Jew of the Week: Emmy Noether

Greatest Mathematician of All Time

Amalie Emmy Noether (1882-1935) was born in Bavaria, Germany to a wealthy Jewish family, the eldest daughter of renowned mathematician Max Noether. She enjoyed learning languages and eventually passed a test allowing her to teach English and French. Instead, she decided to further her studies at the University of Erlangen. Female students were not allowed, but Noether was given permission to audit lectures along with one other woman. In 1903, restrictions were eased and Noether passed the graduation exam, after which she enrolled at the University of Gottingen to study astronomy and mathematics. She returned to Erlangen and taught math for seven years—without pay! During this time, she published several ground-breaking papers. In 1915, Noether was invited back to Gottingen, and when an uproar arose about how men could be subjected to learn “at the feet of a woman”, the university responded: “We are a university, not a bathhouse.” In 1918, Noether silenced critics by proving what is now called Noether’s Theorem, which was said to be “one of the most important mathematical theorems ever proved in guiding the development of modern physics, possibly on a par with the Pythagorean theorem”. The following year, she was granted tenure, and then a professorship. Among her many revolutionary achievements, Noether is most famous for mathematical rings, chain conditions, and abstract algebra—which some say is her greatest contribution to math and science. Thanks to Noether and the brilliant minds she attracted and taught, the University of Gottingen became the pre-eminent math institution in the world. She supervised the work of a dozen graduate students who became world-famous mathematicians in their own right. Noether was famous for living simply and modestly, not caring at all about her appearance, talking quickly, and teaching freely with no lesson plans. In 1932, she received the prestigious Ackermann–Teubner Memorial Award for math. The following year, the Nazis came to power and she was fired from her position. Undeterred, Noether continued to teach from her apartment. Soon, the Rockefeller Foundation arranged for her a position in the United States, and Noether went on to teach at Bryn Mawr College, as well as at Princeton (alongside fellow Jewish refugee Albert Einstein). Tragically, Noether passed away suddenly after surgery to remove an ovarian tumour. She was eulogized as “the greatest woman mathematician who has ever lived; and the greatest woman scientist of any sort…” There are numerous awards, concepts, streets and schools named after her around the world (including a math institute at Bar-Ilan University in Israel), as well as a satellite, a crater on the moon, and even a distant planet.

Words of the Week

A day will come in which the masses will be so tolerant, that the intelligent people will be forbidden to think in order not to threaten the stupid.
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

Jew of the Week: Philo of Alexandria

The First Jewish Philosopher and Torah Commentator

A 16th-century illustration of Philo Judaeus

Yedidya “Philo Judaeus” HaKohen (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE) was born to a wealthy Jewish family of kohanim in Alexandria, Egypt, which was then part of the Roman Empire and had one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. His father had earned Roman citizenship from Julius Caesar, and his nephew was a Roman prefect and military commander. Philo received an extensive education in Judaism, as well as the wisdom of Rome, Greece, and Egypt. He became a well-known philosopher and scholar, and a leader of Alexandria’s Jewish community. Around 37 CE, he led a diplomatic mission to the emperor Caligula to seek the end of the oppression of Jews in Alexandria and to reaffirm Jewish civil rights. He also convinced Caligula not to put a statue of himself in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple, for that would surely instigate a war, and explained why the Jews could not accept him as a deity or worship him in any way. Philo is most famous for his written works, producing what may very well be the first commentary on the Torah. He also wrote several texts to explain Judaism to the non-Jewish world, and a number of detailed works about the Roman Empire—now a gold mine for historians. He was also the first to synthesize Greek wisdom with Jewish wisdom (and in this regard, predated the great Maimonides by more than a millennium), and demonstrated how many fundamentals of Greek philosophy had already been laid out in the Torah long before. Philo advocated for a democratic government with the Torah serving as the constitution. Because of his numerous easy-to-understand Greek explanations for the Torah, Philo’s works ironically became more popular among Christians, and mostly forgotten in Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, he was a noted defender of Judaism at a difficult time of persecution, an important scholar and advocate on behalf of the Jewish people, and an inspiring philosopher and political figure. Interestingly, he is the first to mention the custom of staying up all night on Shavuot to learn Torah and recite holy hymns, in his description of a group of Jews associated with the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Shavuot Begins Saturday Night! Chag Sameach!

Video: Six Days of Miracles

The Mystery and Mysticism of the Essenes

Video: Why NBA Legend Amar’e Stoudemire Learns Torah

Words of the Week

The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the Five Books of Moses and the Bible as a whole.
– Arno Penzias, Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of the Big Bang

Jew of the Week: Motta Gur

Liberator of Jerusalem, Hero of Israel

Mordechai Gurban (1930-1995) was born in Jerusalem to parents who had both made aliyah in 1913. He joined the Haganah defence force shortly after his bar mitzvah, and went on to its special forces Palmach unit. With the formation of the IDF in 1948 he became a paratrooper, and by this point shortened his last name to “Gur”. After the war, he served in the special forces under the command of Ariel Sharon. In 1955, Gur led Operation Elkayam into Khan Yunis, destroying a key Egyptian military installation, routing their forces, and taking out 72 troops (compared to one Israeli fatality). This led a frightened Egypt to finally sign a ceasefire with Israel, and to stop supporting Palestinian fedayeen terrorists directly. Gur then headed to Paris to study at its prestigious military academy. He returned two years later to take over the helm of the Golani Brigade, transforming it into the IDF’s most illustrious unit. In 1967, Gur led the recapture of Jerusalem (the 55th anniversary of which is this Sunday, Yom Yerushalayim). His radio declaration that Har HaBayit beYadeinu! (“The Temple Mount is in our hands!”) was broadcast to jubilant Jews around the world (see video here). Gur ordered an Israeli flag put up on the Dome of the Rock. When Moshe Dayan saw it through his binoculars, he immediately radioed to take it down, shouting “Do you want to set the Middle East on fire?” Gur believed recapturing Jerusalem’s Old City was his life’s purpose, and even boldly told IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren back in 1961 that he would be the one to liberate it. Gur was promoted to Brigadier General after the war, and took up oversight of Gaza and the Sinai. Two years later, he was promoted to Major General and took over the Northern Front. In 1972, he was posted as military attaché in Washington, and only returned after the Yom Kippur War to ensure such a catastrophe would never happen again. He became Israel’s 10th Chief of Staff, rebuilding the military and reinvigorating it with renewed morale. In 1976, he planned and oversaw Operation Thunderbolt to save hostages in Entebbe. One of his last missions was a successful 1978 operation into Lebanon to wipe out terrorists. After retiring from the military, he first went to study for a year at Harvard, then went into politics and became a Member of Knesset in 1981. In 1984 he became Minister of Health, and in 1992 was appointed Deputy Minister of Defense by Yitzhak Rabin. Initially, he supported Rabin’s peace initiative but soon saw the negotiations went nowhere and believed the Palestinians used the Oslo Accords as a ruse. He came to oppose the peace process and, despite battling cancer, started planning a run for prime minister. Gur suddenly died shortly after at just 65 years old, which gave rise to an unfortunate conspiracy theory: The death was officially ruled a suicide, yet the accompanying note appeared forged, and the gunshot wound could not have been self-inflicted, leading many to believe he was deliberately silenced. (Rabin would be assassinated just a few months later, launching another conspiracy theory.) Whatever the case, Gur was undoubtedly one of the greatest soldiers and military heroes in Israel’s history. He had also published three popular children’s books and three military books. Today, there is an army base named after him, as well as a street and school in Modi’in.

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Words of the Week

Can you imagine what the reaction would have been in the Muslim world if a photograph of that had been published? I’m proud that we raised the flag, and I’m relieved that we took it down.
Arik Achmon, the IDF soldier who had put up the Israeli flag on the Dome of the Rock