News People Einstein’s ‘God letter’ sells at auction for $3.7 million

Einstein’s ‘God letter’ sells at auction for $3.7 million

einstein god letter
Peter Klarnet, of Christie’s, shows a letter written in 1954 by Albert Einstein. In the letter, Einstein called the word God “the expression of and product of human weaknesses". Photo: New York Times
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If it were written now as a series of tweets, they would surely go viral.

Think of it: One of the most famous people in the world is panning religion. “The word God is for me nothing but the expression of and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends,” the message reads. “No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can [for me] change anything about this.”

That is only 239 characters, including the spaces, periods and commas, well short of the 280-character limit for a tweet. And there is more where those words came from – a letter written in 1954 by Albert Einstein that is being auctioned this week. It provides a glimpse of Einstein’s private thoughts and would probably be inflammatory in today’s polarised social media world.

The one-and-a-half-page document, in German, became known a decade ago as the “God letter”, a nickname that makes some Einstein experts wince. But while the letter has to do with his Jewish identity and mankind’s search for meaning, Einstein used the word “God” only once in it, in the passage quoted above.

He sent the handwritten letter to Eric Gutkind, a German philosopher who had written a book called Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt that, apparently, Einstein did not much like. By one account, the book “presented the Bible as a call to arms, and Judaism and Israel as incorruptible.”

einstein god letter
Einstein’s ‘God letter’, which has just sold for $3.7 million. Photo: New York Times

A review in Commentary magazine said Choose Life was “genuinely inspired by Jewish tradition” and “challenges a disillusioned generation to ‘prepare the world for the Kingdom of God’ “.

In the letter, Einstein wrote that he was disenchanted with Judaism, even as he said he was proud to be a Jew. He declared:

“For me, the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot perceive anything ‘chosen’ about them.”Einstein wrote dozens of letters in which he mentioned God or Judaism.

“Nobody should read one Einstein letter and think that solves what he thinks about God,” Walter Isaacson, author of the 2007 biography Einstein, said in an interview. In different decades “or even on different days,” Isaacson said, Einstein’s views “were not totally unchanging”.

The letter surfaced in 2008. Until then, it had apparently been in the hands of Gutkind’s heirs (he died in 1965). It rocketed into the universe of big-money auctions, selling for $404,000 in London.

The buyer was not identified. The Guardian said that evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, an outspoken atheist, was one of the bidders who lost out.

Now the letter has changed hands again. It sold at Christie’s in New York on Tuesday for A$3.7 million, far exceeding its presale estimate of $1.4 million-$2.1 million. (The God letter was offered for sale on eBay for $3 million in 2012. The auctioneer who handled the eBay listing said he could not discuss the outcome. A Christie’s spokeswoman said that it did not sell then and that the person who bought it in 2008 is the seller now.)

The God letter, written the year before Einstein’s death, seems to outline his view of formal religion and the idea of a God who plays an active part in everyday life, answering individual prayers.

“He did not believe in a God who went around choosing favourite sports teams or people,” Mr Isaacson said.

But at other times Einstein described himself as “not an atheist”, and the letter does not annul the seemingly spiritual characteristics of his thinking.

“Einstein often uses the word God – ‘God does not play dice with the universe’,” Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who teaches philosophy and wrote Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, said.

“A lot of physicists do this. It misleads people into thinking they’re theists, they believe in God. It’s a metaphorical way of talking about absolute truth. Einstein used it metaphorically and playfully.”

She said Einstein had been religious when he was a child but “lost his religion and science took over.”

“Every time he was asked if he believed in God, he answered cagily: ‘I believe in Spinoza’s god’,” she said, referring to Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch thinker who drew from Jewish religion and history.

“If you say, ‘I believe in Spinoza’s god’, that’s already saying you don’t believe in what most people believe who believe in God believe. You believe the laws of nature are complete in themselves and contain all the answers.”

Mr Gutkind had made the case in his book that “the Jewish soul is perfect intellectually as well as spiritually”, according to the review in Commentary.

“The mathematicised Einsteinian universe is Jewish as well as progressive, because it is anti-mythological,” it said.

Commentary also noted Gutkind’s “eagerness to find salvation for modern man in the Jewish spirit” (although the reviewer added that doing so induced Gutkind “to make the most extravagant claims in its behalf”).

Diana Kormos-Buchwald, a history professor at the California Institute of Technology and director of the Einstein Papers Project, said Einstein was “not particularly thrilled at the special place that Gutkind devotes to Einstein’s science as the … best example of Jewish deterministic thought”.

“The Jews are the only group to which he feels he could belong,” she said. “But he identifies with them because that is what he was born into, not because they are the chosen people.”

-New York Times