It’s always a revelation when a world-renowned intellectual attacks religion as silly and juvenile, only for us to discover that his or her own personal life might have greatly benefited from a commitment to the "infantile" biblical values that the person so casually dismissed.
Such was the case recently when the news broke that Albert Einstein’s letter on God, in which he described the Bible as "pretty childish," sold for more than $400,000.
But if history has taught us one thing about intelligent people, it is that even the most brilliant people still need help when it comes to formulating and living with proper values. Paul Johnson’s 1990 book "Intellectuals" demonstrated just how warped the values of some intellectuals — including Rousseau, Marx, and Tolstoy — could be.
The principal purpose of the Bible is to impart values of right and wrong, to teach us of the infinite sanctity of human life, and to lend human existence spiritual purpose. This is something that is counterintuitive and often lost on intellectuals who can sometimes be such know-it-alls that they reject time-honored wisdom in favor of their own machinations.
Such was, unfortunately, the case with Einstein, whose criticism of the Bible presupposes that he had such wonderful personal values that he did not need to receive them from some childish book. Sadly, although he was the smartest man of the ‘0th century, his values were severely lacking. Readers of Walter Isaacson’s masterful biography "Einstein" will discover some of the dirty laundry of Einstein’s personal life that was already public knowledge — for example, his unfaithfulness to his wife Mileva and how he essentially left her to marry his cousin, Elsa. What they will be shocked to discover, however, is a man whose personal failings were often justified by very questionable values.
When, in 1917, his son Eduard got sick with a lung inflammation, Einstein wrote to his best friend Michelle Besso, "My little boy’s condition depresses me greatly. It is impossible that he will become a fully developed person. Who knows if it wouldn’t be better for him if he could depart before coming to know life properly." As if this statement weren’t shocking enough, he then ruminated concerning Eduard to his friend Zanger about employing "the Spartan method" — leaving sickly children out on a mountain to die. One cowers in disbelief to witness a once-in-a-millennium intellect deliberating whether to discard his own child and allow him to be slowly devoured by the elements.
If Einstein had instead looked to the values of the Bible, he would have discovered that every human life, whether healthy or diseased, beautiful or disfigured, is of infinite value and sanctity. Indeed, the Bible attacks the ancient pagan practice of child sacrifice, in which children were seen as naught but the means by which to appease the angry gods, as an "abomination to the Eternal, which He hateth." (Deuteronomy 1′:30-31)
Of course, Einstein, for long periods of his life, was essentially a dead-beat Dad. His son Hans Albert felt so neglected by his father, who when teaching in Berlin during the First World War visited him only every few months, that in November 1917 the boy took to writing his father nasty letters telling him not to visit. Einstein, seemingly insensitive to the wounds harbored by a neglected 11-year-old, followed the advice and stayed away. "The unkind tone of your letter dismays me very much. I see that my visit would bring you little joy. Therefore, I think it is wrong to sit in a train for two hours and ‘0 minutes," which was the time it took to get from Berlin to Zurich, where the boy lived with his mother. (Of course, Einstein, after getting his future wife, Mileva, pregnant seems to have had the baby, Lieserl, given up for adoption without ever having met her, a fact that did not come to light until approximately 30 years after his death.)
Then there was the curious affair of Ilse Einstein, Einstein’s future stepdaughter, who claimed in a letter to her lover that Einstein had wished to marry her instead of her mother. Ilse claimed that Einstein had expressed a strong attraction to her, even while engaged to her mother, which she did not reciprocate, and therefore she declined to marry him. Scholars debate whether Ilse was telling the truth or simply trying to make her boyfriend jealous. But the strange story just adds to the even stranger personal life of the modern world’s most towering intellect.
But his personal life aside, the even greater indictment of Einstein arises from the misguided values inherent in his famous pacifism, which he championed through most of his life until Hitler rose to power and it became clear to him that something had to be done to combat the beast. At that point Einstein not only dismissed his previous pacifism but actually wrote the famous letter to President Roosevelt in August 1939, encouraging him to beat the Germans in building an atomic weapon.
Of course, the silly book that Einstein dismisses as being so childish made it mandatory on all to fight evil and protect the innocent and oppressed even if it meant going to war on their behalf. To be a pacifist when victims are slaughtered is to become passively complicit with evil.
Now none of this means, of course, that Einstein wasn’t a good person. On the contrary, the world Jewish community is tremendously in debt to Einstein for his lifelong support of the Zionist cause without which Israel might not have come into existence. What it does mean is that even Einstein would have to concede that his morals were in need of serious realignment. You can be the smartest man alive but that does not mean that you will not do incredibly silly things based on seriously misguided ideas. Which is why the Jews, however smart or learned, have always turned to the Bible as the source of their morality. Even Albert Einstein would be wise to remember the words of King David: "Never rely solely on your own understanding."
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of many books, including "Judaism For Everyone." He lives in Englewood.