Trimillion meme II: Was Einstein childish to write ‘primitive’?

Previously, the Uncertaintist reported the upcoming auction of the January 1954 letter from Albert Einstein to Eric Gutkind, a thank you note for a copy of Gutkind’s book. The current post examines what Einstein actually wrote, in context, when making three “headline statements”:

The Jewish people are not “chosen”

Religion stems from primitive superstition

The Jewish God reflects weaknesses and the Jewish Bible contains primitive legends

After seeing how the real text differs from some reports about it, the post establishes for each “headline”  Einstein’s meaning, what Einstein was answering in Gutkind’s book, and gives a well-attested example of Einstein writing similar thoughts elsewhere, with similar candor.

Gutkind’s book, Choose Life: The Biblical Call To Revolt, is available for free, in several electronic formats,

Trying to understand Einstein’s letter while ignoring the book he was writing about is an easily avoidable mistake.

The paragraph from Hell

Based on the unabridged transcription available on the Unlinks page, here is the text of the second paragraph of the letter, which contains the three headlines. The rest of the paragraph is written here in italics. The paragraph has been divided into three pieces, by headline, for easy reference.

Still, except for Brouwers’ encouragement, I would have never engaged with your book in detail, because it is written in language which is inaccessible to me. The word God for me is nothing more than the product and expression of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection full of honorable but still primitive legends.

No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change it (for me). These refined interpretations are naturally highly diverse and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me, the unadulterated Jewish religion, like every other religion, is an incarnation of primitive superstitions.

And the Jewish people, to whom I gladly belong, and whose mentality I have deep affinity for, has for me however no different kind of dignity than any other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, while a lack of power saves them from the worst excesses. So I can not perceive anything “chosen” to them.

Differences from a translation attributed to “Joan Stambaugh” by the Guardian newspaper

There is a widely disseminated abridged translation whose fidelity to the German text has been publicly questionned for years. The above text differs principally as follows:

First block: omitting “which are nevertheless pretty childish” at the end

Second block: replacing “subtilised” with “refined,” restoring the omitted word “unadulterated” and replacing “childish” with “primitive”

Third block: replacing “quality” with “dignity” and replacing “cancers” with “excesses”

The English translation used here is explained in the pdf file. The facts underlying the two supposed “childish” references were discussed in the previous post.

We now consider the three headlines in reverse order.

Third headline: The Jewish people are not “chosen”

Meaning? Jews have dignity as human beings, but no more than other people. Jews aren’t the worst people, but little better as a group than others. And then Einstein slams it home with just a slight hedge: in his view, they are not chosen. No more calls, please, we have a headline.

Responding to? Gutkind’s book never uses the term “Chosen People.” He uses “Founded People” instead, more than 60 times throughout the book. Both phrases emphasize a special and exclusive covenental relationship between the Jewish people and their God.

Gutkind explains how the Founded People, and only the Founded People, participate in the Mosaic Covenant. On page 136, under the heading “Only ‘the People’ Can Be Holy,” Gutkind cites scripture,

“Ye shall be a holy people unto me” (Lev. 19. Deut. 14, 28).

That is, the quoted matter is paraphrased in Leviticus 19:2 , Deuternonomy 28:9, and Deuternonomy 14:2, which reads:

For you are a people holy to the LORD, your God; the LORD, your God, has chosen you from all the peoples on the face of the earth to be a people specially his own.

Gutkind brought up the subject of whether the Jewish people are a chosen people, a subject about which Einstein disagreed with Gutkind.

Precedent? Einstein wrote a letter on April 3, 1920 to the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith. Here is the relevant portion of the translation from Alice Calaprice’s The Ultimate Quotable Einstein (Princeton, 2010), her last item on page 195:

I am neither a German citizen, nor do I believe in anything that can be described as a “Jewish faith.” But I am a Jew and glad to belong to the Jewish people, though I do not regard it in any way as chosen.

The letter is call number 87-954 in the Einstein Archives of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Its photo is not online yet, but is coming “soon,” according to the website.

Second headline: Religion and primitive superstitions

Meaning? “Childish” as a description of an adult’s beliefs is gratuitously pejorative. It has no literal support. See the picture a few lines below. Look under the picture’s highlighted bits to confirm that Einstein wrote primitiven Aberglaubens, not  kindischer AberglaubeA close-up photo appeared in the first story in this series establishing the non-existence of the phrase where the other instance of “childish” had been claimed.

The Guardian translation’s outright omission of the word “unadulterated” (unverfälschte) allowed headline writers elsewhere to transform Einstein’s statement about the ancestral forms of religions, including Judaism’s, both into an indictment of all religion, and of Judaism in particular.

… Jewish religion, like every other religion, is an incarnation of primitive superstitions.

Jewish religion, like every other religion, is an incarnation of primitive superstitions.

But the word unadulterated (unverfälschte) is there.

where the omitted word appears

Click image for larger picture

Einstein discusses a version of Judaism, not Judaism in general. This version was not refined, but rather never adulterated in the first place. This pristine version of Judaism is, or would have been in its proper time, an incarnation of superstitions, in Einstein’s view. An appropriate adjective for the kind of superstition typical of ages past is primitive.

On this reading, what every other religion shares with Judaism is having an ancestral, unadulterated form that incarnated superstitions, the primitive kind available back when religions were young. On no account can Einstein be read as saying that “Judaism is an incarnation of superstitions.”

Responding to? Gutkind devotes the second chapter of his book, the longest of his seven chapters, to a critique of four trends that have “watered down” Judaism (page 108); they have adulterated it.

Throughout his book, Gutkind proposes a theory of religious origins and development based on the fundamental difference he sees between thinking in images (the vehicle of magic and superstition, practiced by ancient Egyptians and modern Catholics, in his view) and thinking in words (the anti-magical, anti-superstitious and characteristically Jewish mental approach to the world).

Einstein may agree with Gutkind that modern sophistications have not improved Judaism. He disagrees, however, that Judaism’s origins were so different from other religions’, and says those ancient origins were superstitious, for one and all.

Precedent? Einstein explained his own views about the relationship between current religions and the first stirrings of the religious impulse during a well-known address he presented at The Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in 1940:

During the youthful period of mankind’s spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man’s own image, …Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favor by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old conception of the gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfillment of their wishes.

Among religions, Judaism was neither distinguished from others, nor alone in having such fantasy-magical origins. The text is available online at

First headline: God and the Bible

Meaning? Once deprived of the spurious “pretty childish” clause, the statement is moderate. The Hebrew Bible is, it may reasonably be argued, full of legends. The Jewish canon ranges from the Second Century BCE back to material of Bronze Age vintage. So, those would be primitive legends, in a descriptive rather than pejorative sense.

There may have been some excitement about Einstein’s saying “the word God” rather than just plain “God,” as if he meant the very concept of a god, rather than the Jewish concept of God specifically. But in context, it is obvious that “the word God” is an example of the “language” in which the book “is written,” which Einstein complains is “inaccessible” to him.

Responding to? The very title of the book refers to the Bible. The subject of the book is how Jewish people should relate to their God. Through words. Any commentary on the book could hardly avoid touching on these bedrock elements of Gutkind’s argument.

Precedent? The passage given for the preceding headline serves equally well here, since it sums up Einstein’s view of both primitive and modern people’s relationship to divinity, and their motives. The famous telegram to Rabbi Goldstein, available from the Unlinks page in the Einstein (ir)religion sources pdf, implies the legendary character of the Hebrew Bible,

I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.

The Hebrew Bible is filled with ancient stories of the Jewish God’s concern with the fate and doings of mankind, which Einstein didn’t believe to be true. That is, he believed the stories are legends.


In his letter to Gutkind, Einstein was not writing a credo, but listing their chief points of difference. He wasn’t writing to an intimate, but exploring common ground with a prominent author whose outlook on life was informed by their shared Jewish culture. What Einstein said to Gutkind about religious matters, he had said before to others. This wasn’t his last word about the question of God, either. For example, Einstein’s March 1954 letter to machinist J. Dispentiere is well known (a carbon copy is item 59-495 in the Einstein Archives),

I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly.

The real headline for this story is the durable consistency of the adult Einstein’s religious views, of which the authentic Einstein-Gutkind text is a late, but not last, fairly typical example.



Filed under Religious beliefs of famous folk

7 responses to “Trimillion meme II: Was Einstein childish to write ‘primitive’?

  1. Paul,

    While I still absolutely agree with you that the “childish” interpretation is bunk—Einstein said “primitive superstitions” (and thank you for pointing it out to me!), I cannot agree with you conclusions. The letter as a whole (rather than just the excerpted parts)—and please note that I have only read the transcription you have provided, not the originalis indeed a letter “to an intimate” (one who is also “a prominent author”, certainly). Your exegesis of the term “unadulterated”, while interesting, dismisses the rest of the letter. Whether or not “the unadulterated Jewish religion” is anything ignores that “every other religion[] is an incarnation of primitive superstitions”.

    • Hi, Jane. Thank you for writing. To check the transcription, you might find the current auctioneers’ photos easier to work with.

      Einstein and Gutkind were intimate friends? Einstein speculates what would happen if he spoke with Herr Gutkind. Ignore something which I quoted? Einstein took care to distinguish an ancestral form of Judaism from the rest of Judaism. That distinguished form, he says, embodies primitive superstition, only to say that all other religions do, too, in your reading. So, all Judaism embodies superstition after all, and the same primitive kind to boot. Anything is possible, I suppose, but I read it differently.

  2. Pingback: Einstein’s God Letter – A translation, a fool, the truth. « Harmonia Philosophica

  3. The following are translated by Google Translate with try and effort to clarify the “durch Mangel an Macht gegen die schlimmsten Auswüchse gesichert ist.”.
    What is your opinion? Thanks — Ilia

    /Und das jüdische Volk/ Soweit meine Erfahrung reicht ist es {auch} um nichts besser als andere menschliche Gruppen wenn es auch durch Mangel an Macht gegen die schlimmsten Auswüchse gesichert ist. Sonst kann ich nichts “Auserwähltes” an ihm wahrnehmen.

    Jews, as far as my experience allows it, are no better than the other groups of people – if it also provided by their lack of strength and power, which prevents horrible deformities.

    • Greetings, Ilia

      The passage you cite is translated in the pdf (available from the Unlinks page of the blog) as:

      “And the Jewish people, …As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, while a lack of power saves them from the worst excesses. Otherwise I can not perceive anything ‘chosen’ to them.”

      So, in my opinion, “durch Mangel an Macht gegen die schlimmsten Auswüchse gesichert ist” (a lack of power saves them from the worst excesses) applies a proverb about all people generally (that power corrupts), to the Jewish people in particular.

  4. My question was NOT about Jews but about the translation. [snipped by administrator]

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