The Arty Semite

When Albert Einstein Met Rabindranath Tagore

By Gary Shapiro

  • Print
  • Share Share

Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore at Einstein’s Berlin home, 1926. Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute.

One was a Bengali polymath and Nobel laureate with white flowing beard and piercing eyes. The other was the world famous scientist, with frizzy hair and unkempt appearance.

When Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein met in New York, it was a media sensation. “They were two celebrities,” artist and scholar Andor Carius said. “It was wisdom from the east meeting philosopher of the west. They were staged together as icons by the media even earlier.”

The pair first met in Berlin in 1926 and several times later in 1930. The first meeting that year, at Einstein’s summer home in the vicinity of Potsdam, resulted in The New York Times headline, “Einstein and Tagore Plumb the Truth.” The piece described Tagore as “the poet with the head of a thinker” and Einstein as “the thinker with the head of a poet.” Their brief meeting in late 1930 in New York, when Einstein was en route to Caltech, bore the photo caption: “A Mathematician and a Mystic meet in Manhattan.”

Considering these events, it’s hard to imagine just how famous Tagore once was in the West. With his works impressing the likes of William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound, Tagore lectured to packed audiences around the world. Two separate works of his became the national anthems of Bangladesh and India.

Paul Mendes-Flohr, a professor at the University of Chicago, discussed Tagore’s connection to Einstein in a recent lecture hosted by the Leo Baeck Institute.

“Despite their warm regard for one another, their conversation did not go particularly well,” said Mendes-Flohr. Tackling heady topics like free will versus determinism, the two titans stood poles apart philosophically. Einstein believed the world had a reality independent of the human mind. Tagore countered, saying “This world is a human world.” For him, the world depended upon human consciousness for its reality.

The Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin noted that, “I do not believe that, apart from professions of mutual regard… there was much in common between them — although their social ideals may have been very similar.”

Berlin went on to recount how Einstein later privately described the Indian writer as “Rabbi Tagore.” Berlin asserted that the physicist was being gently ironical. For, he noted, “Einstein did not hold with rabbis much.”

One area in which the pair were compatible was music, said Mendes-Flohr. Einstein was visibly engaged when Tagore compared western and Indian music.

Mendes-Flohr’s lecture also examined relations between Tagore and Martin Buber, the dialectical philosopher and author of “I and Thou.” The professor made it clear just how early Buber’s interest in the East was.

“Even before he evinced an interest in Hassidism, he identifies with Hindu wisdom,” said Mendes-Flohr, citing an early article written by Buber at the age of 23.

Mendes-Flohr, who edits the collected German edition of Buber, told how Buber spoke of “The Spirit of the Orient and Judaism” in a talk given in Prague in 1912 before the Bar Kochba Jewish Students Association, with Franz Kafka in the audience.

Given Buber’s “interest and affinity to the Asiatic spiritual universe,” Mendes-Flohr said, the mystical Jewish philosopher “found Tagore a kindred soul.”

Tagore and Buber met only twice. The first time was in 1921, when Tagore delivered lectures in Darmstadt, Germany, at which Buber found the Indian writer “loveable, innocent, [and] venerable.” The later occurred when Buber attended a lecture by Tagore in Düsseldorf in 1926.

Buber and Tagore shared views on a number of subjects. Both sought to ease ethnic divisions in their respective countries. Both shared similar views of education and pedagogy. And with certain differences in emphasis, each feared the danger of Zionism becoming what Buber called a “narrow-hearted nationalism.”

Mendes-Flohr told the Forward how Tagore befriended Zionists and had sympathy for the Jewish people as well as for Zionist pioneering programs, particularly in the realm of agriculture and agricultural settlements. Tagore, he said, invited various Zionist agronomists to come East to visit, as the poet was very concerned about the situation of peasants in his native Bengal.

In his talk, Mendes-Flohr described how Einstein and Tagore surprisingly continued to meet again. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Tagore’s birth in 1961, the city of Tel Aviv named a leafy road after him near Tel Aviv University. That street intersects with one named for Einstein, and their dialogue thus persists to the present.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Paul Mendes-Flohr, Lectures, Leo Baeck Institute, Martin Buber, Gary Shapiro, Albert Einstein, Rabindranath Tagore

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.