Jewish Journal

Einstein, Kaplan and Heschel walk into a bar

by Roger Price

November 1, 2012 | 9:01 am

Photo by Wikipedia/Library of Congress

It was in 1953, or so. The exact date is lost to memory.  The pub was somewhere just north of Columbia University. Albert Einstein, perhaps the greatest physicist of the century, picked the place in part because he was visiting an old friend at Columbia, as he was traveling from Princeton to his summer home on Long Island.  Not coincidentally, for he did not believe in coincidences, it was also not too far from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Einstein wanted to meet JTS luminaries Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Joshua Heschel, and had heard that the bar had a booth in the back that was conducive to conversation. He was interested in Kaplan because he had heard of Kaplan’s attempts to create a Jewish theology without supernaturalism. The idea of a naturalist philosophy, or trans-naturalist as Kaplan sometimes called it, appealed to Einstein. Anyone whose prayer book was radical enough to get burned, by Jews no less, was a bonus for the seventy plus year old, but ever rebellious, Einstein.

Heschel was a different matter. A dozen or so years earlier, Heschel had been severely critical of Einstein because he thought Einstein had dismissed the God from heaven. Einstein was aware of the criticism, but had also heard Heschel described by some as a pantheist and by others as a panentheist. Einstein’s theology, such as it was, fell in there someplace, too, usually. It made no real difference to Einstein. All agreed that Heschel had a mystical bent. That approach made no sense at all to Einstein, but to some degree that was one of the points of the whole pub exercise.  He was there for a variation on one of his thought experiments. Except this time he was interested not so much in experimenting (though the idea of having a German Jew, a Polish Jew and a Litvak at the same table was intriguing). He was just enjoying thinking about thinking.

Einstein had requested the meeting. Kaplan and Heschel knew each other, indeed were colleagues after a fashion. And each of them knew who Einstein was, of course, but neither had met him despite the fact that each was prominent in the American Jewish community. Both accepted Einstein’s invitation to join him without hesitation. After all, who could turn down the man who just turned down Ben Gurion’s request to become president of the reconstituted State of Israel.

Einstein pre-ordered drinks for everyone – Atomics, they were called. Imp that he was, Einstein thought the selection was funny, but he really just wanted to save time.

Kaplan and Heschel came in together. Neither cared much for the other’s philosophy, but they cared for each other. Apparently, you could do that in those days.

Heschel saw Einstein first. Even in the darkness of the pub, the light seemed to shine off the waves and curls that appeared to sprout randomly from Einstein’s head. After some initial fumbling with Doctor, Herr Professor, Rabbi, they settled quickly into Al, Mordi and Abe.

“Nice space, yes?” Einstein said matter-of-factly.  “Space,” said Heschel, “is full of wonder.” “You’re right, Abe,” Einstein replied, “but I was talking about the space immediately around us – this tavern, not the whole universe.”“Of course,” said Heschel, “but still . . . .”

“And thanks for coming on time,” added Einstein. "Man transcends space, and time transcends man," Heschel interjected.

“Does he always talk like this, Mordi?” “Always and always,” replied Kaplan, with a shrug.

“I ordered Atomics. I hope that is all right with you,” Einstein said. “I don’t know much about your science, Al” said Heschel. “I do know that under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.”

With a wink to Kaplan, Einstein said “You have a gift, Abe.” “My gift,” replied Heschel “is my ability to be surprised.”

“I am not much interested in surprises,” Einstein offered. “I prefer mathematics and science. They disclose the order of the universe. I now realize that God Himself could not have arranged these connections any other way than that which does exist.”

Kaplan rose, glass in hand and announced: “The so-called laws of nature represent the manner of God’s immanent functioning. The element of creativity, which is not accounted for by the so-called laws of nature, and which points to the organic character of the universe or its life as a whole, gives us a clue to God’s transcendent functioning. God is not an identifiable being who stands outside the universe. God is the life of the universe, immanent insofar as each part acts upon every other, and transcendent insofar as the whole acts upon each part.” Kaplan then sat down. “So, Abe, does he always talks like this? “Always and always,” Heschel replied, wearily.

Then, without missing a beat, Heschel added, “Mystery remains. The root of religion is the question what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder and amazement.” To which Kaplan responded: “Religion is as much a progressive unlearning of false ideas concerning God as it is the learning of the true ideas concerning God.”

“Fellas,” Einstein interjected, “Can we not agree on this: Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find, that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. It is a force worthy of veneration, yes?” “Yes,” said Kaplan, “This is the force, the process, I call God.”

“And Abe, you agree, too, do you not, that the most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious? To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness.” “Beyond the grandeur is God.” Heschel replied, adding, “God is a mystery, the mystery is not God.”

“Mordi, now I think that I am getting into the swing. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. How’s that?” “That’s it, Al. Now you sound like Heschel.”

“You could learn from him, too, you know. After all, it does not mean a thing if it does not have that swing.” “I know, Al. If only I had been able to write like Abe, I could have been a contender.” “Say again,” asked a man in an Actors Studio tee-shirt. “I could have been a contender,” boomed Kaplan. “Thanks,” mumbled the young fellow.

“You have done all right,” said Einstein, “Clear and to the point. And your ideas will help our people evolve.” “It’s all relative, isn’t that right, Al ?” Kaplan asked with a twinkle. “Yes,” Einstein agreed, chuckling, “It’s all relative.”

A version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.

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Roger Price was born and raised on the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, long before Barack Obama decided to settle there. Originally schooled in a classic...

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