On December 31, 1930, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a rousing call for the renewed study of the Talmud, the classical Jewish literary-legal compendium. It was written by none other than Albert Einstein, and read as follows:

The scientific organization and comprehensive exposition in accessible form of the Talmud has a twofold importance for us Jews. It is important in the first place that the high cultural values of the Talmud should not be lost to modern minds among the Jewish people nor to science, but should operate further as a living force. In the second place, the Talmud must be made an open book to the world, in order to cut the ground from under certain malevolent attacks, of anti-Semitic origin, which borrow countenance from the obscurity and inaccessibility of certain passages in the Talmud.

To support this cultural work would thus mean an important achievement for the Jewish people.

This letter, originally addressed to a man named Chaim Tchernowitz and then reprinted by the press, has since become something of a cult classic in certain Jewish historical circles. In 2005, when the Yeshiva University Museum opened an exhibit titled “Printing the Talmud,” Einstein’s endorsement of the traditional text was showcased on the front page of its web site.

It’s easy to see why Jews would celebrate this tribute from one of humanity’s intellectual icons. It’s a lot harder to figure out why Einstein wrote it. That’s because there’s one big problem with his fulsome praise of the ancient work: Einstein couldn’t read the Talmud.

“How deeply do I regret not having been more diligent in studying the language and literature of our fathers,” Einstein wrote to his childhood Jewish studies teacher, Heinrich Friedmann, in 1929. “I read the Bible quite often, but the original text remains inaccessible to me.” Einstein regularly testified to his own illiteracy in this regard. When he delivered the inaugural lecture at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1923, his friend Herbert Samuel recounted that Einstein spoke “once in French and once in German—after an opening sentence pro forma in a Hebrew that was evidently unfamiliar.” Around the same time, Einstein wrote to a family friend that he was “too old to feel comfortable with the Hebrew language, which is almost entirely foreign to me.” Decades later, in a 1952 reply to a Hebrew letter from a man named Louis Rabinowitz, Einstein remarked, “My assistant, Bruria Kaufman, who is an Israeli citizen, translated your letter of March 12th to me.”

The Babylonian Talmud consists of nearly 40 tractates and is written in an abstruse amalgam of unpunctuated rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic. It takes years of study to command its contents, let alone opine on its moral and historical significance. By his own admission, Einstein lacked this expertise. Indeed, there is no evidence that he knew any Aramaic whatsoever. As Einstein’s former Princeton colleague Max Jammer pithily put it in his seminal study, Einstein and Religion, “there can be no doubt that he never really studied the Talmud.”

Open volume of the Talmud
Not exactly a beach read (Yair Rosenberg)

And yet, Einstein very publicly endorsed the Talmud—and in some detail. Why?

To understand the reason Einstein wrote this letter, one needs to understand the person it was addressed to: a most unusual Orthodox rabbi named Chaim Tchernowitz. Few today have ever heard of him, but he and Einstein were friends for 20 years—from their first meeting in Berlin at Einstein’s summer residence in 1930 to Tchernowitz’s death in 1949. The two men visited each other on multiple continents, kept up a regular correspondence, and even took vacations together. Through it all, the rabbi and the physicist maintained a running conversation on everything from Tchernowitz’s efforts to modernize Jewish texts, to the latest Zionist developments and disputes in Mandatory Palestine, to the occasional query about the nature of God.

But because the record of this remarkable relationship was contained in an obscure Hebrew memoir and in German letters buried in the Einstein archives, no one has written about the unlikely friendship between the two men, and what it might teach us today about maintaining personal and intellectual fellowships over the vast divides of politics and faith. Until now.

The untold story of Einstein’s friendship with Tchernowitz helps us understand not only why the scientist endorsed the Talmud when he couldn’t read it, but how he viewed his relationship to Judaism, Zionism, and even God. Here in Deep Shtetl, we’ll be making our way through all of this unpublished material, which will be appearing in these pages for the first time.

But before we dive in, we need to understand who Rabbi Chaim Tchernowitz was, and what brought him and Einstein together in the first place.

To Be a Modern Rabbi

A child prodigy born in the small Russian village of Sebezh in 1871, Tchernowitz was animated by a single all-consuming aspiration: the desire to modernize the study and understanding of Jewish tradition and its texts. Confronted at an early age with the equally alluring contents of the religious study hall and the great writings of modern thought, Tchernowitz spent his life pursuing a synthesis between the two. As a youth, he studied the Talmud and its commentaries in school, while enthusiastically consuming the works of everyone from Darwin to Tolstoy on the side.

“Though I had fallen under the influence of the Haskalah,” he recalled in his memoir, referring to the Jewish Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th centuries, “I was nonetheless unable to leave the sphere of the Beit Midrash [traditional study hall] entirely or the world of the rabbinate. My ideal was a combination of the Torah and the Haskalah … and to be through this a modern rabbi.”

The shtetl could not contain Tchernowitz for long. His studies brought him to Kovno, Lithuania, where he received rabbinic ordination from Isaac Elhanan Spektor, the renowned Orthodox sage, in 1896. The next year, Tchernowitz moved to Odessa—then the fourth-largest city in the Russian empire and the hotbed of the region’s Jewish Enlightenment—to serve as the eclectic town’s rabbi.

Deeply embedded in Odessa’s enlightened circles, Tchernowitz served as a minister to the faithful and the faithless—a traditionalist among iconoclasts, a rabbi of atheists and skeptics. In this capacity, he forged relationships with such intellectual and cultural luminaries as Mendele Mokher Seforim, the Yiddish and Hebrew author; Ahad Ha’am, the father of cultural Zionism; and Simon Dubnow, the great modern Jewish historian, among others. Tchernowitz would later compile his impressions of these individuals in his Masekhet Zikhronot, alongside accounts of his encounters with other great Jewish activists and thinkers—including Albert Einstein.

Einstein and Tchernowitz in the former’s Princeton study
Einstein and Tchernowitz in the former’s Princeton study (Courtesy Abigail Martin)

Over the next decade, Tchernowitz transformed the local yeshiva into a full-fledged rabbinical seminary, where he sought to train the next generation of Orthodox rabbis and educators. The school integrated traditional text study with modern critical methods, and boasted such teachers as Hayyim Nahman Bialik, who later became Israel’s national poet, and Joseph Klausner, a future candidate for Israeli president and professor of Hebrew literature at Hebrew University.

Tchernowitz headed the yeshiva until 1911, then departed for Germany, where he completed a doctorate at the University of Würzburg in 1914. Though he was invited to return to his post as rabbi of Odessa, as well as to oversee an endowed fund for Talmud instruction at Hebrew University, Tchernowitz chose instead to move to the United States in 1923, where he served as professor of Talmud at the Jewish Institute of Religion.

Over the course of his travels, Tchernowitz mastered multiple languages, reading and writing prolifically in Russian, Hebrew, English, and German. He published under the pen name “Rav Tza’ir,” or “Young Rabbi.” The moniker was a biblical reference to Genesis 25:23—“the older [rav] shall serve the younger [tza’ir]”—that reflected Tchernowitz’s belief that Jewish tradition could address contemporary concerns.

Living in New York—a hub for Jewish thought, culture, and philanthropy—the rabbi worked assiduously to raise funds and support for his various projects to translate and update Jewish texts for the broader public. Perhaps his most ambitious endeavor in this regard was an attempt to compile a 12-volume academic encyclopedia of the Talmud—its history, jurisprudence, and folklore—known as the “Talmudic Library.”

It was this work that ultimately drew the attention of Albert Einstein, and sparked a friendship that endured until Tchernowitz’s death.

Einstein Endorses the Talmudic Library

On June 24, 1928, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on the launch of a new Jewish literary project based in New York:

A plan to publish a Talmudic Encyclopedia, a systematic exposition of the culture and civilization of the Talmudic Age, to be known as the Talmudic Library has been formulated …

The Jewish Daily Bulletin learns an amount of $50,000 has been promised toward the undertaking by Julius Rosenwald, provisional on the raising of a fund of $200,000.

The Talmudic Library, according to the plans, will be issued in twelve volumes, in Hebrew and English.

Dr. Chaim Tchernowitz is to be editor-in-chief.

The project’s international advisory council boasted such esteemed figures as Harvard scholar and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, as well as Joseph H. Hertz, the chief rabbi of Great Britain. A promotional pamphlet for the encyclopedia featured letters of encouragement from luminaries like future Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo and liberal Christian theologian Shailer Mathews. But two years later, Tchernowitz would land an even greater prize than these distinguished dignitaries: Albert Einstein. Not that he had to try particularly hard. In fact, it was Einstein’s own interest in Tchernowitz’s Talmudic proficiency that precipitated their first meeting and subsequent friendship.

The story begins in September 1930, when Tchernowitz arrived in Berlin for a short stay and received a surprise invitation to Einstein’s summer home. Sending such overtures was actually a popular pastime for the famed physicist. Whenever a prestigious thinker or political official came to town, he would invite them to his residence. And since few people would turn down a personal invitation from Albert Einstein, one could fill a book with the many notables he hosted. (Literally: Here is that book.)

Tchernowitz, of course, said yes. “I had seen him before in passing,” the rabbi recalled in his memoir of their encounter, “but had never spoken with him in person.” What, then, prompted Einstein’s overture? Tchernowitz soon found out: “Immediately upon my arrival, he asked me in all earnestness—without looking at my face—if I was indeed an expert in the Talmud, as he had heard, and what exactly is the Talmud?”

Tchernowitz knew a good opportunity when he saw one. He answered Einstein’s question, and then brought the conversation around to his own project to bridge modern thought with the ancient work:

I explained to him the Jewish perspective on the Talmud—namely, that it is a natural continuation of the [biblical] Prophets, as opposed to the accepted view among non-Jewish scholars, for whom Christianity is the direct line from the Prophets while the Talmud is the crooked line which broke the Prophetic chain of tradition. I told him [Einstein] about the “Talmudic Library” which a group of scholars and teachers hope to publish, whose goal is to establish the Talmud as a scientific discipline, so as to expunge this old legacy of the Middle Ages that sees the Talmud as the source of Jewish hatred for non-Jews; as a book that is neither scholarship nor philosophy; and one that is filled with superstitions and false beliefs. Einstein was extremely interested in this undertaking and promised to support it fully.

The two men then went sailing and talked about God. But that is a story for another time. (Subscribe and you’ll get it in your inbox.) But here we see the answer to the question we began with: Why did Einstein endorse the Talmud when he couldn’t read it?

Simply put, while Einstein was far from an authority able to judge the merits of the corpus, Tchernowitz was eminently qualified to issue such an opinion, and to convince major public figures to support his objective of producing a scientifically elucidated Talmud for the modern age. And so it was Tchernowitz who engineered Einstein’s proclamation in service of his own undertaking.

Shortly after their meeting, Tchernowitz followed up with a formal letter describing the aims of the Talmudic Library project in careful detail. If one recalls Einstein’s endorsement of the Talmud, the words here will sound familiar. In pressing his case, Tchernowitz made two basic points, each of which would find their way into Einstein’s letter. The first was that the Talmud was a moral and cultural treasure of the Jewish people in need of modernization:

The task of the “Talmudic Library” is to systematically organize the substance of the Talmud and present the current state of corresponding scholarship … A scientific knowledge of the Talmud is needed especially by us Jews, because we are dealing here with our national cultural treasures; the sages of the Talmud were the spiritual heirs of the biblical world, and, according to the Talmud, the sages have determined the religious and national life of all subsequent generations.

In Einstein’s subsequent letter, Tchernowitz’s “national cultural treasures” became “high cultural values.”

Tchernowitz’s second selling point was that an accessible and scholarly edition of the Talmud would blunt traditional anti-Semitic attacks:

Anti-Semitism of all periods has always relied in its denigration of Judaism on the general inaccessibility of the Talmud. Only a proper and modern rendering will be capable of eliminating this deep-rooted prejudice from the Middle Ages, and make apparent the ethical and spiritual value of the personalities of the Talmudic teachers, and their importance in the development of the concept of justice.

Einstein would paraphrase this language in his own letter, writing, “the Talmud must be made an open book to the world, in order to cut the ground from under certain malevolent attacks, of anti-Semitic origin, which borrow countenance from the obscurity and inaccessibility of certain passages in the Talmud.” (Alas, neither Einstein nor Tchernowitz anticipated the resourcefulness of anti-Semites and the internet’s conspiracy theorists.)

Tchernowitz closed his pitch with an appeal to Einstein to join the advisory council of the Talmudic Library and lend his estimable name to its cause:

I address to you, esteemed professor, the kind request to express your universally authoritative opinion throughout the world about this enterprise. I would be extraordinarily delighted if you would wish to join the circle of the “advisory council,” which would honor us all.

Einstein said yes, and two months later, sent Tchernowitz his famous letter for public release, essentially echoing the rabbi’s own arguments. Einstein’s advocacy in this matter thus relied on Tchernowitz’s judgment and not his own erudition. For while the rabbi’s line of reasoning doubtless appealed to Einstein’s strong commitments to fighting anti-Semitism and reviving the Jewish national spirit, to connect those causes to the specific contents of the Talmud was beyond the physicist’s purview. In other words, Einstein’s letter was as much an endorsement of Tchernowitz as it was of the Talmud.

This dynamic also explains why the scientist could later be found talking up the Talmud to none other than Adolph Ochs, the owner and publisher of the New York Times. In a letter dated April 16, 1932, Einstein wrote:

Dear Mr. Ochs:

Allow me to draw your attention to the endangered undertakings of the “Talmudic Library” in New York, 640 West 139th Street. I do not know your position on Jewish literature, but I am convinced that the maintenance of Jewish literature is one of the most effective means for the preservation of our valuable intellectual and moral tradition.

This request was also the direct result of an appeal by Tchernowitz to Einstein. Like many of Tchernowitz’s ventures, the Talmudic Library suffered from a constant shortfall of funds. By 1932, two years after Einstein’s initial endorsement, the project was on the brink of collapse and required immediate assistance, as Tchernowitz detailed in a March letter to Einstein:

It is a matter of our undertaking of the Talmudic Library, of which I informed you when I had the great pleasure of spending an unforgettable day with you in Berlin, and about which you expressed such kind and appreciative sentiments.

Due to present circumstances, the work must be stopped or even abandoned. It now requires a man in a position to salvage the situation if he takes matters into his own hands. That is Mr. Adolf Ochs, publisher of the N.Y. Times: He is the only man who, in our opinion, could provide for the practical execution of the Talmudic Library. Friends of Mr. Ochs told us that if you write a letter to him and clarify the importance of this enterprise from the standpoint of Judaism and general literary values, it would be quite possible that Mr. Ochs would take on this cause.

Upon receiving this request, Einstein immediately drafted his appeal to Ochs in the margins of Tchernowitz’s letter.

Ultimately, Einstein’s entreaty—and with it, the Talmudic Library project—failed, ironically leaving behind Einstein’s endorsement of the Talmud as its only legacy. But today, others have followed in Tchernowitz’s footsteps, and multiple English elucidations of the Talmud are now available. And despite the collapse of this particular enterprise, Tchernowitz found success in other Jewish literary endeavors—again with a little help from Einstein.

Einstein’s Support for American Hebraists

In 1939, Tchernowitz founded the Hebrew quarterly journal Bitzaron (literally, “Fortress”), which he would oversee and edit until his death in 1949. The publication was a vanguard of the nascent American Hebraist movement, which sought to resuscitate Hebrew as a modern language. In this capacity, the journal provided a forum for Jewish cultural revivalists in New York City and elsewhere to participate in a collective conversation about the political and spiritual matters of the day. If you’ve ever wondered why there was a Hebrew bookstore in 1920s-era New York in the Harry Potter movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, well, now you know.

A storefront sign reading "ספרים עברית" (roughly, "Hebrew Books") from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
A storefront sign reading “ספרים עברית” (roughly, “Hebrew Books”) from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Warner Bros. / SM Rosenberg)

As usual, Tchernowitz attracted some exceptional collaborators. American Jewish thinkers, academics, and public figures of all stripes published under the Bitzaron banner, from Abraham Joshua Heschel to Mordecai Kaplan, as did prominent European Zionists like Chaim Weizmann and Ahad Ha’am. Alongside these distinguished essayists, the journal also printed a back-page column about current events in Palestine by a certain activist and historian named Benzion Netanyahu—the father of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The journal, like its founder, was deeply engaged in the questions and concerns of modernity, and attempted to bring the Jewish past into dialogue with the intellectual tools and discoveries of the present. To this end, Bitzaron published discussions on everything from cultural Zionism to “Max Weber’s Conception of Judaism” to academic inquiries into Talmudic personalities and Jewish law. In producing such content, the writers of Bitzaron furthered American Hebraism’s goal of “fostering a deep connection with Jewish tradition yet providing a vehicle for the creation of a modern national culture,” in the words of Portland State University’s Michael Weingrad.

As we have seen when it came to his attitude toward the Talmud, Einstein likewise shared this objective. And so when he was asked by Tchernowitz to lend his support to Bitzaron, the physicist happily obliged. Thus, the very first volume featured an exhortatory opening statement from Einstein heralding the journal and its mission:

Fostering the spirit and educating to moral responsibility are the eternal aims of Jewish striving. May your publication contribute to this—reviving Jewish tradition and spreading new light.

Einstein’s blurb for Bitzaron, as translated and printed on the front page of its first volume
Einstein’s blurb for Bitzaron, as translated and printed on the front page of its first volume‌‌

Of course, because the quarterly was published in the eclectic evolving dialect of proto-Modern Hebrew, it is highly doubtful that Einstein ever read it, aside perhaps from the occasional articles that were later translated into English as monographs. Tellingly, Einstein’s own endorsement of Bitzaron, which featured so prominently in its inaugural issue, was originally written in German and had to be translated into Hebrew for printing in the Hebraist journal. (The original German letter was sold at auction.) As was the case with the Talmudic Library, Einstein’s commendation of Bitzaron and appearance atop its list of official sponsors was more an approbation of Tchernowitz and his intellectual-spiritual aims than it was of his publication’s printed contents. Once again, knowing the personality behind the project enables us to understand why Einstein lent his support to a literary work he could not actually read.

When Einstein Said No

By now, reasonable readers might be wondering if Einstein was anything more than a rubber stamp when it came to matters of Jewish concern. Was he simply being a yes-man for his friend Chaim Tchernowitz, or was there more to his considerations?

This isn’t just a question about his Jewish pronouncements. Over the course of his lifetime, Einstein inserted himself into countless conversations outside the realm of his expertise. He opined on matters ranging from civil rights in America (he was for them) to the evils of McCarthyism (against) to the likelihood of life on other planets (probable) to the ultimate insignificance of Adolf Hitler (oops). Given the outsize role Einstein and his views still play in the public imagination, how much weight should we give to his extra-scientific statements?

His relationship with Tchernowitz provides a clue. Our study reminds us that Einstein did not speak in a vacuum. His public statements were not conceived without outside input or influence. On the contrary, as leading Einstein scholars David Rowe and Robert Schulmann note in their book Einstein on Politics, the physicist exhibited a “lifelong pattern of drawing on the expertise and political passions of informal advisers who swam against the prevailing political currents.” Thus, when we evaluate Einstein’s words purely from the perspective of his own expertise, we misunderstand them. Instead, his stances must be examined in the intellectual context in which they were formulated. In other words, we should not simply be asking “Did Einstein know what he was talking about?” but also “Who was Einstein talking to?” Only then will we be giving his views their due.

The Talmudic Library offers a case in point. Though Einstein himself knew little about the corpus, he relied on extensive conversations and literature from Tchernowitz—an established authority—about the subject matter. Taking Tchernowitz into account alters our perspective on Einstein’s involvement. In this light, Einstein’s writings on the Talmud are no longer the naive pronouncements of an ill-informed pontificator—as they might appear when taken in isolation—but rather the considered reflection of someone who had consulted the best minds on the topic. To evaluate Einstein, one must evaluate his gurus.

Moreover, it’s not as though the physicist made his endorsements without careful consideration. On the contrary, Einstein’s archives of correspondence are filled with instances of him saying no—including to his friends. We will turn to one of those in our next installment, which tackles a topic about which Tchernowitz and Einstein often disagreed: Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel.

This is the first part of a Deep Shtetl series on the untold story of Albert Einstein’s 20-year friendship with Rabbi Chaim Tchernowitz, and their conversations about the Talmud, Zionism, and God. This edition is free, but future installments will be released for paying Atlantic subscribers. If you liked what you read and want to support this work, please subscribe here.