It was the anguish of a father who lost his young son to polio in 1950 that triggered the soulful journey that lies at the heart of Rabbi Naomi Levy’s new book, “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul.”
“His death has shattered the very structure of my existence,” the father wrote in a letter. “My very life has become an almost meaningless void — for all my dreams and aspirations were somehow associated with his future and his strivings.”
The grieving father, Rabbi Robert Marcus, was desperate for some form of consolation and meaning from his loss. He surely knew that any rabbi could console him with thoughts of the afterlife and of living memories. But he wasn’t writing to a man of God.
He was writing to Albert Einstein.
He wanted to hear how the world’s greatest scientist would respond to his despondent cries: “Am I to believe that my beautiful darling child — a blooming bud that turned its face to the sun and was cut down by an unrelenting storm — has been forever wedded into dust, that there was nothing within him which has defied the grave and transcended the power of death?”
Marcus was challenging the genius scientist about something Einstein had written that seemed to dismiss religious transcendence: “Any individual who should survive his physical death is beyond my comprehension … such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.”
Einstein, then, was in a tight spot: How would he console the grieving rabbi without compromising his scientific integrity?
His enigmatic answer, which Levy discovered while doing research for a class, is what compelled her to write the book.
“Einstein’s exquisite words stopped me in my tracks,” she writes. “He was expressing everything I believed about our limited vision and about the oneness we have trouble seeing, but that we are all part of.”
The letter resonated so deeply that it triggered a three-year journey that involved, among many things, tracking down the heroic and tragic story of Rabbi Marcus’ life, the eventual discovery of his letter to Einstein and a few other surprises.
The book evolves as a sort of spiritual adventure to ferret out the meaning of Einstein’s message and connect it to how our souls can elevate and enrich our everyday lives.
But it is Einstein’s response that especially illuminates the book. The book evolves as a sort of spiritual adventure to ferret out the meaning of Einstein’s message and connect it to how our souls can elevate and enrich our everyday lives.
The letter itself is brief — 78 words. Levy writes that she meditated on it “every day for three years.” (I meditated on it myself a few months ago when I had a chance to review the manuscript.)
So, what did Time magazine’s Person of the Century have to say to a rabbi devastated by the loss of his son? I won’t give it all away, but I can say that his answer is a kind of midrash on the gaps in our consciousness.
It is an “optical delusion,” Einstein writes, to experience ourselves as something separate from the universe, as “separate from the rest.” Freeing ourselves from this delusion is “the one issue of true religion,” and trying to overcome the delusion is the way to reach the “attainable measure of peace of mind.”
An attainable measure? An optical delusion? The one issue of true religion? Those are not the words one usually hears at a shivah, but they are the words that planted themselves in Levy’s consciousness.
Einstein used rational words to express a soulful message about our cosmic interconnection. In doing so, he made science caress religion. He validated Levy’s tapestry of human connectivity which unfolds throughout her book.
Of the many stories that comprise this tapestry, the most personal is how Levy deals with the death of her father. As she chronicles this painful chapter, she sets up the spiritual thrust of the book — “sensing the pulsating rhythm in all things … being attuned to mystery … embracing life’s magic instead of needing to control it all the time.”
This mysterious magic lies in our souls.
Throughout the book, Levy displays a gift for challenging us and empowering us at the same time. She challenges us to access the divine power of our souls to improve our lives, and she empowers us through the simple magic of human stories.
More than anything, Levy wants us to remember that, through our souls, we all are connected for eternity in God’s universe.
“I can see hints of eternity now that I had no access to then,” she writes near the end.
The little boy whose tragic death in 1950 led to a soul-stirring book in 2017 is a poignant hint of this eternity.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.