Below are two chapters from Einstein's Rabbi.
You can purchase the entire book directly from the publisher,
Shires Press at Northshire, by clicking HERE.
A Tale of Science and the Soul
Michael M. Cohen
The Echo of the Universe
Einstein’s rabbi lived for another twenty years—years filled with many more conversations. I did not know that, at that moment when his wife Eden told me that he had suffered a heart attack and had been taken to the Princeton Hospital. I thought I had lost him and, with him, my guide; the one who had touched my soul and showed me the way to the path I needed to take. When I told him my fears, he scoffed at me and quoted a letter Einstein wrote to his friend and fellow physicist Michele Besso’s widow after Besso’s death: “In quitting this strange world he has once again preceded me by just a little. That doesn’t mean anything. For we convinced physicists the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, however persistent.”
Time, as Einstein discovered in his Special Theory of Relativity, is not the constant we assume it is, but is warped by the mass of the earth spinning through space. Those “unfinished” statues of Michelangelo in Florence so intrigued Einstein because they falsely captured a moment in time; as though a moment could only be now, devoid simultaneously of past and future. It is perhaps why God’s name in Hebrew is the verb “to be,” with its past, present, and future forms combined into one unified word.
Time, according to Einstein, is a continuum that fluctuates—like stepping into the moving water of a stream.
So what do we latch on to? The timeless echo of the universe; that sound that only our soul can hear, that so inspired the Book of Psalms. I had first experienced that connection standing next to my grandfather, surrounded by a magical sea of white prayer shawls as I listened to the hum of prayer that filled the air around us.
That echo provides our lives with meaning. It reminds us that our lives matter and are important. That echo can come in many forms, through many different messengers. It came to me through what my parents passed on to me, and in fighting them for what they did not convey. It came to me most through Einstein’s rabbi, blessed be his memory, and through the words and life and soul of Einstein himself. It came to me in a chance meeting one night in Jerusalem—and it came to me in a dream.
Prague and Kafka
I returned home shortly afterwards. At breakfast, as the smell of bacon and eggs filled the kitchen, my parents asked if I wanted to go to a matinee showing of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, which had just been released.
“I’ve already made plans to see the rabbi,” I said.
“Your grandfather,” my mother said, a sardonic edge in her voice, “would be so happy to hear that you chose visiting a rabbi over going to a movie. You’ve been spending quite a bit of time with this person. I hope he isn’t brainwashing you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We don’t want to lose you,” said my father.
“That’s funny. You don’t mind hearing the latest torah from Rabbi Woody Allen, your favorite rabbi,” I said under my breath.
“What did you just say?” my mother asked, raising her voice.
I couldn’t believe that they had heard me. I also could not believe what I had said. I never would have said something like that before I had met the rabbi. My heart raced as I felt my choices at that moment: confrontation or placation. I chose the latter, making a lighthearted comment about how rabbis come in all shapes and sizes. But I knew that next time such a diversion would not work.
I pondered what had happened as I arrived at the rabbi’s in the early afternoon. I found him and Eden sitting on the front porch, with the living room windows open, listening to classical music.
“Joseph, do you recognize this piece of music?” he asked.
“Rabbi, I’m not sure but it sounds like Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem.”
“Yes! We are listening to Smetana’s The Moldau, the river that flows through Prague. The E minor melody that you just heard was based on an Eastern European folk tune that he included in his symphony. This recording of the piece includes a local Princeton musician, who we knew and who grew up on Mercer Street next door to Albert. She said that she became a professional musician because of her success at mathematics—and that she attributed to Albert.
“She once told us that she had trouble with her arithmetic homework when she was ten years old. She had heard that at number 112 Mercer there lived a big mathematician, who was also a very good man. She knew that he was a good man since some of her friends had gone trick-or-treating at his house and he played the violin for them! So she grabbed some homemade fudge and went and knocked on his door and asked him to help her with her homework. He was very willing, but with a chuckle accused her of trying to bribe him with the chocolate. She said that he explained everything very well and that it was easier to understand than when her teacher explained it in school. He said that she should come whenever she found a problem too difficult. When her mother heard what she had done, she went over to apologize to Albert. He said: ‘You don’t have to excuse yourself. I have certainly learned more from the conversations with the child than she did from me.’”
We all laughed.
“At any rate,” the rabbi continued, “the river flowing through Prague actually has two names, “Molded” in German and “Vltava” in Czech. The two names represent the people of her banks who were split in two: the Czech and German populations of Bohemia.”
Eden interjected, “According to Jewish legend, in the sixteenth century Rabbi Yehudah Loew recited secret incantations over mud from of that river to fashion the Golem, a Jewish version of Frankenstein, to save the Jews from persecution.”
I then said, looking for something to add, “And every baseball used in the major leagues is rubbed with mud from the Delaware River, and only ten people know where it comes from.”
“Are we finished?” said the rabbi with a bit of both exasperation and humor in his voice. He then continued, “Albert found himself caught up in that division when he accepted a teaching position at the German University of Prague in 1911. The university was fraught with the growing tension between the German and Czech populations of the city. In 1888, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor split the university in two: one half German, the other Czech.”
“That’s ironic,” I said, “I know that Einstein renounced his German citizenship when he was a teenager.”
“It was more than that,” said the rabbi. “He had to take out Austro-Hungarian citizenship to join the faculty. If questions of nationality were thrust upon him, so were questions of religious identity. When it came to filling out ‘religion’ on his application, he put down ‘none.’ But Emperor Franz Josef, who personally signed the faculty appointments, would not appoint anyone who did not state their religion. Reluctantly, Albert had the form changed to read ‘Mosaic,’ the term for someone Jewish, so he could get the appointment.”
“I thought that Einstein always saw himself as a Jew,” I said “Why would he be reluctant to acknowledge that he was ‘Jewish’ on the form?”
The rabbi sighed. “Filling out a form pressed all his buttons,” he said. “What Albert had rejected was Judaism as an organized religion. The Austrian physicist Phillip Frank said he and Albert were once at a police station in Prague to get a passport. A Jewish man asked Einstein if he knew a restaurant in Prague where the food was strictly kosher. Einstein mentioned the name of a hotel that was known to be kosher. The man then asked Einstein if the ‘hotel [was] really strictly kosher?’ This annoyed Einstein. ‘Actually, only an ox eats strictly kosher,’ he replied. The pious man was hurt and looked indignantly at Einstein. Einstein, however, explained that his statement was not offensive at all, but quite objective and innocent: ‘An ox eats grass, and this is the only strictly kosher food because nothing has been done to it.’
“Was Einstein right, Rabbi?” I asked. I had only the foggiest notions of the laws of kashrut.
“Honestly, I don’t think that Albert understood kashrut. It is a spiritual discipline, as well as the awareness that when we eat meat, we are taking a life. That is another discussion for another time. The incident illustrates Albert’s disdain for the rigidity and artifice of religion.
“But there was more to why he was reluctant to openly identify as Jewish, and that had to do with the development of his own Jewish identity. Years later, when he was in a similar situation, he did not even think twice about declaring himself ‘Jewish’ on a form. As I mentioned to you previously, there was a maturation of his Jewish identity as the years went on.”
“Interesting,” I said, as I shifted in my rocking chair, finding myself thinking again about my own Judaism.
Looking straight at me, the rabbi said, “Everyone has their own path. They find their own way. The maturation of which I speak is common to us all and exists in all religions. That same dynamic operates in your life. Joseph, you have given me hints of a desire to be more Jewish. A part of you is waiting for the rest of you to catch up to integrate the who you are now with the who you want to be. With Albert, I am not sure that it was the same process, but he clearly had the foundations of his Judaism in place. When the conditions were right, that identity asserted itself. The difference between you and Albert is that it was external anti-Semitism that forced him to identify as a Jew, while, for you, I believe, it is much more of an internal process.”
“How can I help that process happen, Rabbi?”
“First of all, as I learned, spiritual development is a process. It is never complete. You never ‘get there,’ and it is life-long. Our system of Torah reading reminds us of this lesson. We start on Simchat Torah, right after the fall harvest holiday of Sukkot, with the beginning of Sefer Beresheet, the Book of Genesis and the story of the creation of the universe. We take a whole year to read through the Five Books of Moses and end up at the end of Sefer Dvarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, with Moses and the Children of Israel looking across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Now, the tradition could have ended with the first chapter of the Book of Joshua, when we read about our entry into the land of Israel. But instead the Torah ends there, and we roll the scrolls back again to the beginning of Creation and start all over.
“The point here is that it is the journey, not reaching the final destination, that is most important. Even if you ‘reach’ a destination, you are not the same existential ‘you’ who began the journey. All that has happened along the way has changed you. So in a certain sense ‘you,’ the existential person you are now, will never ‘get there,’ because you will be a different ‘you’ when you arrive.”
I thought for a moment about what the rabbi had just said. Then I said, “Rabbi, I came here because I wanted to find out how Einstein could help me with my own feelings of confusion and a yearning that I’ve had since I was very young.”
“I hope you don’t entirely model yourself on Albert,” said Eden. “He may have been the smartest man in the world, but he was incredibly absentminded. More than once, I was in the deli off Witherspoon Street when the owner took a call from Helen Dukas, who let him know that Albert was walking over. A few minutes later, in would walk Albert with a list pinned to his jacket. Once his order was filled, the total would go on his tab since he was not good at keeping track of money. Then the deli owner would call his home and let them know that Albert was on his way. During World War I, Albert was delayed crossing the border from Germany into Switzerland because he could not remember his name. It’s not surprising that one of his school teachers said that his mind was like a sieve.”
While the day was warm enough to sit outside, it had been cloudy, and the sky was growing increasingly dark. Finally it began to rain. A real spring downpour, accompanied by thunder and lightning.
“Shouldn’t we go inside?” I asked.
“This is one of our favorite pastimes,” said Eden, “sitting on the porch during a storm.” With the sound of thunder, the rabbi and Eden recited, “Baruch atah adonay eloheynu melech ha’olam shekocho ugvurato maley olam” translating for me, “Blessed are You, Ruler of the Universe whose power and might fill the world.” We took in the power, sounds, and smell of the storm. When the wind began to push the rain onto the porch, we headed inside.
The rabbi and I sat in the living room so we could still hear the storm through the open window. Eden turned off the music and went to read in the dining room.
“Prague, like many of the great European cities,” the rabbi said, “had an important intellectual life in its cafés and salons. Café Slavia was the leading Czech café, a favorite spot for Czech writers, journalists, and progressive thinkers. Albert would go there and to Café Louvre to talk to colleagues or scribble equations on pieces of paper. Nearby, at the Café Arco, was another intellectual circle that included the young and still unknown writer Franz Kafka.”
“Finally,” I said, “Kafka and Einstein. I’ve been waiting to hear about this.”
“Yes, it’s interesting,” said the rabbi. “But first you need to understand a bit about Prague in the second decade of the twentieth century. The richness and depth of Prague’s intellectual life during those years included, at different times, such writers as Rainer Maria Rilke, Martin Buber, and Thomas Mann. Second, although about half of the Germans there were Jews, the relation of the Jews to the other Germans assumed a problematic character because the racial theories, later to become Nazi creed, had already begun to influence the Sudeten Germans. On the one hand, the Germans wanted the Jews as allies against the Czechs. On the other hand, they did not want to identify themselves too closely with the Jews.
“Only ten years earlier, a Jewish cobbler, Leopold Hilsner, had been falsely accused of performing a ritual murder on a young Christian woman near the town of Polna, about seventy miles southeast of Prague, and sentenced to death for the crime. His case became a cause célèbre in Eastern Europe as well as a manifestation of growing anti-Semitism. In the same way that Emile Zola had come to the defense of Dreyfus in France in the last decade of the nineteenth century, Tomas Masaryk, at the time a young member of the Austro-Hungarian Parliament and the future President of the Czech Republic, accomplished the same for Hilsner in getting his death sentence commuted. However, he was immediately tried again for another murder, also on trumped-up charges because he was Jewish, and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and Hilsner was finally pardoned in 1918 near the end of World War I.
“Finally, the Anarchist movement and political assassination of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was still hauntingly alive in the 1920s. Anarchists had assassinated the French president, Sadi Carnot, in 1894; Elizabeth of Austria, the wife of Franz Joseph I of Austria in 1898; King Umberto I of Italy in 1900; and President William McKinley in 1901. And in June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie, would be assassinated by a Slavic nationalist. This assassination set in motion the events that lead to World War I and many of the subsequent political events of the twentieth century.
“Kafka and Einstein were part of a dynamic salon that met at the home of Berta Fanta on Tuesday evenings in her apartment on the historic Wenceslas Square in the center of Prague, not far from the Jewish quarter. Decades later, in Princeton, Berta’s daughter-in-law, Johanna Fantova, who I have already mentioned to you, became Albert’s companion during the last part of his life. Fanta’s was one of Prague’s eminent intellectual circles and included the physicist Phillip Frank, the philosophers Christian von Ehrenfel and Felix Weltsch, Rudolph Steiner, the father of anthroposophy, Fanta’s son-in-law Hugo Bergman, and Max Brod, who published Kafka’s writings. Brod also wrote a novel, The Redemption of Tycho Brahe, in which the character of Kepler is modeled on Einstein.”
“How was Einstein portrayed?” I asked.
“That’s a good question. Fanta was an ardent Zionist, as were Brod and Weltsch, and Brod’s portrayal of the fictional Kepler was a veiled criticism of Einstein’s lack of enthusiasm for Zionism, which would change, by the way, a few years later, when Albert was appointed professor at the University of Berlin. In Prague, Einstein could not be bothered with such matters. He was immersed in work on the idea of light bending through gravity, which would eventually lead to his General Theory of Relativity.”
“It must have been an exciting time,” I said.
“While Kafka and Albert were part of a mostly Jewish circle,” the rabbi continued, “their connection to Judaism was minimal.” The rabbi walked down the hall to his study and returned with a book. “In his famous Letter to His Father, Kafka wrote about attending services at the Pinchas Synagogue, his family’s shul: ‘And so I yawned and dozed through the many hours and did my best to enjoy the few little bits of variety there were, as for instance when the Ark of the Covenant was opened, which always reminded me of the shooting galleries where a cupboard door would open in the same way whenever one hit a bull’s-eye.’”
“That’s pretty funny, but Rabbi,” I paused for a brief moment, “services can be very boring.”
“Well, they can be, but that is another discussion.”
“Joseph, don’t let him stall you on important questions like that,” said Eden as she went by to get the mail that had just arrived.
The rabbi looked at her, smiled, and then said without missing a beat, “Joseph, all spiritual disciplines have a repetitive element in them that, yes, can be boring at times, but is also the key to why they work. In part that repetitiveness provides an anchor, a constant, in our lives; as so much in our lives can change, we seek—we need—a grounding that we can count on to be there. Breathing is repetitive, our heart beating is repetitive, the earth circles the sun, and the moon circles the earth. Repetition is a key to how the world operates that we often lose sight of in the hustle and bustle of our lives.”
The rabbi then returned the conversation to Einstein and Kafka. “Kafka’s relationship to Judaism, like Einstein’s, kept developing. Kafka’s friendship with the actor Jizchak Lowey, who was performing in the Yiddish theater company in Prague, had a positive influence on his Jewish identity.”
“It’s hard for me to think that so many of the great writers and thinkers who were Jewish had such an ambivalent relationship to their Judaism.”
“Remember what Albert said about a snail still being a snail. Everyone develops in his or her own way. Our task—my task, I should say—is to help people in their journey; to awaken their souls to the beauty and wisdom of our tradition.”
The rabbi’s initial inclusion of me in this task made me feel good. He continued, “In truth Einstein and Kafka in Prague were a study in contrasts. While Kafka was quiet at Fanta’s salon, Einstein joined in discussions. Albert was already well known; Kafka, unknown. Both were obsessed with the chaos of the world and the universe—chaos reflected in the paintings of Picasso and Cubists. Kafka embraced and entered the madness of that chaos, while Albert tried to find order in it. Albert once said to me about Kafka’s The Castle, that he ‘couldn’t read it because of its perversity.’”
“Asher,” Eden called out. “You need to take your nap.”
“Joseph, I usually nap for only an hour. Feel free to wait for me here in the living room or in my study.”
“I don’t want to impose on you,” I said.
“Your visits are no imposition at all. Besides, Berlin is the next crucial stage in Einstein’s Jewish development, and I’d like to share it with you soon after telling you about his Prague experience.”
The rabbi went upstairs, and I went over to his study. I had seen it only partially through the door in the dining room. It felt sacrosanct, and I had not asked to enter it. I took a deep breath and walked in. The walls were lined with bookshelves that were filled with books from floor to ceiling. On the wall to the left as one entered were six tall filing cabinets. A large desk, piled with books and papers, faced a big bay window. The photo of Michelangelo’s David hung next to the desk.
I walked over to the bookshelves and scanned the titles. The books were on Judaism, the Bible, archeology, Jewish and Israeli poetry, and philosophy. As I reached the last shelf, I paused. The books did not seem to belong there. They were novels: The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, Not So Wild a Dream by Eric Severaid, The Web and the Rock by Thomas Wolfe, and The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell.
Eden walked by at that moment and noticed my puzzled expression. “Don’t think Asher is limited to only Jewish sources in his quest for knowledge and truth,” she said. “His love of secular literature was one of the early points of contention between him and my father.” She came over and gently touched the spine of Justine, a volume in Durrell’s series. “Personally, Maugham is one of my favorites.” She said it with a certain fondness, almost a wistfulness. And with that, she limped from the room. A few minutes later I heard the stairs creak as the rabbi came down to continue our conversation.