Cross-currents has an insightful article by Rabbi Avi Shafran on Albert Einstein’s ambivalence about the existence of God. He takes Einstein to task on seemingly contradictory statements on this subject. Here is how he puts it:
(Einstein’s) mental exploration of the universe had provided him knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate… the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms.” Yet, in that same letter he claims to be “agnostic” about – i.e. neither affirming nor denying –the existence of a Supreme Being.
Rabbi Shafran tries to drive home the point that Einstein’s ambivalence stems from a lack of expertise in any discipline other than science - be they metaphysical or political. And he then uses some examples to show where both Einstein and other brilliant scientists fail to understand even the most elementary aspects of them.
As an observant and believing Jew, I find it awkward to defend Einstein’s Agnosticism. But I think one has to be fair.
While I think it’s true that Einstein was a novice when it came to subjects other than science, I don’t think it’s correct to categorize Einstein’s ambivalence about God’s existence as a mere lack of expertise in Jewish thought. I agree that his knowledge of Judaism was meager. He was after all not raised in a religious home nor given a religious education.
In an interesting to side note I have read that as a child of about 12 years of age Einstein decided to be observant for a while. It didn’t last long, however. The point here is that his knowledge of Jewish theology or any theology was meager a best. He was basically a Tabula Rasa on the subject of God.
From a scientific perspective one can easily see Einstein’s dilemma and understand his beliefs. Like our patriarch Abraham, he understood the ‘profound reason and radiant beauty’ of the universe, and their accessibility to human reason only ‘in their most elementary forms’. From this he concluded the possible - perhaps even likely existence ‘of something we cannot penetrate’.
But as a scientist not being able to prove or disprove it - and as someone who draws conclusions only from observable and conclusive data, he had no choice but to be agnostic on the matter. His conclusions are those of a rational mind that relies entirely on what exists in the physical world. And he left open the question of a metaphysical world which he cannot physically experience.
We Jews do not rely solely on physical evidence for our beliefs. We conclude that there exists ‘something we cannot penetrate’ in much the same way Einstein did. We rely on a vast amount of evidence indicating God’s existence. But even with all that evidence, God’s existence cannot be conclusively proven. Nor do we require physical proof.
In fact physical proof works against the very nature of belief. Irrefutable proof would no longer make it a belief but a provable fact. That would take away Bechira Chofshis. And it would mean there could be no such thing as an atheist or an agnostic.