Albert Einstein’s single most famous letter on God, his Jewish identity, and man’s eternal search for meaning was written on 3 January 1954. This private, remarkably candid letter was addressed to Eric Gutkind, whose book, Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt, had been published the year before. Two months after writing to Gutkind, Einstein would celebrate his 75th birthday, declaring that he was ‘a deeply religious non-believer’. A year later, he would be dead.
During the final years of his life, Einstein’s companion was a Czech woman named Johanna Fantova, a curator at Princeton’s Firestone Library whom he had first met in Germany decades earlier. Fantova’s diary from her time with Einstein reflects two sides of the ageing genius: one preoccupied with his deteriorating health, and the other still very much one of the great minds of the century, reflecting on his place in the larger scientific landscape, and still in pursuit of a unified field theory.
Choose Life was Gutkind’s third book and presented the Bible as a call to arms, and Judaism and Israel as incorruptible. A philosopher, teacher, and writer, Gutkind was born in Berlin and educated at the city’s university, where his studies included philosophy, philosophy of religion, psychology, anthropology, physics, mathematics, and sociology. During the course of his career, the writer, teacher and philosopher became increasingly focused on Jewish philosophy.
Einstein had been encouraged to read the book by the Dutch mathematician and philosopher L.E.J. Brouwer (1881-1966), and was unequivocal in his critique of it in his letter to Gutkind. But he also sought to establish a common ground between them, noting that they still agreed on ‘the essentials’. He observed diplomatically that he and Gutkind both believed in the importance of a strong moral foundation that rose above self-interest and instead sought to benefit humanity, while rejecting materialism as an end — a typically ‘un-American attitude’ they shared.
The reader cannot help but feel the gravitas of the letter, which was written in German and sent from Princeton. Not only does the letter contain the words of a great genius who was perhaps feeling the end fast approaching, it addresses the philosophical and religious questions that mankind has wrestled with since the dawn of time: Is there a God? Do I have free will?
‘The word God is for me nothing but the expression and product of human weaknesses,’ Einstein wrote to Gutkind, ‘the Bible a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can (for me) change anything about this.’
Despite Einstein’s open identification with Judaism, his feelings on it were the same: ‘For me the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot perceive anything “chosen” about them.’
Einstein had arrived in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1933 as a refugee with his second wife, Elsa, and became an American citizen seven years later. In 1946, he wrote about being born into an ‘an entirely irreligious (Jewish)’ family. When the time came for his parents to enrol their young son in school, they defaulted to the most convenient option, a large Catholic school in their neighbourhood called the Petersschule. At the age of nine, he began attending Luitpold Gymnasium, a progressive school that included religious instruction for its Jewish students.
Although his family had little tolerance for the ‘ancient superstition’ of scripture, it was at this point that young Einstein began to develop his own relationship with religion. This manifested itself in a sudden but passionate zeal for Judaism, a short but memorable phase that reached its conclusion with Einstein’s exposure to science at around the age of 10.
‘Through the reading of popular scientific books,’ he wrote years later, ‘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. Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience, an attitude that has never left me.’
When the family business collapsed in 1894, Einstein’s parents moved to Italy, leaving him behind in Munich with distant relatives to continue his studies. Unhappy, he soon departed the Luitpold Gymnasium to study briefly in Aarau, Switzerland, before eventually enrolling in Zurich Polytechnic.
The prospect of compulsory military service on turning 17 was the likely reason for his decision to renounce his German citizenship entirely. On his application for Swiss citizenship Einstein listed his religious affiliation as ‘konfessionslos’, or non-denominational.
Einstein’s feelings toward religion would be shaped further and even more definitively during his time in Zurich. He read widely, particularly works by Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish Dutch philosopher. Spinoza believed in an amorphous, impersonal God responsible for the orderliness of the universe and the awe-inspiring beauty of nature. This philosophy, which included a strong sense of determinism, resonated deeply with the scientist.
Over the decades that followed, Einstein would mostly have little to say on religion. Following his Nobel Prize in 1922 and his 50th birthday in 1929, he did begin to speak more openly on his beliefs in interviews and essays — though never as definitively as he does in his letter to Gutkind.
Einstein had embraced America during his 20 years in the country, and was an admirer of his adopted home’s tolerance and respect for free thought, free speech, and non-conformist religious beliefs. His concerns that Hitler’s scientists were working on nuclear weaponry had prompted him to leverage his celebrity to alert President Roosevelt of the threat. His 1939 letter to F.D.R. would set in motion government research that resulted in The Manhattan Project. A version of this letter — Einstein had written a long and a short version — sold at Christie’s for $2,096,000 on 27 March 2002.
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It was as a result of sentiments instilled so deeply in Einstein as a young man — a distrust of authority, the respect for individuality, democratic principles, and the desire for social equality — that he remained intent on trying to live the moral life he describes in his letter to Gutkind, one in which he was striving toward the greater good and transcending selfish desires in pursuit of human progress.
Einstein believed in a cosmic religion that orchestrated the orderliness and sublime beauty of a great universe, and favoured determinism over free will. His religion was without an anthropomorphic God who protects, decides, rewards, and punishes; in Einstein’s view, never expressed more succinctly and powerfully as in his letter to Gutkind, there was a God, but he was never listening.