Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Sun's Path at Night

There are few topics that better express the difference between rationalist and non-rationalist approaches than the different approaches to the following passage in the Gemara:

חכמי ישראל אומרים, ביום חמה מהלכת למטה מן הרקיע ובלילה למעלה מן הרקיע, וחכמי אומות העולם אומרים, ביום חמה מהלכת למטה מן הרקיע ובלילה למטה מן הקרקע, אמר רבי ונראין דבריהן מדברינו, שביום מעינות צוננין ובלילה רותחין. (פסחים צד ע"ב)

The Sages of Israel say, During the day, the sun travels below the firmament, and at night, above the firmament. And the scholars of the nations say, During the day the sun travels below the firmament, and at night below the ground. Rebbi said: Their words seem more correct than ours, for during the day the wellsprings are cool and at night they steam. (Talmud, Pesachim 94b)

I am currently preparing an essay on this topic, but since it came up in the comments to the previous thread, I decided to raise it here. If you are interested, contrast the explanations of the following authorities to this passage:

1) All Rishonim except Rabbeinu Tam
2) Rabbeinu Tam
3) Maharal

If you ever want to find out if someone is a rationalist or not, you can ask them about this Gemara. First ask them how they explain it, then ask them how the Rishonim/Acharonim explain it, then (if necessary) present them with this list and ask them how they account for it.

27 comments:

  1. The machlokes is interesting, but it's the part that isn't disputed in it that really tells you if someone is rational or not: the firmament. The firmament is not something Chazal invented. Tanach, including and especially parshas Bereishis and Noach, are very clear about the existence of the firmament--with the stars in it and water behind it. There are numerous gemaras that show this too, but the Torah isn't ambiguous about it.

    If you ever want to find out if someone is a rationalist or not, you can ask them about those pesukim.

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  2. You are talking about whether someone is rational or not. I am talking about whether someone is rationalist i.e. whether he believes that Chazal were infallible.

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  3. There's more to being rationalist than one's approach to Chazal. That's true even if you dearly wish it wasn't.

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  4. I completely agree that the Torah describes the firmament. I am not arguing with you on that. I am merely pointing out that that is a separate discussion, relating to whether one is rational in interpreting the Torah, not to the topic of rationalism in the Rishonim. Which is the subject of this post.

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  5. I find it interesting that the steaming wellsprings seem to indicate that the earth is deemed to be flat. If it were deemed to be spherical, it would probably be too thick for the wellsprings to steam (from the heat of the sun on the underside). But if that's the case, then there goes my statement about the Greek thinkers saying the earth is a sphere.

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  6. I would tend to think that this is not the best example. I could be wrong but I would suspect that most of those who take a more expansive approach to the authority of Chazal would see it more as a function of siyata d'Shemaya or ruach haKodesh tied more directly to the Gemara as a finshed product representing the Torah shebal Peh, rather than the authority of an individual Sage. As such, while I'm only familiar with this sugya in passing, I suspect that even for those with a more expansive view it doesn't necessarily pose a contridiction.

    And for the minimalist view, it may be a great support, but conversely it may highlight the potential pitfalls of Chazal not being authorities on topics which have halachic ramifications.

    I'm not trying to take sides, just not sure it's as useful as you believe.

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  7. How is this not useful? It is a statement in the Gemorah that shows that chazal in the Gemorah doubted their own abilities to know scientific ideas.

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  8. I think another consideration, whether it is Rabbi Slifkin with respect to Chazal or Rational Jew with respect to T'nakh, is the distinction between necessary inferences and possible inferences.

    This distinction isn't always so obvious because our language can be a bit equivocal by nature. For example, sorry to state the obvious which I'm sure everyone has heard before, when I speak of sunrise or sunset I do not intend to imply the universe is geocentric. The skeptic, who may view me as a hack apologist, might not buy that even with my own disclaimer.

    Once reason is turned into an "ism" I think the tendency to interpret possible inferences charitably becomes diminished by cynicism and skepticism. To use a more neutral, I see counter-missionaries do this all too often as well, presenting charged argument that isn't objectively persuasive when there are plenty of other which are.

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  9. I am keeping this particular post focused on the Gemara in Pesachim, not the Chumash. I will hopefully discuss the Chumash on another occasion (and in any case, I discuss it in my book).

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  10. I've read all your books and I don't recall you ever discussing the firmament (or the mabul) in anything other than perhaps a passing reference. Cite?

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  11. There is a particular approach used by more than a few rebbeim who are completely credulous when it comes to natural philosophy as used throughout the holy texts.

    It is: "someone else can explain it but not me". The credulous rebbe feels incapable of understanding it even were he to study it thoroughly. He feels that because someone else is a Gadol or that because the Gadol can explain adequately because he [the Gadol] has made the statement that all the holy texts are true.

    Someone close to me learned in several yeshivas that Torah is either 100% or 0%. Needless to say, he's become secular because he bought into the false dichotomy being taught.
    This credulous approach has completely turned-off many people I know from being observant. They are taught that they are spiritual frauds unless they "believe" in even the most obviously false explanations of reality. Meanwhile, they're questioning the cognitive or intellectual abilities of the person promoting the false dichotomy. When it becomes obvious that the credulous rebbe is functioning well in the cognitive & intellectual department the only conclusion left to be made is that the Torah system is dependent on a slavish, cult-like devotion to obvious nonsense.

    Nobody should feel even slightly obligated to perpetrate fraudulent explanations of reality just because an historical figure with a big name said it was so. However, it is definitely historically interesting and important in the evolution of Judaism to learn these matters and to learn them as the authors would have thought of them. Sometimes these cultural artifacts also bear on halacha. So it is, in fact, important to learn these sugyot for this highly practical reason.

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  12. So, how do the Rishonim explain this? Both Rebbe's statement, which seems to imply that Jewish wisdom is not inherently better than non-Jewish wisdom; and the fact that the world is round.

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  13. G*3, I'm not positive that the passage in Pesachim is even discussing the roundness (ie sphericalness) of the earth. It seems to be pointing only to the path of the sun.

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  14. We know some Talmudic figures were wrong about Halacha. The Talmud is a book of arguments, and the losing side wouldn't have lost if it hadn't been wrong.

    Why would anybody believe that Amoraim can be wrong about Halacha, but not about natural sciences?

    I apologize if this has been discussed before - I only started following this blog.

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  15. Omi, shouldn't your claim take into account "eilu v'eilu"?
    Ah, but my question could take us far afield from the topic at hand.

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  16. Rebbi's comment seems to be the most significant here as has already been stated.

    If Hazal testify regarding themselves that they are not infallible then why shouldn't we take them at their word?

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  17. Phil, in some cases the answer is "eilu v'eilu", that both sides are proper Halacha. But is that always the answer, or are there cases where one Amorah is considered wrong?

    BTW, when I ask a question like that it's not rhetorical. I honestly don't know the answer. I am not Orthodox and was not raised Orthodox - I don't know a lot of things that are considered basic knowledge.

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  18. Ori Pomerantz said...

    We know some Talmudic figures were wrong about Halacha. The Talmud is a book of arguments, and the losing side wouldn't have lost if it hadn't been wrong.

    If one understands that the unfolding of Torah shebe-al Peh over time is an accurate representation of Da'as Hashem, this question is deeply perplexing and paradoxical, as Hashem is a (the) Unity. I happen to be delving into sources on this topic at present, hat-tip to R. Daniel Eidensohn for assembling many in his compendium Daas Torah.

    Stay tuned, I hope to post an essay about this in the next few weeks.

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  19. As others have pointed out, in halachic discussions one can invoke the principle of eilu v'eilu. Let's keep the discussion focused on Pesachim 94b for now.

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  20. "I am talking about whether someone is rationalist i.e. whether he believes that Chazal were infallible."

    I personally feel that R. Avroham ben Harambam should be kept open as a possibility, but I'd like to point out something in favor of the "non-rationalists" in this comment.

    Even those who believe that chazal are not infallible for science, believe that they are infallible for matters more fundamental to mesorah (eg, specific matters of history which can't be proven rationally with the Kuzari). So "rationalist" vs. "non-rationalist" might be an over-generalization; a "rationalist approach in this specific area(s)" or "more-rationalistic" might be appropriate. R. Slifkin touches on this dichotomy in his "Is Rationalism Futile" post.

    I think the crux of what bothers people about the infallibility of chazal in science is the question of historical anachronism. Yiddishkeit has 13 ikkarim (which might require chizuk in of itself!), but the "non-rationalists", by holding of infallibility in science, seem to be adding a 14th ikkar to Judaism: the belief in the nature of the historical development of science. Otherwise, what is difficult about holding of a "non-rational", infallibility in science, ie, ruach hakodesh, other than in other matters?

    R Aron Feldman deals with the latter point:

    "Why does mainstream opinion reject R.Avraham’s opinion? This is not because they considered the Sages greater scientists than their modern counterparts. Rather, they believed that, unlike R. Avraham’s view, the source of all the knowledge of the Sages is either from Sinaitic tradition (received at the Giving of the Torah) or from Divine inspiration..."

    I imagine that any future books or articles written arguing with R. Slifkin's approach(really R. Avroham b. Harambam) will deal further with R. Feldman's above point, thus trying to make the "non-rationalistic" approach as intuitively easy as possible. Personally, I am open to even the most yeshivish approaches on science and Torah as possibilities; it's just the thought-process of allowing rigorous questioning on whatever one asserts is what I am looking for, and am comfortable with.

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  21. I'd like to cross-reference R. Chaim B's post on this topic, following the more mystical opinions on the gemera. He also quotes in the comments the Rambam in Cheleik concerning the "three groups"; I wondered if that Rambam was referring to science or only Aggadah.

    (Einei Yisrael on Bereshis discusses the Rambam in Cheilek; I'll try to check that reference, bl'n.)

    http://divreichaim.blogspot.com/2009/06/nirin-divreihem-mdivreinu-did-chazal.html

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  22. Shades, Rambam was most definitely not referring to this sugya. In this sugya he says that Chazal were wrong!

    Thanks for the link, though. See the comment that I added there.

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  23. "I'm not positive that the passage in Pesachim is even discussing the roundness (ie sphericalness) of the earth. It seems to be pointing only to the path of the sun."

    I understand that. However, Rebbe references the beleif that the sun travels below the earth at night. The (pagan) beleif he references does not refer to the sun going around to the other side of the globe, but to it traveling through the underworld, which was beleived to be literally under the world - the world was a flat disc, and there was a realm underneath it (usually said to be populated by the dead). We now know that the Earth is not flat but is round, and there is no "underneath."

    "Yiddishkeit has 13 ikkarim"

    Please excuse my ignorance (and going off-topic), but how did this particular piece of the Rambam's philosophy become normative, even dogmatic?

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  24. "Please excuse my ignorance (and going off-topic), but how did this particular piece of the Rambam's philosophy become normative, even dogmatic?"

    I'm not an expert on the Marc Shapiro-type issues(eg, R. Yehuda Hachasid), if that's what you are referring to; I just used the most commonly accepted formulation.

    This is how R. Shulman of RIETS put it(see link below, pg 10):

    "Is there anything about Rambam’s formulation of the 13 Ikkarim that makes them more
    authoritative than anyone else’s enumeration?"

    Rambam’s is the most concise formulation, and it is pashetah be-chol Yisrael. And the
    disputes are really very few; you have to go searching to find them. In most cases, what are represented as disputes don’t withstand close inspection.

    http://www.kolhamevaser.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/kol-hamevaser-26-finalr.pdf

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  25. "Rebbi said: Their words seem more correct than ours, for during the day the wellsprings are cool and at night they steam."

    I wish I knew why Rebbi didn't say, "their words are correct and ours aren't."

    Also, is it even true that the wellsprings steam at night?

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  26. Phil: I wish I knew why Rebbi didn't say, "their words are correct and ours aren't."

    Ori: Because Rebbi didn't know. He was evaluating two theories, and saw a bit of evidence for one of them - but it was not proof.

    They didn't have thermometers in those days, so Rebbi would have had to rely on his senses. It's possible that with cooler air stream water feels warmer at night.

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  27. They might also have meant hotsprings, some of which are more active at night. (Not sure about the specific ones in Eretz Yisrael.)

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