New Science, Same Torah

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Torah Chazal Scienceby R. Gil Student

My review essay of R. Moshe Meiselman’s Torah, Chazal and Science and Jeremy Brown’s New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, from the latest issue of Jewish Action

You might have thought, based on the plethora of Orthodox scientists and doctors, that the conflict between Judaism and science had been resolved decades ago and is no longer a source of controversy. I thought so, but I learned how wrong I was. Over the past decade, the controversy arose again from opposite corners. On one side, the 2004 ban placed on books addressing these issues, books that would otherwise have been interesting but hardly newsworthy, showed that the Chareidi community was engaged in an intense struggle over these issues.2 On the other, the brief takeover in subsequent years of general culture by militant atheists, now thankfully muted, placed all orthodox religions in the crosshairs of societal disparagement. It almost seems as if the centuries-old negotiation between reason and revelation will continue indefinitely.

Heavenly Revolution
Jeremy Brown’s New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought documents one aspect of this ongoing discussion. In a groundbreaking 1543 book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), Nicolaus Copernicus proposed that the planets revolve around the sun (heliocentrism), rather than the dominant theory of Ptolemy, that the sun and other planets revolve around the Earth (geocentrism). Copernicus’ radical theory neatly explained various anomalies observed in the sky, but it lacked definitive proof and was subject to a number of questions that could not yet be answered. Copernicus’ theory was hotly debated in Christian Europe, both for scientific reasons and, particularly significant for our purposes, religious reasons: it seemed to contradict explicit verses such as “[A]nd the Earth stands forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4) and “Sun, stand still over Gibeon” (Joshua 10:12) and for Jews, numerous Talmudic passages. Later advocates, such as Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei, spread the theory widely, but no one conclusively proved it for centuries. In 1838, Friedrich Bessel resolved the big outstanding questions on Copernicus’ theory, and in 1853, Leon Foucault demonstrated the Earth’s motion with a simple pendulum experiment, now commonplace in museums. Yet for some rabbis, the matter was not settled by demonstration.

In a sweeping review of Jewish literature, Brown presents the surprising argument that Jewish responses to the Copernican Revolution were not linear. Brown’s survey is careful and sober, comprehensive while allowing historical figures to speak independently, without being pigeonholed. Contrary to common wisdom, Jewish sages and scholars did not immediately accept Copernicus’ view, nor, as one might expect, slowly adopt it as evidence for it increased. History is not that simple. Rather, due to varying personalities and cultures, both adoption and rejection came quickly, continuing in tandem for centuries.

Read the whole article on the OU website: link

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

16 comments

  1. You might have thought, based on the plethora of Orthodox scientists and doctors, that the conflict between Judaism and science had been resolved decades ago and is no longer a source of controversy.

    I am not sure what being a doctor has to do with anything. How many orthodox Jews are in the fields of evolutionary biology, which is a field directly related to what doctors deal with: the human form and why the human form is what it is. What about paleontology? Cosmology? Anthropology? It’s THESE sciences that create issues for Judaism.

    Being a doctor does not make you a scientist

    • Anyone with a modicum of scientific knowledge understands that the Earth is considerably older than 6,000 years old. It is extremely unlikely that given all the Orthodox in fields which require you to learn some science, there aren’t lots that realize this. You don’t need to be innovating or practicing in any of the fields that you mentioned to understand this. The people that argue otherwise use completely pseudo-scientific arguments or conspiracy theories that easily can be recognized as such.

      • What conspiracy theories? All I am saying is that Gil should not be surprised there is still controversy regarding science vs Judaism since the fields that DO bring up serious scientific problems are the ones you will find the least amount of orthodox Jews. Evolutionary theory and Genesis – though everyone has decided to just stop talking about it – still remains unresolved.

  2. The quote from Maharal re Copernicus is false [“He argued that Jewish tradition—something that science cannot overturn—affirms the old Ptolemaic approach; revelation trumps reason”] Maharal does not explicitly take sides in that debate but simply uses the Copernican overturning of a well established scientific truth as an example of scientific fallibilism, (thus, if anything accepting the Copernican critique of the old Ptolemaic model), using this to argue that, therefore, revelation has more credibility than scientific reason.

    • I disagree with your reading of the Maharal (here and on the next page http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14202&st=&pgnum=63 ). He takes sides toward the top of p. 61 col. a:
      http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14202&st=&pgnum=64

      • I still think we need to take the Maharal off the table. After all, he wasn’t rejecting what he thought of as a conclusively proven theory. As your article states, the Maharal knew Tycho Brahe, so in his worldview, the Copernican Model was simply some fashionable hypothesis, for which Brahe and therefore probably the Maharal too believed there were also scientific reasons to reject.

        To take it out of a discussion of something that to us is so accepted it is unquestionable: It would be like someone today counseling against simply accepting String Theory because many versions of it imply that the Big Bang wasn’t from a point of zero volume, and therefore that time had no beginning. Right now there is a strong minority of scientists who have scientific reasons for rejecting String Theory.That’s very different than rejecting an empirically proven conclusion because you have more trust in Chazal’s Natural Philosophy than scientific method.

        You say in the review, “To the Maharal, it would be irresponsible to reject a reliable tradition due to a scientific theory that is fundamentally unfixed.”

        This one hypothesis (as it was considered back then) was unfixed regardless of how often proven theories change.

        • “To take it out of a discussion of something that to us is so accepted it is unquestionable”

          The Maharal speaks generally and then uses this as an example. You seem to be arguing that some scientific theories are sufficiently proven to be a new category with which the Maharal was not familiar. That is not a self-evident argument.

          To R. Meiselman and those who agree with him, the scientific theories you call “so accepted” also fall into the same realm as Copernicus’ theory in the Maharal’s time.

          • No, I am saying we cannot tell if the Maharal was talking about the fallibility of proven conclusions. His example was of something he thought was a hypothesis that wasn’t definitively proven. Yes, he makes a general statement, but how broad? If it really was every scientific finding, even established theories, why did he pick such a weak example?

            (Writing the above, I’m reminded of the Rambam on Aristo’s version of Eternity (Moreh 2:25): קדמות העולם לא הוכחה 7, ולכן אין ראוי לדחות את הכתובים ולבארם למען הכרעת השקפה אשר אפשר להכריע הפכה בסוגי הכרעה רבים.

            (Although, as noted, the Rambam’s topic was Natural Philosophy, which lacks a parallel concept to science’s distinction between hypothesis and theory.)

            • I think you disproved your own point by saying: “Yes, he makes a general statement

              You try to mitigate the impact of that statement by asking questions–that I don’t see as particularly strong–but I don’t see how you can change his words.

              • Again: Saying the Maharal talks about fashionable and useful but unproven hypothesis in general doesn’t mean I agree he is talking about every scientific claim, including well-tested theorems.

                (In truth, I would take a more-or-less approach rather than either or. Something more scientifically proven would require more religious weight to be overthrown. Not hypotheses can, but theories can’t. But I’m not discussing my own position here.)

  3. Admittedly, a quick reading of the Nesiv Hatorah does give such an impression, however a deliberate (slow!) reading will demonstrate the Maharal says no such thing. Indeed, on page 49 of the work under review, Professor Brown writes that Maharal takes no side in the Copernicus/Ptolmey debate.
    Below find a “free” translation of the selection from the Maharal. I have taken the occasion to present this translation so as to directly examine what exactly Maharal did and did not say.
    The Hebrew text in this selection of Maharal is “choppy” and abrupt. It is easy to see from readingthe selection where the notion of the Maharal contradicting Copernicus would emerge from. Again, however, a full treatment of the text I believe demonstrates that while the Maharal might not have felt that Copernicus was on firm ground scientifically, he does not assert the tradition of Torah was in opposition to heliocentrism. I would appreciate dialogue from other readers if anything concerning the Torah’s view of Copernicus emerges from a deliberate reading of the Maharal.

    “… And that which the Torah says ‘For it is your Wisdom in the eyes of the nations,’ the explanation is because the nations desire advanced understanding of this science. As we all know, they would develop exceedingly profound levels of understanding of this science.
    Constantly, new scholars always arose after previous ones and negated the ideas that the earlier scholars had apprehended after great effort. For example, an individual (Copernicus) known for developing a new system arose on the scene. He presented an alternative model, and proved incorrect all previous understandings and models of the orbits of the stars, the constellations and astronomical objects. Nonetheless, (begin p. 61) Copernicus himself writes that there are issues he is unable as of yet to resolve.
    When the Jews compute seasons and movements of the constellations (and?) they present lucid, well-reasoned explanations.
    The reason that there is disagreement and no consensus (between Gentile scholars) concerning the length of the time of the circuit of the sun and the moon is because each individual scholar researched using his own approach and his own intellect, and one cannot (accurately) ascertain the seconds and hours of the orbit of each orb (via observation and reasoning. Thus, disagreement is unavoidable.)
    But the Jewish scholars, who had a tradition passed down to them from Moshe at Sinai given to him from G-d may He be blessed, only through this can one know the reality (alternatively, only He can know the reality.) Thus, for that which we have as a tradition concerning the movement of the sun and the moon, we say on this (tradition) that it is more correct and more acceptable. All the more so during the era of the first Jewish scholars, based on the tradition they received from Moshe’s prophecy, they knew the reality as it actually is. On this (tradition) it is said ‘For it is your Wisdom in the eyes of the nations.'”

  4. I appreciate all this debate about what the Maharal held and am willing to consider alternate readings. I still do not see how to read the Maharal as agreeing with Copernicus.

    That said, it has no impact on my article’s main thesis.

    • The Maharal’s style is, admittedly, very amenable to Rorschach test reading.

      However, (now that R’ Zev Friedman gives us cut-n-pastable text) he does say (bottom pg 60), “For example, an individual [Copernicus] known for developing a new system arose on the scene. He presented an alternative model, and proved incorrect all previous understandings and models of the orbits of the stars, the constellations and astronomical objects.”

      Which is a pretty odd thing to find if he was rejecting Copernicus’s theory.

      You can see in the snippet provided why I thought the Maharal was limiting his statements to unsettled science. Where, “Nonetheless, (begin p. 61) Copernicus himself writes that there are issues he is unable as of yet to resolve” and “there is disagreement and no consensus.” That he is “only saying our mesorah is more valuable than following the scientific community’s latest fad, and not being as general as referring to science as a whole

      • Yes, I read this as the Maharal using this as proof that science is inherently unreliable. And instead we rely on tradition:

        “But the Jewish scholars, who had a tradition passed down to them from Moshe at Sinai given to him from G-d may He be blessed, only through this can one know the reality (alternatively, only He can know the reality.) Thus, for that which we have as a tradition concerning the movement of the sun and the moon, we say on this (tradition) that it is more correct and more acceptable. All the more so during the era of the first Jewish scholars, based on the tradition they received from Moshe’s prophecy, they knew the reality as it actually is. On this (tradition) it is said ‘For it is your Wisdom in the eyes of the nations'”

        I see that as a rejection of Copernicus.

        • And (as I said when I came into this discussion), I’m somewhere in the middle… I see him as saying that because the scientists are in debate (“there is disagreement and no consensus”), we should follow our mesorah. But the Maharal would give credence to established science, saying that mesoretic scientific claims could be proven to be mangled traditions. Which is why he phrases it in the relative “that it is more correct and more acceptable.”

          This “tradition concerning the movement of the sun and the moon” is not necessarily a tradition of their motion, but a mesorah that relates their motion to a halakhah lemaaseh. In which case, his “[a]ll the more so during the era of the first Jewish scholars, based on the tradition they received from Moshe’s prophecy” would be telling us that the din makes sense in the pre-loss, accurate, mesorah.

          As I said, the Maharal’s language is often such that people with different incoming biases leave the text convinced he said different things.

  5. Thank you both for your replies, especially for the use of my stilted translation! We are all familiar with the Rambam’s directive to Shmuel Ibn Tibbon to not translate word by word. Since I am not publishing, I felt the need to stick to a literal translation for the purpose of this conversation.

    I did not previously share a thought as I did not believe it to be compelling as to Maharal’s position on Copernicus, however I will share it now. The major theme of Chapter 14 of the Nesivos Olam is to demonstrate the obligation to study and know science, and to exclude science (as we label it) from the realm of “Chochma Yevonis” (timely!). It would seem somewhat incongruous of the Maharal to present that science is inherently unreliable in a chapter where he is arguing in favor of its study! Truth be told, as of this moment I do not have a good idea how to reconcile this seemingly self contradiction.
    Chag Sameach!

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