up as an a example to be emulated in the world in general and the Jewish world in particular. Gutfreund showed items from the Einstein Archive which attest to this image, including postage stamps, from all over the world. One image depicts him surmounted by a halo. His prodigious intellectual achievements gave him the status of a “high priest” of the 20th century, although he was neither priest, nor rabbi nor imam.

Gutfreund emphasized three spheres in which Einstein has become a model to be emulated: Einstein the scientist, Einstein the humanist and Einstein the Jew.

In 1905, when he was unemployed, Albert Einstein published four articles that changed the face of history and which today are the bedrock on which modern physics is based. “The ideas he formulated solved the intellectual crisis that had overtaken physics since the end of the 19th century and caused a revolution in thinking way beyond the walls of academia,” said Gutfreund.

In his first article, Einstein tackled the problem known as the Nature of Light, in which light was perceived as a ray. Einstein saw an endless series of contradictions and he posited the scientific theory known as the Photo-Electric Effect. His scientific formulation indisputably proved that the nature of light is different to what had been understood previously.

Gutfreund gave as an example a situation where a person stands astride the door of an elevator against a light source and prevents the door closing, which it would do when the circuit is completed.. This discovery is a basis of quantum mechanics.

The second article written in the same year, dealt with the universe of atoms and molecules and led to his general theory of relativity (E=MC2), and in due course, to theories of modern cosmology, the “Big Bang” and the “Black Holes.”

By 1919, twelve years after the publication of those articles, Einstein had become a universally recognized celebrity. This was also the year in which Einstein joined the Zionist movement and become a close collaborator of another noted scientist, Professor Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the State of Israel.

Einstein: the Jew and Zionist

As a Jew who thought it imprudent to return to his native Germany in 1933, because of the rise of Nazism, Einstein lived and worked at Princeton where he was head of the Institute for Advanced Studies during the last 20 years of his life. His stay there was financed by wealthy Jewish donors.

With reference to the Einstein Archive at the Hebrew University, Gutfreund says “For us at the University, guardianship of Einstein’s vast intellectual property is tantamount to a “holy of holies.” During the 25 years since his death, Princeton experts have managed to gather together some 80,000 documents which can now be displayed to the world at large in accordance with Einstein’s wishes.” Also present at the Limmud conference was Dahlia Mendelsohn who is charged with the digitalization of the vast archive of material at the Hebrew University.

Albert Einstein perceived his identity as Jewish and Zionist as a reality forced upon him by what he termed the “Goyim.” When he received the invitation from Prime Minister David Ben Gurion to serve as the State of Israel’s second president after the death of Chaim Weizmann, he turned down the offer but stated that his link to the Jewish people was unshakeable, especially in light of the dangerous situation of “our people in the world.”

Gutfreund explained that Einstein’s identity as a Jew was awakened after his parents had hired a talmudic scholar to teach young Albert. This scholar evidently sparked Einstein’s interest in Judaism, but specially when he gave him as a gift a book on science. At the age of 13, Einstein rejected the idea of having a Bar Mitzva and decided that his sole interest would be science. Later on, in Prague, he met other Jews including Shmuel Hugo Bergman, Franz Kafka, and Max Brod, and inscribed the word “Jew” in his identity documents.

When he returned to Germany in 1914, he encountered anti-Semitism. Based on his writings, his attitude to anti-Semitism, according to Gutfreund, was rational and not emotional. As opposed to Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism in Western Europe was led by intellectuals. Einstein did not associate himself with the organized Jewish establishment but with his own personal sense of Jewish identity. In his eyes, the only way to combat anti-Semitism was by creating a community spirit based on nationalism. Even though he was a pacifist, “a citizen of the world,” he had no hesitation in passing on his thoughts to his surprised friends.

Einstein joined the Zionist Movement in 1919, and in 1955, not long before his death,he penned an article to mark the seven anniversary of the State of Israel. He had differences of opinion with Zionist leaders and he was not prepared to comprise with his cosmopolitanism which permeated his social weltanschauung.

In an article he wrote, “Love of justice, bordering on fanaticism, and striving for personal independence are traditional strands in the Jewish character. Because of them I see my place within the Jewish people as a gift from heaven … all the time that we remain faithful to our beliefs in justice and human freedom, we will not only ensure our future existence as one of the most ancient of peoples, but will continue to uphold humanity’s highest values …”

In the American Jewish German language newspaper, “Judische Rundschau,” Einstein wrote “I am a nationalist Jew because I am in favor of the preservation of Jewish nationalism. That is why I joined the Zionist Movement.” In the eyes of Einstein, says Prof. Gutfreund, the establishment of the Hebrew University in 1925, was of greater importance than the creation of a “National Home.” Einstein saw study for its own sake, as an act of supreme Jewish nationalism.