Albert Einstein’s Values

For once, I’m not going to talk about Ernst Leitz II, the camera maker and rescuer of persecuted people during the Holocaust. I have chosen, instead, to speak about Albert Einstein partly because both Leitz and Einstein lived by deeply held universalistic humanitarian values, despite their very different backgrounds and experiences.

My decision to speak about Albert Einstein has also to do with something rather more personal and peculiar: it is initially a kind of exploration involving a photograph and, perhaps, the sorts of mysterious experiences or coincidences that are found in the writings of W.G. Sebald, the author of the novel Austerlitz.

And, so, I start with a story. I had not long graduated from UC Berkeley and was freelancing as a photographer. I was also attending art school and working part-time at a camera shop located very close to the Berkeley campus. On Saturday, 12 April 1980, a petite, elderly woman walked into the camera shop wanting to purchase a compact 35mm camera. I immediately recognized the name on her cheque as that of a Jewish photographer who practiced in Berlin in the 1920s and ‘30s: Lotte Jacobi.

‘I know who you are!’, I said excitedly. Lotte Jacobi beamed in response. She reached into her large bag and pulled out some small, hand-made black and white prints. Among them was a photograph of Albert Einstein. I recalled that Jacobi and Einstein had known each other in Berlin and both had emigrated to the East Coast of America in the mid-1930s. This portrait was made in 1938 in Einstein’s home in Princeton, New Jersey. It was the result of a commission by Life magazine but, since it was deemed too informal, too private, it was not accepted by that publication. But Einstein had only agreed to do a project for Life on condition that Lotte Jacobi would be the photographer.

In the photograph, Einstein is slumped in his chair, wearing a wrinkled leather jacket and his very frizzy white hair looks electrically charged. He holds a pen over a page of mathematical calculations that rests on his lap. In the background of this tightly cropped image, there are out-of-focus hints of books on shelves and papers on a desk or table. The photographer’s viewpoint is high and somewhat to the side but very near to the subject; a recorded moment that is the result of a collaboration between two friends.

Lotte Jacobi offers me the portrait as a gift. I am stunned. I ask her to sign the print and she also writes in the margin, ‘To Frank’ and the date, ‘12 April 1980’. By now her daughter has returned to take her somewhere else. The daughter seems irritated by her mother’s sense of stubborn independence and prolonged conversation with a stranger.

I should mention I found out much later that 12 April 1980 was exactly the twenty-fifth anniversary of Einstein’s death according to the Hebrew date, 26 Nissan. So, this encounter took place on his Yahrzeit. In certain forms of religious thought and even artistic practice there may be no such thing as coincidence but, for Albert Einstein, giving attention to such phenomena would probably be regarded simply as indulging in superstition.

According to Lotte Jacobi’s biographers Marion Beckers and Elisabeth Moortgat, she shared with Einstein the experience of emigration and the hope that President Roosevelt would find a way to halt Nazi persecutions against the Jews. Beyond these obvious concerns, they held ‘…similar conceptions of a society guided by humanitarian principles and made up of free and self-determined individuals’. Moreover, the pair ‘…both had a pronounced aversion to empty social conventions and a shared tendency toward self-effacement. They also shared a type of reverence that determined their world view far beyond any institutionalized practice of the Jewish faith’.

Certainly, many highly educated German-Jewish émigrés broadly shared these kinds of political and social approaches to life. Is it possible, however, to ascertain more precisely what Albert Einstein may have had in mind by such a ‘reverence’ that apparently defied conventionally organized Jewish practice?

As someone who felt deeply the mystery of existence, Einstein regarded himself as a religious person. But his ‘cosmic religious feeling’ was to be distinguished from religion based on fear which he regarded as anthropomorphic and as dogmatic cultural construction. Not for Einstein were images of a god as omnipotent father or mother who protects or punishes, who comforts or loves a particular individual or tribe. Nor should organized religion exploit the hopes and fears of people to create a privileged class. He felt that it should be the place of art and science to serve to awaken and communicate human awareness of, ‘…[the] sublimity [sic] and marvellous order which are revealed [by] nature and in the world of thought’.

For Einstein, morality, although having its origins in human convention, is a potential for goodness in the world. Rather than living by the whims of instinct and emotion, it is better to live by principles to inspire decent conduct and the fostering of opportunities for individuals to be able to develop their own creative and intellectual gifts. Again, for Einstein, there are no fixed, dogmatic rules. Rather, morality should generate a constant critical questioning with the aim of seeking justice, encouraging individual freedom and welcoming diversity.

Einstein was proud of being Jewish in that its moral focus is the serving of humanity not personal gratification. For him, the essence of the Jewish point of view,
‘…seems to lie in an affirmative attitude to the life of all creation. The life of an individual has meaning only in so far as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful. Life is sacred—that is to say, it is the supreme value, to which all other values are subordinate.’

So, what implications might there be for life in our synagogue communities from Einstein’s point of view? Let’s try to set aside two negative points: my understanding is that he had no interest in being part of a formal Jewish community based around a synagogue and, second, he personally grew less and less gregarious as he grew older. But he did write concerning the subject of ‘community’ in its broadest sense:

‘What an extraordinary situation is that of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though sometimes he feels it. But from the point of view of daily life, without going deeper, we exist for our fellow men—in the first place for those whose smiles and welfare all our happiness depends, and next for all those unknown to us personally with whose destinies we are bound up with the tie of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labours of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.’

This paragraph appears in an altered form on page 216 of Siddur Lev Chadash as part of the study theme concerning ‘Community’. The endnotes acknowledge that it was edited by Rabbi Chaim Stern. Our prayer book text is gender-neutral and some of the archaic flourishes have been thankfully subdued but, on the other hand, perhaps some of the force of its moral demand has been lost. Instead of reminding ourselves a ‘hundred times a day’ how we are so dependent on others, we have the rather bland ‘Many times a day’. Amid the pain and difficulties of life, not to mention the cravings of the ego, it is a never-ending discipline to cultivate gratitude and respect for others. In addition, the last portion of the paragraph in which Einstein expresses his nowadays unfashionable preferences for plain living, not to mention his socialist outlook, has been eliminated.

At a time when Anglo-Jewry is sharply declining, some of us are especially concerned for the survival of a Judaism that includes at its heart universalistic humanitarian values and reason rather than emphasizing tribalism. Our communities can be places where we both care for each other pastorally as well as being open to creative exploration and intellectual discovery. And our activities could be still more open to people of all backgrounds or faiths/no faith, so that they, too, might find ways to experience Einstein’s sense of the ‘mysterious’ and Judaism’s reverence for life.