Time Magazine has a brilliant book excerpt about Albert Einstein's interesting religious life and ideas. It seems that he attended Catholic school, admired the Gospel stories of Jesus, was shomer shabbos and mitzvos for a time as a child, rebelled before his bar mitzvah, learned about science and mathematics from a man named Talmud, and created some controversy with his theological musings on the existence and nature of God.
You can read the entire excerpt. Here are a few samples.
By WALTER ISAACSON
...Einstein was descended, on both parents' sides, from Jewish tradesmen and peddlers who had, for at least two centuries, made modest livings in the rural villages of Swabia in southwestern Germany. With each generation they had become increasingly assimilated into the German culture they loved--or so they thought. Although Jewish by cultural designation and kindred instinct, they had little interest in the religion itself.
In his later years, Einstein would tell an old joke about an agnostic uncle who was the only member of his family who went to synagogue. When asked why he did so, the uncle would respond, "Ah, but you never know." Einstein's parents, on the other hand, were "entirely irreligious." They did not keep kosher or attend synagogue, and his father Hermann referred to Jewish rituals as "ancient superstitions," according to a relative.
Consequently, when Albert turned 6 and had to go to school, his parents did not care that there was no Jewish one near their home. Instead he went to the large Catholic school in their neighborhood. As the only Jew among the 70 students in his class, he took the standard course in Catholic religion and ended up enjoying it immensely.
Despite his parents' secularism, or perhaps because of it, Einstein rather suddenly developed a passionate zeal for Judaism. "He was so fervent in his feelings that, on his own, he observed Jewish religious strictures in every detail," his sister recalled. He ate no pork, kept kosher and obeyed the strictures of the Sabbath. He even composed his own hymns, which he sang to himself as he walked home from school.
Einstein's greatest intellectual stimulation came from a poor student who dined with his family once a week. It was an old Jewish custom to take in a needy religious scholar to share the Sabbath meal; the Einsteins modified the tradition by hosting instead a medical student on Thursdays. His name was Max Talmud, and he began his weekly visits when he was 21 and Einstein was 10.
...Einstein's exposure to science and math produced a sudden transformation at age 12, just as he would have been readying for a bar mitzvah. He suddenly gave up Judaism. That decision does not appear to have been drawn from Bernstein's books because the author made clear he saw no contradiction between science and religion. As he put it, "The religious inclination lies in the dim consciousness 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."
Einstein would later come close to these sentiments. 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 free thinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression."
Einstein did, however, retain from his childhood religious phase a profound faith in, and reverence for, the harmony and beauty of what he called the mind of God as it was expressed in the creation of the universe and its laws. Around the time he turned 50, he began to articulate more clearly--in various essays, interviews and letters--his deepening appreciation of his belief in God, although a rather impersonal version of one. One particular evening in 1929, the year he turned 50, captures Einstein's middle-age deistic faith. He and his wife were at a dinner party in Berlin when a guest expressed a belief in astrology. Einstein ridiculed the notion as pure superstition. Another guest stepped in and similarly disparaged religion. Belief in God, he insisted, was likewise a superstition.
At this point the host tried to silence him by invoking the fact that even Einstein harbored religious beliefs. "It isn't possible!" the skeptical guest said, turning to Einstein to ask if he was, in fact, religious. "Yes, you can call it that," Einstein replied calmly. "Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious."
...Do you believe in God? "I'm not an atheist. I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws."
...So in the summer of 1930, amid his sailing and ruminations in Caputh, he composed a credo, "What I Believe," that he recorded for a human-rights group and later published. It concluded with an explanation of what he meant when he called himself religious: "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man."
People found the piece evocative, and it was reprinted repeatedly in a variety of translations. But not surprisingly, it did not satisfy those who wanted a simple answer to the question of whether or not he believed in God. "The outcome of this doubt and befogged speculation about time and space is a cloak beneath which hides the ghastly apparition of atheism," Boston's Cardinal William Henry O'Connell said. This public blast from a Cardinal prompted the noted Orthodox Jewish leader in New York, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, to send a very direct telegram: "Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid. 50 words." Einstein used only about half his allotted number of words. It became the most famous version of an answer he gave often: "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind."
Some religious Jews reacted by pointing out that Spinoza had been excommunicated from Amsterdam's Jewish community for holding these beliefs, and that he had also been condemned by the Catholic Church. "Cardinal O'Connell would have done well had he not attacked the Einstein theory," said one Bronx rabbi. "Einstein would have done better had he not proclaimed his nonbelief in a God who is concerned with fates and actions of individuals. Both have handed down dicta outside their jurisdiction."
From Einstein by Walter Isaacson. © 2007 by Walter Isaacson. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Reposted from 2007.