NEW YORK – If it were written now as a series of tweets, they would surely go viral.
Think of it: One of the most famous people in the world is panning religion. “The word God is for me nothing but the expression of and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends,” the message reads. “No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can (for me) change anything about this.”
That is only 239 characters, including the spaces, periods and commas, well short of the 280-character limit for a tweet. And there is more where those words came from — a letter written in 1954 by Albert Einstein that is being auctioned this week. It provides a glimpse of Einstein’s private thoughts and would probably be inflammatory in today’s polarized social media world.
The 1 ½-page document, in German, became known a decade ago as the “God letter,” a nickname that makes some Einstein experts wince. But while the letter has to do with his Jewish identity and mankind’s search for meaning, Einstein used the word “God” only once in the letter, in the passage quoted above.
He sent the handwritten letter to Eric Gutkind, a German philosopher who had written a book called “Choose Life: The biblical Call to Revolt” that, apparently, Einstein did not much like. By one account, the book “presented the Bible as a call to arms, and Judaism and Israel as incorruptible.” A review in Commentary magazine said “Choose Life” was “genuinely inspired by Jewish tradition” and “challenges a disillusioned generation to ‘prepare the world for the Kingdom of God.’ ”
Einstein wrote in the letter that he was disenchanted with Judaism, even as he said he was proud to be a Jew. In the letter, Einstein declared:
“For me the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot perceive anything ‘chosen’ about them.”
Einstein wrote dozens of letters in which he mentioned God or Judaism. “Nobody should read one Einstein letter and think that solves what he thinks about God,” Walter Isaacson, author of the 2007 biography “Einstein,” said in an interview. In different decades “or even on different days,” Isaacson said, Einstein’s views “were not totally unchanging.”
The letter surfaced in 2008. Until then, it had apparently been in the hands of Gutkind’s heirs (he died in 1965). And it rocketed into the universe of big-money auctions, selling for $404,000 in London.
The buyer wasn’t identified. The Guardian said that evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, an outspoken atheist, was one bidder who lost out.
Now the letter is on the market again. It will go on the block at Christie’s on Tuesday. Christie’s set a presale estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million. The God letter was offered for sale on eBay for $3 million in 2012. The auctioneer who handled the eBay listing said he could not discuss the outcome. A Christie’s spokeswoman said that it did not sell then and that the person who bought it in 2008 is the seller now.