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“Ein Mensch ist ein räumlich und zeitlich beschränktes” (A human being is…limited in time and space) — a letter of consolation by Albert Einstein (1950)

https://opensiddur.org/?p=55881 "Ein Mensch ist ein räumlich und zeitlich beschränktes" (A human being is...limited in time and space) — a letter of consolation by Albert Einstein (1950) 2024-05-14 20:32:12 In a poignant reflection on human limitation and the role of religion, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) consoled two rabbis each grieving the painful loss of their children. The first letter dated 12 February 1950, drafted in German before its translation into English, was written for Rabbi Robert S. Marcus after the death of the rabbi's eleven-year-old son, Jay, from polio in September 1949. The second letter, dated 4 March 1950, was written for Rabbi Norman Salit after the death of Salit's sixteen-year-old daughter, Miriam. Einstein's letter to Rabbi Salit borrowed from and expanded upon the composition of his letter to Rabbi Marcus. In a few short lines, the letter expresses Einstein's opinion on the prison-like delusion of consciousness — and the work of "true" religion to escape this prison through the intentional expansion of compassion beyond one's self. Text the Open Siddur Project Aharon N. Varady (transcription) Aharon N. Varady (transcription) Albert Einstein https://opensiddur.org/copyright-policy/ Aharon N. Varady (transcription) https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/17/107 Mourning Humanist Humanist Judaism 58th century A.M. humility cosmic religion statements of belief 20th century C.E.
In a poignant reflection on human limitation and the role of religion, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) consoled two rabbis each grieving the painful loss of their children. The first letter dated 12 February 1950, drafted in German before its translation into English, was written for Rabbi Robert S. Marcus after the death of the rabbi’s eleven-year-old son, Jay, from polio in September 1949. The second letter, dated 4 March 1950, was written for Rabbi Norman Salit after the death of Salit’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Miriam. Einstein’s letter to Rabbi Salit borrowed from and expanded upon the composition of his letter to Rabbi Marcus. In a few short lines, the letter expresses Einstein’s opinion on the prison-like delusion of consciousness — and the work of “true” religion to escape this prison through the intentional expansion of compassion beyond one’s self.

The text of the letter to Rabbi Salit wasn’t widely known until it was published in The New York Times in an article by Walter Sullivan (29 March 1972), “The Einstein Papers: Man of Many Parts Was Long Involved in the Cause of Peace.”[1] The text of the letter was also reprinted in The New York Post (28 November 1972).  The text of the letter to Rabbi Marcus was disseminated in The New Quotable Einstein (ed. Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 206. Because the date, backstory, and substance of the two letters were so close to one another, questions often arose as to whether there was actually one letter which had been misquoted. My hope is that by setting the text of the the original German draft alongside the text of the two letters, people can more easily recognize the idea of religion that Einstein was developing in the context of his consolations. –Aharon Varady


TABLE HELP

Source (German), Draft of Letter to Rabbi Robert Marcus (12 February 1950)Translation (English), Letter to Rabbi Robert Marcus (12 February 1950)Adaptation (English), Letter to Rabbi Norman Salit (4 March 1950)
Ein Mensch ist ein räumlich und zeitlich beschränktes
Stück des Ganzen,
was wir „Universum“ nennen.[2] In the handwritten draft, “die Welt” (the World) is crossed out and replaced with “Universum.” For rabbinic expressions of the idea that each individual is a world, find Avot DeRabbi Natan 31:2-3, Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5, Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 4:9:1, and Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.13-15. 
Er erlebt sich
und sein Fühlen
als abgetrennt gegenüber dem Rest,
eine optische Täuschung seines Bewusstseins.
A human being is part of a whole,
called by us “Universe,”
a part limited in time and space.
He experiences himself,
his thoughts and feelings
as something separate from the rest—
a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.
A human being is a part of the whole,
called by us “Universe,”
a part limited in time and space.
He experiences himself,
his thoughts and feelings
as something separate from the rest—
a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.
This delusion is a kind of prison for us,[3] Find note below. In his letter to Rabbi Salit, Einstein further develops the ambiguous reading of “Täuschung”/”Fesselung” found in his original draft. 
restricting us to our personal desires
and to affection for a few persons nearest us.
Das Streben nach Befreiung von dieser Fesselung[4] Bryce Haymond notes that the transcription here is uncertain and it may read either “Fesselung” (prison) or “Täuschung” (delusion). 
ist der einzige Gegenstand wirklicher Religion.
The striving to free oneself from this delusion[5] Einstein, or Einstein’s assistant (translating the German into English) reads “Täuschung” here instead of “Fesselung.” 
is the one issue of true religion.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison
by widening our circles of compassion
to embrace all living creatures
and the whole of nature in its beauty.[6] Einstein here replaces the term “true religion” with a description of what he believes to be its valid mission. This is a clever rhetorical elision that bypasses all the assumptions and associations that the term “religion” invokes. 
Nicht das Nähren der Illusion
sondern nur ihre Überwindung
gibt uns
das erreichbare Maß
inneren Friedens.
Not to nourish it
but to try to overcome it
is the way to reach
the attainable measure
of peace of mind.
Nobody is able to achieve this completely,
but the striving for such achievement
is in itself a part of the liberation
and a foundation
for inner security.

This is the text of two related letters by Albert Einstein: the first drafted in German and translated into English (Letter to Rabbi Robert S. Marcus, 12 February 1950, AEA 60-425), and the second expanding upon the formulation of the latter (Letter to Rabbi Norman Salit, 4 March 1950, AEA 61-226). We are grateful to Bryce Haymond for his transcription of the handwritten German in the latter to Rabbi Marcus and for his insights into the ambiguity of the text reading either “Täuschung” or “Fesselung” (noted).

Source(s)

Draft Letter to Robert S. Marcus (Albert Einstein, 12 February 1950) – AEA 60-425 collection of Hebrew University

Letter to Robert S. Marcus (Albert Einstein, 12 February 1950)

Letter to Norman Salit (Albert Einstein 14 March 1950) – AEA 61-226, collection of Hebrew University

excerpt from The Einstein Papers – Walter Sullivan for the New York Times (28 March 1972)

 

Notes

Notes
1The text of the letter was also reprinted in The New York Post (28 November 1972).
2In the handwritten draft, “die Welt” (the World) is crossed out and replaced with “Universum.” For rabbinic expressions of the idea that each individual is a world, find Avot DeRabbi Natan 31:2-3, Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5, Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 4:9:1, and Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.13-15.
3Find note below. In his letter to Rabbi Salit, Einstein further develops the ambiguous reading of “Täuschung”/”Fesselung” found in his original draft.
4Bryce Haymond notes that the transcription here is uncertain and it may read either “Fesselung” (prison) or “Täuschung” (delusion).
5Einstein, or Einstein’s assistant (translating the German into English) reads “Täuschung” here instead of “Fesselung.”
6Einstein here replaces the term “true religion” with a description of what he believes to be its valid mission. This is a clever rhetorical elision that bypasses all the assumptions and associations that the term “religion” invokes.

 

 

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