Albert Einstein, who used to mock his own fame as a hero of science, once play-fully complained that he was becoming a "Jewish saint."
This week, in a manner of speaking, Israel completed the canonization, marking the centennial of the physicist's birth -- not with religious services and prayers -- but with the Jewish equivalent, a symposium of renowned intellectuals. For two weeks, they explored and pondered Eisten's physics, his humanist philosophy, his support for Zionism and his criticism of it.
But Einstein's own enigmatic character -- a genius who retained childlike simplicity and stubborness -- proved to be one of the constant, compelling subjects of the lectures and exhibits.
Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst known for his studies of children and historical figures like Martin Luther, described Einstein as the "victorious child" who resisted successfully all the standardizing efforts of schooling. He retained, as a man, the same childlike pure thought patterns which led to revolutionary intutions on the nature of the the universe, from the particles in light beams to a new law of gravitation, more precise than Newton's.
"Einstein succeeded," Erikson said, "in saving the child in himself, even when he had to accept nonviolent resistance, isolation and even punishment rather than submit to standardization... The child would lead him to creativity."
As an infant, Einstein did not talk until he was 3. His parents feared a defect. Even later, he was very slow with words, had a poor memory and did poorly in schoolwork that required virbal skills.
"We know only too well," Erikson said, "that the child described here would be subjected today to a rather through examination and maybe treatment. Today we might suspect dyslexia or something."
This character of independence, which Erikson described as a "mighty diffidence, if not defiance," continued in Einstein throughout his 76 years. The late Orbert Oppenheimer described "a wonderful purity, at once childlike and profoundly stubborn."
Einstein described his own thought process in this way: "When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive thinking."
Roman Jakobson, a linguist from Harvard, said that Einstein did not think in words when he was conceptualizing. He imagined ideas, then attached words to them later. This "wordless deliberation" is related to his genius, Jakobson suggested, because it is "more pleasant, less standardized and leaves more liberty, more freedom for creative thought."
Erikson suggested that these qualities were consistent with the classic charismatic leader in history -- savants and wise men like Jesus who think as a child thinks and utter profound truths.
At age 16, Einstein asked what light waves might look like to an observer who was keeping pace with them. This suggestive metaphor of relawtivity, with the observer and the object moving through time and space simultaneously, led Erikson to suggest that the idea of relativity has permeated modern thought beyond physics, even though the physics of relativity is not popularly understood.
"I cannot think about the psychoanalytic method itself without thinking of relativity," he said. "The way the analyst's thoughts move during the hour through his whole life, back and forth, up and down, and how the analyst listens to that and then speaks -- only with knowledge of all this relative motion can the analyst move to insight."
Beyond the realm of physics, the centennial symposium had considerable difficulty defining Einstein's impact as a humanist philosopher, a man who wrote hundreds of statements and letters on great public issues from World War I to the nuclear age that his theories made possibles.
Einstein himself changed his views again and again over the years as events changed his mind. As several lecturers pointed out, the Einstein texts can be narrowly applied on all sides today.
Einstein was an outspoken pacifist after World War I and opposed military service, but when Hitler came to power in Germany, Einstein urged the West to arm for war. He was not religious as a Jew, but he became an ardent Zionist, campaigning for Jewish resettlement in Palestine. He was a Zionist, yet he was opposed to nationalism and campaigned for world government.
Einstein urged the U.S. government, in a famous letter to President Roosevelt, to begin a crash program Roosevelt, to begin a crash program to invent the atomic bomb but like other atomic scientists he was horrified by the bombing of Hiroshima and the nuclear arms race which followed. He believed in a religion of "potential harmony" in mankind, as one speaker put it, which compelled him to search for harmony in political affairs while he also tried to discover the "natural harmony of the universe" in which he also believed.
Nevertheless, one ironic legacy of Einstein may be public distrust of science. Yaron Ezrahi of Herbrew University of Jerusalem said Einstein's discoveries broke "the continuity between popular common-sense and sciientific definitions of reality... the social images of science became separated and distant."
Since most people cannot understand relativity or quantum physics, they must accept the theories on faith or remain skeptical of mysteries they do not grasp.
"How can physics, which sees a reality different from ordinary experience, assure the laymen," Ezrahi asked, "except on the very trust which it had previously denied the priest?"
Yehuda Elkana of Hebrew University suggested that Einstein may have reversed the classic aphorism on Newton -- Einstein will be popularly known to the future as "the last of the scientists and the first of the magicians."