ReconRabbi • February 2010
Reconstructionist Rabbi Michael M. Cohen‘s book, Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and The Soul, pursues several important ambitions within the confines of one hundred fifty-nine easily read pages. First, to write a novel. Second, to explore the life and ideas of Albert Einstein. Third, to pass on a trove of Jewish lore and learning. Fourth, to expound a Reconstructionist approach to theology and Judaism that is compatible with late twentieth-century science. Finally, I suspect, to document in a partially disguised form something of the author’s life and thought, especially about his decision to become a rabbi. To succeed at such an endeavor requires an enormous tour de force. No wonder Rabbi Cohen spent ten years writing this book!
I was charmed by the underlying fantasy that integrates all these ambitions into one slim volume. The fantasy is that Einstein made friends with a rabbi living near Princeton and carried on extended conversations with him mostly about Einstein’s view of God, his religious experience, and his identity as a Jew. After Einstein’s death the Narrator (“I”) meets the rabbi, who lives nearby, and over an extended period, discusses with him the Narrator’s emerging determination to deepen his connection to Judaism by performing mitzvot and becoming a rabbi, determinations Einstein’s Rabbi skillfully nurtures by a combination of personal warmth and a sophisticated and subtle approach to religion and Jewish history and identity. Along the way the Narrator discloses his parents’ opposition to his growing religiosity. They are secular Jews and, for a reason that emerges late in the story, are horrified by the path he has chosen. At the same time, and partly to counter the Narrator’s perhaps facile reasons for rejecting what he imagines are the rabbi’s simplistic orthodox views, the rabbi tells him of the conversations between him and Einstein, the story of Einstein’s life, his contributions to science, and his thoughts about Judaism and God. Our author assures us that the quotations and facts about Einstein the rabbi provides are accurate.
Besides being a warm and caring grandfatherly figure the Rabbi, who is ill with heart disease, has a doting wife (Edna) who brings tea and serves Shabbat meals to the Narrator on his increasingly frequent visits. They provide the counterpoint to the Narrator’s growing estrangement from his parents, as he leaves home first for college and and then for a wider world.
Einstein’s Rabbi is fraught with parallels. As the Narrator rebels against his parents, so the rabbi and his wife rebelled against her father who was too rigid to accept the rabbi’s Reconstructionist views. (The rabbi left Europe to study with Mordecai Kaplan!) Just as the rabbi draws the Narrator into Judaism (and the Rabbinate), so the rabbi brought Einstein into a more appreciative acceptance of himself as a Jew. Indeed, the Rabbi’s influence seems to be the source of Einstein’s late-life recognition that the awe he felt upon encountering a sublime Intelligence in his work is the same feeling that the psalmists evoke about God. Einstein’s senses that the universe must be the work of a great Designer because, understood through correct science, everything is governed by principles that the rational faculty can understand. This is the faith of a scientist, and perhaps of many others among the cognoscenti, namely that the universe is comprehensible, even though it seems in many respects mysterious now because we are at the threshold, rather than the end, of a scientific understanding of it.
Focusing on the narrative does not do justice to Einstein’s Rabbi. For it is replete with Jewish learning, carefully and tastefully selected not only to put our tradition’s best foot forward but also to present a subtle and attractive amalgam of classic Reconstructionist and existentialist approaches to Judaism. Here and there the author strews jewels of writing and insight across the reader’s path. Cohen’s brief discussions of prayer, of Adonai as a God of love, and of how Einstein concluded that time is not universal but relative to the velocities of moving bodies exemplify the author’s skill. Futhermore, the book ranges far more widely than my summary shows and the narrative would seem to permit: from the holocaust and Zionism to the shock and horror of 9/11, from the Kabbalah to Freud, from Michelangelo’s David to the cantorial voice of Yosele Rosenblatt.
Much as I liked and learned from this book Einstein’s Rabbi left me unsatisfied. Combining four different literary ambitions into one short book prevents a complete fulfillment of all of them, I fear. I wish Cohen had gone farther with his theological reflections, as perhaps he might have had he not hidden behind the mask of fiction. That’s too bad because this book is important. It returns to the original Reconstructionist project of creating a new “Judaism Without Supernaturalism.” Eschewing the contemporary embrace of the weird cosmological notions of the Kabbalists, Cohen apparently finds his inspiration in the natural order. Hence his subtitle “A Tale of Science and the Soul.” If science, or at least physics, enabled Einstein to access the yirah, the awe, that our ancestors associated with God then how can it do so for us who are innumerate? Should we move away from the model of prayer addressed to a Sovereign, as Rabbi David Nelson and I have argued we should? Perhaps, given Cohen’s imagination and breadth of knowledge he could deepen our intellectual understanding of what Einstein encountered when he responded so powerfully to the surprising amenability of everything in the Universe to the probing of trained, rational minds. Is that amenability a faith, and one that unites all scientists? Or is it an inference from the exponential growth of ordered knowledge that the scientific community has amassed over the past few centuries, of which Darwin’s theory of evolution and the extraordinary diverse and detailed observations of biologists in his time and later is a stunning example? If it’s a faith, do we share it? How does it differ, if it does, from a religious faith? Reconstructionists, and I suspect most Jews, no longer expect God to redeem us from the apocalyptic end that our Second Temple ancestors foresaw and that bears a chilling resemblance to the holocaust. Should we put our faith rather in humanity’s ability to apprehend and learn from its own experience and observation and apply that learning to ameliorating the human condition? And if we should ought we not put greater emphasis in our ritual and communal life on that hope? Or does quantum weirdness undermine Einstein’s and our confidence?
The charm and thought-provoking quality of Einstein’s Rabbi is inescapable. So are the questions it raises. Let’s hope that its author will write a sequel....and soon.