Thursday, November 18, 2010

Back to Kolmus

I would like to return to discussing Mishpachah magazine's Kolmus supplement, which I first introduced last week. The lead article, on geocentrism vs. heliocentrism, is, on the whole, quite good. It contains a vast amount of information about the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the universe. Furthermore, it explores a range of rabbinic responses to the Copernican revolution. Presenting such a wide range of views about a scientific topic is quite unusual for a charedi publication. (This is a good example of what I was referring to in describing Mishpachah as a positive force.)

There are some unfortunate errors. The article was originally written in Hebrew, and whoever translated it mistranslated a key term. Bedolach--the substance of which the Ptolemaic spheres were thought to be made--is crystal, not ether (ether is the substance that was thought to fill outer space). The article describes Ralbag as "completely disproving" the Ptolemaic model, but in fact, while Ralbag did raise several difficulties with Ptolemy’s geocentric model, he rejected the heliocentric model (which had already been proposed much earlier) in favor of a modified version of the Ptolemaic system. And when describing the responses to Copernicus, the article presents an even number of authorities who opposed and accepted it, but in my survey of over thirty rabbinic responses to Copernicus in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, I found that the response was overwhelmingly negative. (I have finished an article on this topic and will publish it at some point.) Even Rav Yaakov Emden, who is cited in the article as noting that some find support for Copernicus in Chazal, elsewhere made it clear that he himself subscribed to the geocentric model, and writes extremely derogatorily about the modern science of astronomy in general and Copernicus in particular.

But the most serious problem with the article is in its treatment of Chazal's cosmology. In discussing the Gemara in Pesachim, which is the key source for Chazal's view of the universe, the article only mentions the mystical interpretation of Maharal and Ramchal! It makes no mention of the view that Chazal were speaking literally and subscribed to the ancient Babylonian cosmology, even though this was the universal view of the Rishonim!

For all the excellent information in the article - and I know the author to be a very fine, honest and rational person, who certainly did not intend to distort anything and was probably constrained by editorial considerations - this is a very serious deficiency. How can one discuss the "Torah view" on the Ptolemaic model and the Copernican model, while concealing Chazal's own rejected view of the Babylonian model? In any discussion about cosmology, such a fundamental misrepresentation of Chazal and the Rishonim is not only innately problematic, but also empowers those who believe that there is no traditional view that Chazal were wrong in any of their beliefs about the world. I have notified the author and I can only hope that there will be some kind of correction printed in a future issue.

23 comments:

  1. Are you aware that all real conversation on geocentric world views from anyone but total nutcases stopped around 1650 or so?

    To be honest the idea of a geocentric universe jsut does not fit with the observed phases of Venus. (or about 500 other things)

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  2. Once again, allow me to point out that not just Chazal but the Torah itself describe the world in terms of Babylonian cosmology.

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  3. If the author hopes to remain in good standing in the Charaidi world then how can he point out chazal's lack of knowledge in this case?

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  4. Nachum - Once again, allow me to point out that I plan to deal with this in a future post!

    E-Man - correct, but it would still be possible to say something like "many Rishonim interpret this section of the Gemara at face value."

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  5. Zach - I disagree with you. People who rejected Copernicus may have been very wrong, but they were not "nutcases."

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  6. IIUC the "traditional " approach would be that chazal could have lived in middle persia or middle iceland and it wouldn't have made a difference-the talmud iceland would've been the same as talmud bavli etc.
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  7. Joel Rich you're exaggerating
    Bavel is a special ancient place for Jews and they spoke a semitic language
    Jewish roots
    Iceland?
    Your point is understood however.

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  8. As I see it, these are the authors options:

    A. write a good but not so explicit (and a bit compromising) article.

    B. write an extensive study and get banned (in the worse case the whole magazine).

    C. don't write anything at all.

    Now, R' Natan chose B without knowing about the ban. The author in question chose A and in result educated many people who would't care to read such an article online or in a book.

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  9. I believe the Lubavitcher Rebbe observed that since the advent of the theory of relativity, debate about geocentrism vs. heliocentrism has become moot from a scientific perspective, as all we can speak about are varying frames of references, with their associated mathematical consequences.

    He speaks of this, apologetically, with regards to geocentrism. However, this perspective doesn't suffice to make geocentrism any more of a preferred perspective than heliocentrism when it comes to making natural observations.

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  10. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was mistaken for several reasons, some of which I outline in "The Challenge Of Creation."

    But that is a different topic, which we can discuss on another occasion.

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  11. Mishpacha is something people browse through on Shabbos afternoon, not a scientific journal. It seems that author chose to appeal to his audience over a completely accurate representation of the facts. Had he written that Chazal held of Babalonian cosmology, that alone would get him branded a kofer among an audience that believes that everything Chazal said was told to Moshe at Har SInia.

    > IIUC the "traditional " approach would be that chazal could have lived in middle persia or middle iceland and it wouldn't have made a difference-the talmud iceland would've been the same as talmud bavli etc.

    How does that approach explain the Yerushalmi? If the place a gemara was written made no difference, shouldn’t it agree with the Bavli on every point?

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  12. G*3 - Of course he wouldn't be able to get away with writing that Chazal held of outdated Babylonian cosmology. But I think it would be possible, even in Mishpachah, when mentioning the Maharal to Pesachim 94b, to state that the Rishonim learned the Gemara k'pshuto.

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  13. How does that approach explain the Yerushalmi? If the place a gemara was written made no difference, shouldn’t it agree with the Bavli on every point?
    ==================
    Had the Yerushalmi continued as long as the bavli ...
    or
    had the rabbis of bavel been in e"y and vv.....
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  14. It makes no mention of the view that Chazal were speaking literally and subscribed to the ancient Babylonian cosmology, even though this was the universal view of the Rishonim! - Natan Slifkin

    I am curious as to the evidence that the ancient Babylonian star gazers also believed that the sun went through an opaque 'rakia' at dawn and dusk, and spent the night traversing west to east above the rakia. I am also curious as to the origin of the concentric, earth-centered celestial sphere model of the heavens. Did it predate the Greek naturalists?

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  15. Well, there's a new magazine coming out very soon - Ami Magazine www.amimagazine.org. Let's see if they will have the guts to go a little further than Mishpacha does. I doubt it though.

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  16. 1) Don't forget there is an editorial team at any Chareidi publication that makes sure the article passes the test of Torah purity. Perhaps your author did write about the subject of Chazal following Babylonian methodology and it was removed.
    2) Or, quite possibly, he believes as so many other do that in order to uphold Chazal's honour one must misrepresent them because to his audience intellectual honesty is a liability, not a virtue.

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  17. Someone who argued for a geocentric solar system in 1630 was not a nut case (just wrong). However someone who does it in 2010 is a nutcase.

    If you want a really good history of astronomy from the Greeks to the
    modern day go download Prof. Richard Pogge's "Astronomy 161" lectures. This is the audio recording of a freshman astronomy class at Ohio State university. Prof Pogge is a very good teacher.


    http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast161/

    (And if you ever want to escape to the Negev with telescopes let me know!)

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  18. I was astounded to learn from the Kolmus article that Newton discovered gravity. Before Newton, did people think things fell up?

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  19. I was astounded to learn from the Kolmus article that Newton discovered gravity. Before Newton, did people think things fell up?

    Of course people understood that things fell before Newton. However the understanding of how things fell was poorly understood. Aristotle said that heavy things fall faster than light things (they don't).

    Galileo in fact performed a number of of experiments with falling bodies and managed to figure out some of the laws. He managed to figure out that the rate of things falling went with the square of the time and had nothing to do with the mass of the object that was falling.


    What Sir Issac Newton did was to unify gravity as the dominant force in the universe. In the Principia he showed that the force that caused an apple to fall on his farm in Woolsthorpe England and the force that caused the Moon to orbit the Earth were infact one in the same. He also managed to derive kepler's laws from first principles.

    F(g) = GMm/R^2

    I did major in physics if you were wondering

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  20. I may be missing something here, but why is the Jewish sages' view in Pesachim referred to as "chazal"? After all, Rabbenu hakadosh rejected their view in favor of that of the nations, so it's not mainstream!
    Proving from this gemara the chazal were mistaken in matters of science is like proving that they were mistaken in Torah from any time that one tanna/amora refutes another!

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  21. Peretz -

    1. While Rabbenu HaKadosh rejected their view, this view is adopted elsewhere in Shas.

    2. My distinguished opponents would not accept that when one tanna/amora refutes another, it means that the other is wrong.

    3. My distinguished opponents believe that all Chazal's statements about the natural world were based on supernatural sources of knowledge; hence, Rabbenu HaKadosh was not rejecting their view and must be understood differently.

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  22. I believe the Lubavitcher Rebbe observed that since the advent of the theory of relativity, debate about geocentrism vs. heliocentrism has become moot from a scientific perspective, as all we can speak about are varying frames of references, with their associated mathematical consequences.

    He speaks of this, apologetically, with regards to geocentrism. However, this perspective doesn't suffice to make geocentrism any more of a preferred perspective than heliocentrism when it comes to making natural observations.


    First of all the idea that you can claim that because of relativity a Geocentric worldview is equally valid is just flat out wrong. Physics just does not work like that.


    But there is something else that I think is missing from this conversation, which is an understanding of how science really works and how scientists use theories. Emile Duclaux (19th century French biologist and chemist) said this: A theory does not need to be
    philosophical and seducing; it does not even need to be true in the absolute sense of the
    word; it suffices that it be fertile.


    In order for a theory to be of use or interesting it must be able to drive innovation and new discoveries. The geocentric worldview never did this, it simply "Preserved appearances" by making more or less accurate predictions of where the planets would be.

    Newtonian physics provides a very rich canvas for discovery. The discovery of Neptune could never
    have happened in a geocentric world view (that is a post for a different day)

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  23. "not just Chazal but the Torah itself describe the world in terms of Babylonian cosmology."

    That's not true. Only some parts of the Torah match that cosmology, v'hamayvin yovin.

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