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Einstein's Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul
By Michael M. Cohen
160 pages; $15.95
This earnest novella originated in 1980 as a college research paper on Albert Einstein's religious views. Its author, later becoming a prominent Reconstructionist rabbi, continued to tweak the manuscript over the next few decades.
As described in the introduction, Cohen culled literary suggestions from many personal and professional acquaintances, finally fashioning a fictional vehicle for the scientist's relevant quotations. That vehicle has a religiously confused college student and Einstein admirer (read Cohen) listening to a Reconstructionist rabbi (read Cohen and his mentors) relate every documented word Einstein ever uttered or wrote about Judaism.
Perhaps this is a case of a broth spoiled by too many cooks. True, there is much pithy wisdom offered up on these pages. Cohen's fictional Rabbi Asher Ternfka and the historical Albert Einstein together provide plenty of spiritual and intellectual meat to chew on, but the broth into which it is thrown has an unsatisfying flavor.
Ostensibly, Einstein's Rabbi takes the reader to an intersection where a questioning young man meets a questioning deceased genius on the road to Jewish discovery. The journey is conceptualized in a moment of epiphany when the young protagonist, Joseph, visits the Western Wall: "I realized at that moment that I had to resolve the many questions of my Jewish heritage and identity. 'I must find Einstein's rabbi,' I said to myself."
Ignoring the question of why Joseph believes Einstein's rabbinic confidant has the answers he seeks, one still has to wonder how Ternfka's encyclopedic recital of Einstein's observations could quench his spiritual thirst, let alone inspire him to become a rabbi himself.
The passages where Ternfka offers his own insights are more on target. At the same time, this character - no doubt unintentionally - symbolizes the marginal status of Reconstructionism. The elderly, infirm Ternfka and his erudite wife are depicted as living a lonely existence bereft of congregants, community and children. Evidently, he has had no disciples with whom to share his teachings apart from Einstein and Joseph.
Several plot elements are added to the soup with varying degrees of success. Joseph's recurring dreams about Michelangelo's David and the Yom Kippur scapegoat, as well as his confrontations with his secular parents and friends, work well. But neither the revelation of a family secret nor the adult Joseph's experiences as a post-9/11 spiritual counselor enhance the story.
Cohen's dedication to disseminating the religious ruminations of Albert Einstein is to be applauded. Taken at face value, the collection of quotations affords a fascinating glimpse into an extraordinary mind. This fictionalized framework, however, proves to be a less-than-ideal device for their presentation.