by 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.
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