Tag Archives: Kabbalah

Jew of the Week: Arno Penzias

Arno Allan Penzias (b. 1933) was born in Munich. As a six year old, he was evacuated from Nazi Germany through the British Kindertransport rescue operation which saved 10,000 Jewish children. He was later reunited with his parents, who brought the family to New York. Penzias grew up in Brooklyn and went on to study physics. He graduated among the top of his class, then served two years in the US Army as a radar officer. From there, he got a research position at Columbia University’s Radiation Lab, where he helped to develop the maser (a “microwave laser”). After earning a Ph.D in physics from Columbia, Penzias got a job at Bell Labs to do astronomy research with microwave receivers. He was soon joined by Robert Wilson. The two noticed their antenna picking up an inexplicable signal. After ruling out all forms of interference, and carefully cleaning the antenna, the weak signal persisted. The two collaborated with another physicist, Robert Dicke, to show that this signal was the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the remnants of the universe’s birth, as predicted by the Big Bang Theory. The existence of CMB confirmed that the universe had a beginning, with a burst of radiation, and simultaneously confirmed ancient Jewish teachings about the universe’s origins. The Zohar, a famous mystical commentary on the Torah that was first published some 700 years ago, explains that the universe began with a nikuda hada d’zohar, a singular point of radiance, from which all things were formed. The Zohar explains that this ever-expanding radiance continues to fill the universe, based on the words in the Biblical Book of Daniel (12:3) which describes the “radiance of the firmament”. In fact, this is how the book got its name, Zohar meaning “radiance”. Penzias’ and Wilson’s monumental discovery brought about a beautiful harmony between Torah and science, at once confirming both the modern Big Bang Theory and the holy words of the ancient Jewish Sages. The two physicists won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. Penzias continued his work at Bell Labs for a total of 37 years, rising to the position of Vice President of Research. He was made a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences. Penzias later moved to Silicon Valley to advise venture capitalists and tech start-ups. Despite being in his 80s, he is still a venture partner at New Enterprise Associates, and says he has “no plants to retire”.

Words of the Week

Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.
– Arno Penzias

Penzias and Wilson at the antenna where they made their famous discovery

Jew of the Week: Mirra Alfassa

“The Mother”

Alfassa and her symbol

Alfassa and her symbol

Blanche Rachel Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973) was born in Paris to a Turkish-Jewish father and Egyptian-Jewish mother. Growing up in a wealthy Sephardic home, she was exposed to a great deal of spiritual teachings, art, and her father’s vast library – which she had read entirely by age 14. After studying art at the prestigious Académie Julian, she found success as a painter and artist, collaborating with such greats as Matisse, Rodin, and Zola. After ten years of this, Alfassa wished to pursue her spiritual inclinations and found her way to a Polish Jew in Algeria who led a Kabbalah-based circle. In 1908, she established her own mystical circle in Paris, fusing together esoteric Jewish teachings with those of Buddhism and Hinduism. In 1914, she moved to Pondicherry, India – then a French colony – where her second husband was seeking election to the senate. There, Alfassa met a yogi named Sri Aurobindo and became his devoted follower. For the next six years (four of which were spent in Japan), she and her husband published a regular journal of Aurobindo’s teachings. Eventually, the couple divorced, and Alfassa moved to Aurobindo’s house. Aurobindo soon recognized Alfassa as his spiritual equal, and titled her “the Mother” – an incarnation of the cosmic “Divine Mother” of the universe. Alfassa and Aurobindo started teaching together and attracted many followers. The house soon transformed into an ashram. By 1937, their ashram had grown so much that Alfassa commissioned the construction of a new community. This community would draw many, including the daughter of US President Woodrow Wilson, who stayed there for the rest of her life. During World War II, while many in India supported Nazi Germany (in order to overthrow their British rulers), Aurobindo and Alfassa worked hard to support the Allied Forces, and donated much of their funds for the war effort. In 1943, Alfassa founded a new school, which later became the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education. After Aurobindo’s death in 1950, Alfassa became the sole leader of the movement, and a prominent holy figure in India. In 1956, she established another ashram and school in Delhi, and did the same in Gujarat in 1967. Meanwhile, a popular 13-volume book of her life and teachings was published (now expanded to 17 volumes). Perhaps her greatest legacy is Auroville, a city-state she founded in 1968 near Pondicherry. Auroville was meant to be a model community for the whole world, where all people regardless of background could live in total harmony, spirituality, and peace. Delegates from 124 nations attended the inauguration ceremony. Today, Auroville has over 2500 permanent residents from some 50 countries (Video Here). A self-sustaining community, it has its own institutions, including farms, schools, and restaurants (one of which is an Israeli cafe – closed on Shabbat, of course). The city’s centrepiece is the beautiful Matrimandir, the solar-powered “Mother Temple”, designed in the form of a famous golden vision once seen by Alfassa, who is still known affectionately as “the Mother”.

Matrimandir

Matrimandir

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Words of the Week

The most important thing for an individual is to unify himself around his divine centre; in that way he becomes a true individual, master of himself and his destiny. Otherwise, he is a plaything of forces that toss him about like a piece of cork on a river…
– Mirra Alfassa, “the Mother”

Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo

Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo