Monday, March 18, 2013

Last week was Albert Einstein's birthday. He was a very smart man. One of the interesting things that I saw posted in honour of his birthday was
this letter that he wrote regarding scientists and religion

The Riverside Church

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered.

We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?

We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis's class.

Respectfully yours,



January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings,

your A. Einstein

Even though we clearly do not decide matters of hashkafa based on Einstein, I think he makes a very valid point, which is often forgotten. Someone who approaches Judaism (or probably any religion) in a more rational, scientific way, will have a very different concept of G-d than someone who approaches in a more traditionalist way. I think that each approach has its advantages and disadvantages, and I think that either can be supported by views in Rishonim (though of course, none of the Rishonim knew Einstein's special theory of relativity).

Someone who believes in G-d through tradition and with a temimut (Einstein calls it naivety) will probably have a more personal relationship with G-d, and possibly see the 'hand of G-d' more directly in their life (though not necessarily). However, their conception of G-d will be parochial and limited.

A person who bases their relationship and belief on science will have a much grander, bigger, view of G-d. Their sense of awe and wonder will be enhanced at the beauty and splenour of creation. But it is harder to feel a direct personal connection to such an awesome G-d. All of the Biblical miracles (and certainly the stories of hashgacha pratit) seem petty when compared to the awesome miracle of a single cell, or the wonders of the universe.

I would not suggest that one approach is better or more 'Jewish' than the other. However, I do think that a firm adherent of one approach will have a very difficult time trying to understand someone who holds the other approach. To each other one seems almost an atheist, while the other seems almost an idolator.

Thank you Albert, and happy birthday.

1 comment:

  1. Rav Yisrael Salnter wrote a lot about the gap between head and heart, the things we know intellectually but don't reach us down to a level where they actually change character and the decisions we make. As the good book says, "veyadata hayom, vehasheivosa el levavekha" -- there are many things that we "know today" but still have to "respond to our hearts".

    I think this is an area where this gap can be to our advantage. We can read heavy books, or Reshimu, and get a philosopher's conception of G-d. Meanwhile, we can practice Breslovian hisbodedus, or make heartfelt techinos as per the Vilna Gaon's understanding (both roughly the same thing), and develop a personal relation with G-d by working on an experiential level.