Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Big Picture of the Firmament

When I teach about the antiquity of the universe, one point I always stress is how irrelevant it is to get bogged down on the details of carbon dating or other such things. Anti-rationalists seem to think that if you can show that one scientist believes the universe to be 13.4 billion years old, whereas another scientist believes it to be 16.7 billion years old, then you have shown that there is no consensus of evidence for the universe being more than 5771 years old. The folly of this line of reasoning should be self-evident.

A while back, I published my monograph The Sun's Path at Night, which discusses the Sages' view that the sun passes behind the sky at night - with the sky being believed to be a dome. It emerged that ALL of the Rishonim without exception, as well as many Acharonim, agreed that Chazal held this view. Only beginning with figures such as Maharal and Ramchal did people attempt to reinterpret Chazal - but there is no reason not to accept that the view of all the Rishonim and many Acharonim is correct.

I then moved on to a discussion about how this view of the sky (rakia) found in the Gemara is Chazal's view of the firmament as described in Tenach. And in a subsequent post, I pointed out that this means that the mesorah was reinterpreted in light on modern science. Hence, we can do the same with regard to the mesorah about the nature of creation.

Now this, of course, was anathema to my anti-rationalist opponents. So, the ones whose public mission is based around invalidating me, decided to challenge this chain of logic as follows: Throughout the Talmud and Midrash, we find a number of disputes amongst Chazal as to the precise nature of the firmament. Some held it to be very thin, while others believed it to be very thick. Some held it to be made of a form of congealed water, while others believed it to be composed of a mixture of fire and water. Some believed it to have two layers, while others believed it to have seven layers. Then, much later in the medieval period, it is possible that some Rishonim did not believe the spheres to be solid at all; indeed, there is much academic discussion about the nature of the Ptolemaic spheres.

My opponents conclude from all this that there was no mesorah about the nature of the firmament. Rather, different figures amongst Chazal had different ideas, based on some sort of combination of science and their understanding of Torah, but there was no mesorah about it.

Now, their position is already unacceptable according to many of the Gedolim who banned my books, who are of the view that is heretical to say that any statement in the Gemara or Midrash is a scientific statement made in error. But aside from this, they have entirely failed to make their case.

Their argument is like saying as follows: There was a huge dispute between Rambam and other Rishonim as to which parts of the Gemara are Sinaitic in origin. So there is no mesorah that there is an Oral Torah from Sinai! Or, even more appropriately: There are numerous different views amongst Chazal as to what exactly happened during the six days of Creation. So there is no mesorah regarding creation!

To be sure, there was much dispute about the nature of the firmament. But this has no bearing whatsoever on the unequivocal mesorah that there is a firmament - that is to say, a dome above the earth, made of some sort of substance (i.e. not air or space), on the surface of which the sun travels, and which obscures the sun when it passes behind it. This was the universal, uncontested, view of Chazal, based on Pesukim such as that in Iyov 37:18: "Can you spread out the heavens with Him, hard as a mirror of cast metal?" as well as various other usages in Tenach of the root רקע. The Torah had always been understood as describing the firmament as in the following illustration:



Now, much later, during the time of the Rishonim, Ptolemaic cosmology had already become widely accepted, and some of the Rishonim reinterpreted Tenach to suit it. It is possible that some of them did not believe the rakia to be a substantive firmament (the best general discussion that I have found on this topic is Edward Grant's paper "Celestial Orbs in the Latin Middle Ages"). But all this would mean is that the Rishonim were ignoring Chazal (as Rambam and Ibn Ezra did on several occasions) and reinterpreting Torah in light of science. None of the Rishonim claim that the Chachmei Yisrael did not believe the sun to be concealed behind the sky at night, or that Chazal's descriptions of the rakia in the Bavli, Yerushalmi and Midrash are not literal. Chazal's mesorah was clear and uncontested.

26 comments:

  1. I recently watched a movie (chase veshalom) which depicts (amongst other things) the ptolmic vs the heliocentric view of the universe quite well. Its called agora, I recommend it. There is a part which shows the early cristian view of the universe... sounded very familiar...

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  2. I am confused about your use of the word "mesorah".
    You said:
    this view of the sky (rakia) found in the Gemara is Chazal's view of the firmament as described in Tenach. And in a subsequent post, I pointed out that this means that the mesorah was reinterpreted

    It seems like you agree that a mesorah cannot be false. It must be "reinterpreted". If we reinterpret a "mesorah", doesn't that mean that the mesorah never said what we thought it said? Doesn't that by definition mean that there was no "unequivocal mesorah that there is a firmament". If there was, then how could it be reinterpreted? When you say reinterpret, do you mean simply dismissed?

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  3. Yes, you are correct, I meant to say that the TORAH was reinterpreted. The mesorah was rejected.

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  4. R. Slifkin: "Yes, you are correct, I meant to say that the TORAH was reinterpreted. The mesorah was rejected."

    When and with whom did this mesorah begin? How did it begin?

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  5. I will be discussing that in a future post.

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  6. "I will be discussing that in a future post."

    Good, because I can't wait to hear how you can go around rejecting mesorahs and still be orthodox. I suspect the answer is that we both have a very different definition of mesorah.

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  7. So far, I have proven that everybody rejects the mesorah regarding the firmament. So unless you are going to consider nobody Orthodox, you are going to have to re-examine your fundamental assumptions!

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  8. "...the unequivocal mesorah that there is a firmament - that is to say, a dome above the earth, made of some sort of substance (i.e. not air or space)...This was the universal, uncontested, view of Chazal..."

    P'sikta Zutra B'reishit 1:20 -

    al p'nei rekia hashamayim: hu ha-avir shel olam, ki rekia hashamayim hu ke-vilone lifnei hashamayim ha-elyonim.

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  9. yakov r: "Good, because I can't wait to hear how you can go around rejecting mesorahs and still be orthodox. I suspect the answer is that we both have a very different definition of mesorah."

    R. Slifkin: "So far, I have proven that everybody rejects the mesorah regarding the firmament. So unless you are going to consider nobody Orthodox, you are going to have to re-examine your fundamental assumptions!"

    This does not follow. If, as yakov r suggests, you and he would employ different definitions of mesorah, he would not agree that everyone rejects the mesorah regarding the firmament. He would simply agree that everyone rejects the factual position that Chazal held regarding what the rakia is, without defining it as a mesorah. He would therefore not have to reexamine his fundamental assumptions.

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  10. There are two simple responses to your point, which you don't get because you are lacking in basic, simple logic.

    (1) If it's wrong then it cannot have been part of the mesorah. Inasmuch as we know that there is no firmament, Chazal's interpretation of Rakia as "fimament" is wrong. Thus, that interpretation could not have been part of the Mesorah.

    However, if saying that the Jewish sages were wrong is anathema, you can say:

    (2) "Rakia" is another word for "force field which can be neither seen nor detected, but can obscure stuff (or at least the sun) which travels behind it." That force field actually exists, right behind the sun. The proof? It says so in the Torah and Chazal believed it.

    It's poshut!

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  11. P'sikta Zutra B'reishit 1:20 -

    al p'nei rekia hashamayim: hu ha-avir shel olam, ki rekia hashamayim hu ke-vilone lifnei hashamayim ha-elyonim.


    Number one, Peskita Zutra is later than Chazal.

    Number two, it's not defining the rakia; it's defining where the birds fly, i.e. in front of the raki.

    Number three, it explicitly says that the rakia is like a vilon - i.e. a flat surface!

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  12. Nachum Boehm said...

    There are two simple responses to your point, which you don't get because you are lacking in basic, simple logic.


    I'm not sure who you are addressing, or if you are being facetious, but please be polite.

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  13. Hi Rabbi Slifkin.

    I was addressing you and was being facetious.

    I apologize for not being polite.

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  14. The original Mesorah to Moses at Sinai was likely worded differently. During its transmission through the ages, sages would explain it as they understood it, and gradually the contemporary language of each generation replaced the original language. Today when we see that some of the language is no longer tenable in the face of scientific discoveries, we try to backtrack and work out what the original mesorah must have been.

    An example of this is how Rabbi Belsky interprets the Sabbath exception of killing lice. Although the words we have received from Chazal seem to rest on the belief of spontaneous generation, today we say that the original mesorah was not based on that mistaken belief. Rather, it was based on the fact that lice are parasitic and live off the host and have no independent life disconnected from a host. Or something along those lines.

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  15. The original Mesorah to Moses at Sinai was likely worded differently. During its transmission through the ages, sages would explain it as they understood it, and gradually the contemporary language of each generation replaced the original language. Today when we see that some of the language is no longer tenable in the face of scientific discoveries, we try to backtrack and work out what the original mesorah must have been.

    Then why would the entire Maaseh Breishis be conceptualy different? Originally, Moshe Rabeinu was aware of evolution and the age of the universe, but things got distorted to the point that Chazal mistakenly believed, based on their reading of Maaseh Breishis, that all life, matter and the attendant laws of life and matter were all created spontaneously 5,771 years ago.

    Once you separate Chazal from the Mesorah, there is no mesorah. And that's a problem for R. Belsky as well.

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  16. "An example of this is how Rabbi Belsky interprets the Sabbath exception of killing lice. Although the words we have received from Chazal seem to rest on the belief of spontaneous generation, today we say that the original mesorah was not based on that mistaken belief. Rather, it was based on the fact that lice are parasitic and live off the host and have no independent life disconnected from a host."

    That's so blatantly intellectually dishonest that it's actually insulting to me.

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  17. I want to add: Rabbi Belsky said in a talk he once gave, that you simply do not get to the bottom of any Talmudic statement with a simple reading. It needs pondering, cross referencing, commentator perusal, etc. in short it takes determination and hard work.

    So too, harmonizing Talmudic statements with contemporary science they contradict, requires a lot of hard work, just like any other aspect of Talmud study.

    He stated that every time he has applied himself to making a Talmudic statement work with today's knowledge, he was able to formulate an acceptable approach.

    (I believe that Rabbi Belsky wrote an haskama to R.Nosson's seforim).

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  18. So bottom line - what does rakiah mean?

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  19. Rather, it was based on the fact that lice are parasitic and live off the host and have no independent life disconnected from a host."


    Very elegant but not very convincing. I wonder, does he allow killing lice?

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  20. "Anti-rationalists seem to think that if you can show that one scientist believes... "

    Either they think it, or they don't think it. Why would you say they "seem" to think it? And besides, what percentage of them are you talking about? Also, we must remember that there's a spectrum from anti-rationalist to rationalist; it's not simply two separate camps.

    (I had no beef with any other part of your post.)

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  21. Df said...

    So bottom line - what does rakiah mean?


    Coming up in a post next week, b'ezrat Hashem.

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  22. @Nachum said, "Originally, Moshe Rabeinu was aware of evolution and the age of the universe."

    No idea if Moshe knew that or not. My assertion was that the Torah Shebal Peh Moshe received had no language in it that contradicts any fact as known to God. God may have chosen to reveal secrets of creation to Moshe, who knows? Not relevant. Moshe was not able to transmit all 49 doors of wisdom to Yehoshua (see commentary to beginning of Masechet Avoth). Knowledge was lost with each subsequent generation. The core of Torah Shebal Peh was preserved. The original language and explanation were lost.

    Commentators write that the only Tshb"p language that was preserved as transmitted were the Mishnayos in Perek Eizehu Mekoman. Hence all the rest underwent evolution as per my original comment.

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  23. @SQ said, "That's so blatantly intellectually dishonest that it's actually insulting to me."

    Sorry you feel that way. Would you articulate for us what you feel is dishonest?

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  24. @Carol said, "Very elegant but not very convincing. I wonder, does he allow killing lice?"

    I don't know if he does. He does have a phone number if you want to find out for sure.

    But at least from the talk he gave, it would follow that he believes Chazal received a tradition, all the way back from Moshe, that killing lice is permitted, and the reasoning had something to do with their status of Chai being different than other life forms. The Talmud's understanding of this may have been based on the science of their day, but we may try and reconstruct what the original intent was, based on our current understanding of the nature of lice.

    (I hope I've understood what Rabbi Belsky said and I'm being clear.)

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  25. While I do not subscribe to the notion that all statements of the sages can or should be reconciled with modern scientific knowledge - given enough effort, I fully agree with Rav Belsky's cited approach to the lice conundrum. The killing of lice on shabbat is not necessarily based on some erroneous assumption of spontaneous generation of those creatures. That was the rationale given by the Amora, Rav Yosef, for an halacha that stems from Beit Hillel centuries earlier. The rationale of Beit Hillel may well be what Rav Belsky and others have proposed. After all, the sages deduce the prohibition of killing creatures on shabbat from the types of work done in fabricating and maintaining the Tabernacle. No creature like the human louse, which lives solely on human blood and body heat, was used for Tabernacle purposes. I should also add that Rav Dessler had previously offered the idea that the rationales offered in the talmud for various halachot need not be the original reason for their formulation. Thus, statements rejecting the validity of the rationales are not synonymous with those calling for the abandonment of those halachot.

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  26. Perhaps its time we ackowledge that MESORAH, the concept, inherently involves interpretation. Interpretation is an integral component of what we know as mesorah as it has developed in history. Mesorah is actually a historical phenomenon and an operative system we can observe in action and examine. Its not some abstract theoretical idea we just imagine as one of plato's forms and say it once existed and was simply the english word 'transmission' but now it got changed or disappeared. It seems many are forgetting the all important concept of evolution (on this of all sites?) The Mesorah Evolves and Develops by definition. If it's not evolving it's not mesora. Or am I wrong?

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