Seven Jewish People Who Contributed to History
The Jewish people have made tremendous contributions to politics, law, religion, and science. Here are just a few notable Jewish thinkers — names of people you should know for their contributions to society and the modern world.
Rightfully known as Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973) led Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, and then he guided the country as Prime Minster for the next 15 years. Ben-Gurion was a fiercely stubborn man, and his charisma and force of will often seemed to hold Israel together in difficult times.
On the other hand, his decisions were not always pretty. He argued against the extreme policies of the fanatically anti-British Jewish militant group, called the Irgun, and he went so far as to order the Israeli Army to fire on and sink a ship on which they were bringing arms. A staunch socialist, passionately Jewish but not religious, Ben-Gurion became the face of Israel in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Albert Einstein (1879–1955), likely the best-known Jew in the modern world, was a theoretical physicist who changed the way we think about the universe. Born and raised in Germany, he was a notoriously slow learner as a child but blossomed after receiving his doctorate and landing a temporary job as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland. In 1905, Einstein published several revolutionary ideas, including his theory of relativity and the equation E=mc2 (establishing the relationship between energy and matter). His work earned him a Nobel Prize in 1921.
The rise of the Nazi party forced Einstein to emigrate from Germany to the United States, where he became an American citizen and a professor at Princeton. Although nonobservant, he was proud of his Jewish identity. His brilliance and his humor often combined in interesting ways, as in this famous quote: “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. If my theory should prove to be untrue, then France will say I am a German, and Germany will say I am a Jew.”
Born in Russia and educated in America, Golda Meir (1898–1978) was a young schoolteacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when she became involved in the Zionist movement and decided to move to Palestine. She quickly became a close associate of David Ben-Gurion and soon after Israel’s independence, she became Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union.
By 1969, Meir was Prime Minister of Israel and so well known internationally that to this day she is simply known as “Golda.” As stubborn as Ben-Gurion, Golda not only opposed a Palestinian state, she also denied the existence of the Palestinian people. One favorite Golda-ism is: “Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses. He took us forty years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!”
In the late eighteenth century, Reb Nachman (1772–1810; often called Reb Nachman of Breslov, or Bratzlav) was considered a heretic and was even excommunicated by a group of rival rabbis for his radical teachings, which became the basis of a black-hatted Hasidic sect of Judaism. Reb Nachman is now considered one of the greatest Jewish thinkers in history.
Reb Nachman preached living life with joy and happiness, emphasizing the importance of ecstasy over strict intellectualism. Nachman taught that despair was the greatest sin, and Jews still sing his famous words in a popular folksong: “All the world is but a narrow bridge over which people need to cross. And the most important thing, the most crucial thing, is not to be afraid at all.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933) became the second woman and first Jewish woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court (the first Jew on the Court was Louis Brandeis, appointed in 1916). Her parents were immigrants, and she was raised with a solid Jewish education. During her confirmation hearings, she offered the following recollection:
“I grew up during World War II in a Jewish family. I have memories as a child, even before the war, of being in a car with my parents and passing a place in [Pennsylvania], a resort with a sign out in front that read: ‘No dogs or Jews allowed.’ Signs of that kind existed in this country during my childhood. One couldn’t help but be sensitive to discrimination living as a Jew in America at the time of World War II.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn
Many of the black-suited traditional Hasidic Jews that you see in America are members of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which was spearheaded by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1902–1994) in the latter half of the twentieth century. Under Rabbi Schneersohn’s leadership, Chabad-Lubavitch became the largest of the Hasidic groups, particularly active in working to free Russian Jews in the 1970s and 1980s, and putting representatives on college campuses. Many Lubavitchers revere Reb Schneersohn (known simply as “the Rebbe”) so much that they truly believe that he was the Messiah.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (born in Poland in 1924) fled Nazi oppressive and arrived in the United States as a teenager. Ordained as a Lubavitcher Hasidic rabbi, he later studied psychology and taught Jewish Mysticism and the Psychology of Religion at Temple University. Schachter-Shalomi is considered a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, which began in the early 1970s, intending to invigorate Jewish life with greater spirituality and celebration.
Reb Zalman has long participated in interfaith dialogues, including a famous trip to India in 1997, along with a group of other Jewish leaders, to speak with the Dalai Lama. The rabbi is also known for his work on spiritual eldering, based on his 1995 book From Age-ing to Sage-ing.