(RNS) - "Of course!" was my initial response when I learned Time magazine had chosen Albert Einstein as the Person of the 20th Century. Einstein's selection set me thinking about the mustachioed, pipe-smoking Nobel Prize winner of 1922 whose public persona was that of an absent-minded professor.

However, I winced when a TV announcer called Einstein the "German-born scientist." While the statement is geographically correct, it completely misses a central fact of Einstein's life: Like the other Jews of that country, he may have lived "in" Germany but he was never fully "of" Germany. Indeed, even before Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein's extraordinary scientific breakthroughs, including his theory of relativity that was integral to the creation of the atomic bomb, were contemptuously ridiculed by the Nazis as worthless "Jewish science."

It is often forgotten how virulent and widespread was anti-Semitism in the German Weimar Republic of the 1920s. One observer bitterly noted: "When (Otto) Klemperer (a Jewish symphony conductor) takes tempi different from (Wilhelm) Furtwangler, when a painter uses a color for a sunset not seen in Lower Pomerania, when you build a house with a flat roof (Bauhaus modernity)...when you admire Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein, when you follow the democracy of the brothers (Thomas and Heinrich) Mann and when you enjoy the music of (Paul) Hindemith and Kurt Weill--all that is 'Cultural Bolshevism.'"

Two German Nobel laureates of the 1920s, Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard,publicly attacked Einstein, claiming his ideas undermined the absolute laws of nature. For Stark and Lenard, "German science" was rational and factual, while Einstein's "Jewish physics" was subjective and speculative.

Following World War II, Albert Speer, Nazi Germany's Minister of Armament, described how Hitler "had conceived an irrational hatred" of Einstein and his work.

One result of the Fuhrer's loathing was that any discovery stemming from Einstein or any other Jew was rejected by German scientists. Ironically, anti-Semitism may have kept the Nazis from developing an atomic bomb while historians cite Einstein's 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt as a key impetus for the American effort to develop a nuclear weapon.

Because of his international fame, Einstein was one of the fortunate Jews able to flee Nazi Germany in the 1930s. He came to the United States where he continued his illustrious career in Princeton, N.J., until 1955 when he died at age 76.

Upon his death, Abba Eban, the Israeli statesman, wrote that Einstein's quest for a unified theory of the universe represented a "direct link" with the traditional Jewish religious concept that the cosmos "is not a chaos of wild uncontrollable, arbitrary, mysterious forces, but that it is a pattern of order and progress guided by an articulate intelligence and law."

In that sense, Einstein's scientific genius "made union with the revelation" of ancient Judaism.

Throughout his life, Einstein was always keenly aware of his Jewish identity. In fact, when Israel achieved independence in 1948, the world-famous Einstein was approached to become the Jewish state's first president. He respectfully declined the honor, but remained intensely committed to the survival and security of the country.

Just 10 days before his death, Einstein wrote to Eban, saying, "My connection with the Jewish people is the deepest emotion of my life" and the cause of "our State of Israel moves me to lend my full influence and support."

And what did Time's Person of the Century believe about God and the universe?

While not a religiously observant Jew, Einstein strongly acknowledged the existence of a Divine Presence that gives meaning to our world.

"You believe in a God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists...and which I am trying to capture," Einstein once wrote a colleague. "I firmly BELIEVE, but I hope that someone will discover a more realistic way or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find."

A colleague of mine once served the Princeton synagogue as a student rabbi during his seminary years. At one Sabbath service, he spoke about "Religion and Science: Friends or Foes?" He grew anxious when he saw Einstein seated in the congregation, and my friend nervously delivered his talk which called for reconciliation between science and religion.

Following the service, Einstein shook the young seminarian's hand, smiled, and said, "Rabbi, a good sermon, but I have a few questions to ask you."

Happily, Albert Einstein's magnificent legacy, and, yes, his "few questions," will forever remain with us.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad