Friday, March 4, 2011

Just When You Think That You Know Somebody

I had a big shock yesterday.

Readers will hopefully be familiar with the basic story described in my monograph The Sun's Path At Night. Many of Chazal subscribed to the ancient Babylonian cosmology in which the universe is a dome, and when the sun sets at night, it does not continue to orbit the far side of the earth; rather, it changes direction, passes through the firmament, and circles up and behind the sky. This model was challenged by the Greek Ptolemaic model, in which the earth is a sphere, and the sun orbits the earth in a circular path. R. Yehudah HaNasi acknowledged that the Greek model appeared correct.

Virtually all the Rishonim accepted R. Yehudah HaNasi's acceptance. The sole exception that I knew of was Rabbeinu Tam, who states that R. Yehudah HaNasi only conceded that the gentiles had better arguments, but insisted that the truth lay with Chazal and the sun really does travel up behind the sky at night. It was remarkable that Rabbeinu Tam, living in the twelfth century, had still not accepted the Ptolemaic model, but it is well-known that the Tosafists of Ashkenaz had virtually no exposure to the Greco-Muslim science that was widespread elsewhere.

But yesterday I discovered another Rishon who sides with Rabbeinu Tam. And it was just about the last Rishon that I would have expected to take such a view. Ramban! In Toras Ha-Adam, he argues for the correctness of Rabbeinu Tam's view that the sun travels through the firmament and then up behind it.

Ramban?! This was most unexpected. Despite his being a prominent mystic, Ramban had a clear rationalist bent; he was no Arizal or Leshem. Ramban was a physician. He was very familiar with philosophy. He argues that the Greeks proved rainbows to be a natural phenomenon, and hence we must reject the (traditional) interpretation of the Torah that rainbows were created after the deluge. He presents Greek understandings of physiology as an alternate way to explaining Isha Ki Tazria from that of Chazal. So Ramban would presumably not have been unwilling to accept R. Yehudah HaNasi's acknowledgment that Chazal having had an incorrect belief; could he really have been unaware that the belief in the sun passing behind the sky at night had long been firmly discredited?

Apparently so. I found an article by Y. Tzvi Langermann in which he notes that Ramban's formative education was under the Tosafists, and he had no training in the sciences. It seems that while he later picked up some scattered knowledge of Greek science, he was not thoroughly schooled in it. And apparently he was insufficiently aware, or insufficiently convinced, of the very basics of Greco-Muslim astronomy.

Just when you think that you know somebody! Next week (amidst some posts that will be very different from the norm) I plan to describe how I came across another source from someone who I might have expected to insist that Scriptural and Talmudic statements about astronomy are correct, but who turned out to be surprisingly rationalistic in this area. Historical context is sometimes more complicated than it first appears.

26 comments:

  1. After what he wrote about seir laazazel nothing would surprise me. I want to see how he words this. Thanks for posting.

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  2. Can you please give the exact quote and location of the statement of Ramban?

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  3. ספר תורת האדם להרמב"ן - אות קה
    וראיתי לרבינו תם ז"ל בספר הישר שלו פירוש נכון בסוגיא הזאת שהיא בפרק במה מדליקין, שהוא ז"ל אומר דמשתשקע החמה דאיתמר הכא שהוא בין השמשות היינו מסוף שקיעת החמה, כלומר משעה שנשקעה ברקיע והיא עדיין כנגד חלונה, ולפי שלא עברה חלונה ועדיין אינה מהלכת אחורי כיפה פני הרקיע מאדימין כנגד מקומה של חמה, וזהו כל זמן שפני חמה מאדימין דאיתמר בגמרא, אבל תחלת שקיעת החמה שהיא השעה שהתחילה ליכנס ברקיע ונסתלקה זריחתה מן הארץ קודם לזמן הזה הוא. והוצרך רבינו תם ז"ל לפירוש הזה, מפני שאמרו שם בפ' במה מדליקין שיעור בין השמשות בכמה ג' חלקי מיל אי נמי ב' חלקי מיל, ואלו בשקיעת החמה תנינן בפסחים (צ"ד א') משקיעת החמה ועד צאת הכוכבים אדם מהלך ארבעת מילין, ותניא התם ר' יהודה אומר עביה של רקיע אחד מעשרה ביום, תדע כמה מהלך אדם בינוני ביום עשרה פרסאות, מעלות השחר ועד הנץ החמה ארבעת מילין, משקיעת החמה ועד צאת הכוכבים ארבעת מילין, נמצא עוביה של רקיע אחד מעשרה ביום, נמצא שהוא עושה יום מעלות השחר ועד צאת הכוכבים, לפיכך עביה של רקיע משעת שקיעת החמה ועד זמן שהוא לילה מהלך ארבעת מילין. וכמה הרחק גדול יש מזה השיעור לשלשה חלקי מיל שאמרו בפרק במה מדליקין והוא אמור שם לדעת ר' יהודה עצמו, אלא שמע מינה שקיעת החמה האמור בפסחים היינו תחלת השקיעה משעה שאינה זורחת בארץ, והאמור בבמה מדליקין סוף השקיעה שנכנסה ברקיע אלא שפני רקיע מאדימין, ולשון הגמרא מראה פנים לפירושו של רבינו תם ז"ל, כאן אמרו משתשקע החמה ששקעה כבר, ושם בפסחים אמרו משקיעת החמה שקיעה עצמה בכלל:

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  4. "He argues that the Greeks proved rainbows to be a natural phenomenon, and hence we must reject the (traditional) interpretation of the Torah that rainbows were created after the deluge."

    Where is the source for this?

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  5. Which article are you referring to?

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  6. Michael,

    In his commentary on the relevant verses in Parshas Noach.

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  7. R' Slifkin,
    "Greco-Muslim science"? No such thing. What the Greek philosophers an the muslim thinkers who imitated them were doing was not science. Science was not invented until the very late 12th century and the early 13th century.

    See: http://takimag.com/article/when_man_invented_science/print

    Heck, you quoted "For the Glory of G-d" by Rodney Stark in the latest edition of your book. You should have known that neither the greeks nor the muslims had accesses to real science at that time.

    The term "greco-muslim philosophy" may be more appropriate. Even "greco muslim thought." Just not science.

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  8. You're absolutely correct. But please don't post anonymously!

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  9. "What the Greek philosophers an the muslim thinkers who imitated them were doing was not science. Science was not invented until the very late 12th century and the early 13th century."

    So, e.g. mathematics is not science?

    One is reminded of Larkin's line in his poem Annus Mirabilis:
    "Sexual intercourse began
    In nineteen sixty-three
    (which was rather late for me) -
    Between the end of the Chatterley ban
    And the Beatles' first LP."

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  10. Just a suggestion: putting footnotes in your posts would be a great help to the reader.
    Neal

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  11. R' Slifkin:

    I haven't yet looked at the entire quote in it's context. But from the fact that the main crux of the Rambam has nothing to do with the science of the sun's movement through the sky but is rather about the halakhot of when Bein Hashmashot occurs, it seems that the Ramban is merely saying that he agrees with the halakha presented by R' Tam, not his science.

    Now I realize that he does quote the part of R' Tam's statement involving the science, but I'm just not convinced that Ramban is stating he agrees with that part of it. He is merely quoting his whole statement as is.

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  12. Ramban (and the many other reshonim who follow the well-known shitath R"T on tzaith hacochavim) dosen't say anything about R' Yehuda Hanasi. He was just dealing with the reconciliation of the baraitot in Shabath and Pesachim about the time of tzaith hacochavim, and assuming that these baraitot were according to Chachmei Yisrael (either the baraitot were before the time of Yehuda Hanasi or they still spoke in those terms as we see that the tefila of motzie chama mimekomah was never updated) but regarding the scientific truth ramban would still agree to the simple meaning of Yehuda Hanasi's words.

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  13. Anonymous, I'm sorry. It's simply impossible to grant any credibility to your letter or the referenced article. There weren't scientists in Ancient Greece? Persia, the Arab world, China and India were similarly bereft? Science was invented essentially overnight during the 12th century and only in Europe?

    Anyone who has studied the history of science in even the most cursory fashion cannot take the idea seriously. Science as we know it now developed over thousands of years in many places. The philosophic substructure continues to change to this day.

    While we speak of the Scientific Revolution and arbitrarily date it around the formation of the Royal Society - not the benighted High Middle Ages - everyone understands that this is simply a useful fiction. There was science before we had the term. There is superstition and magical thinking to this day.

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  14. There's an interesting article on the history of the Scientific Method on wiki.

    Based on this it would seem that what we call science ( experimental science ) really began in the 13th century with Roger Bacon.

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  15. "Anyone who has studied the history of science in even the most cursory fashion cannot take the idea seriously. Science as we know it now developed over thousands of years in many places. The philosophic substructure continues to change to this day. "

    That, or it is a new thing from the 1800s onward.

    It really depends on how you define the terms and what you mean.
    Empiricism == old.
    Scientific Method as described today == new.

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  16. IIRC, Rabbi Prof. Shlomo Sternberg refers to the Ramban's position in his paper on when Shabbat started historically. Unfortunately I don't have a full reference. His point was that in all generations, sunset was the start of Shabbat, even for the Rabbonim who held otherwise, until fairly modern times.

    The Beit Yosef mentions the Ramban explicitly as agreeing with Rabbeinu Tam, in Orach Chayyim 261, but that's really just the issue of when Shabbat starts, not the discussion of the issue in Masechet Psachim.

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  17. Robert, if you look a little more closely at that article you'll find that they credit Francis Bacon with writings that were historically important in the development of the philosophy of science. He is not credited with inventing science, being the first scientist or anything similar.

    Ameteur, the arbitrary sharp definitions which put everything before a certain date into "pre-scientific" and everything afterward as "scientific" are not taken seriously by scientists or historians of science. Science has evolved over millennia as have our conceptions of it. Nobody would claim with a straight face that Newton, Archimedes or any number of others should be excluded based on an arbitrary date. That includes, of course, the rich histories of science in places such as the Muslim world, China and India about which I know embarrassingly little.

    Rabbi Natan, Moses ben Maimon was a very well educated man of his time, well-read in philosophy and theology, versed in the scientific knowledge of his day. That didn't prevent him from being wrong even by those standards or from having blind spots. There are other areas where his personal beliefs were inconsistent with his writings and he applied his considerable intellect in the wrong direction. The appalling bigotry and outright lies in parts of Kedusha stand in stark contrast to his personal friendships with individual Muslims. His acceptance that logic and evidence were on the side of Ptolemaic astronomy but he still accepted insupportable older narrative is an example of the second.

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  18. 'The appalling bigotry and outright lies in parts of Kedusha'


    Todd, please explain.

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  19. "Ameteur, the arbitrary sharp definitions which put everything before a certain date into "pre-scientific" and everything afterward as "scientific" are not taken seriously by scientists or historians of science."

    I agree. That was sort of my point. You either say that science goes back to the first man who created fire, or the wheel, or you limit it to the modern usage of the word and declare it to be a brand new thing. The middle dates seem arbitrary to me.

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  20. Carol, the particulars are graphic and disgusting, not appropriate for this forum. About the mildest is that we should assume that all Gentile men are rapists and that their wives are willing accomplices.

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  21. Todd, taking for granted that what you say is true, how do you know it is bigotry (or lies) if you were not around at that time? Perhaps it was statement of fact based on the general behavior of the surrounding populace? Keep in mind the type of people he interacted with considering how many times he had to flee for safety in his life. Maybe your modern-day vision of modern day muslims conflicts with this but times change and people change . What makes you so certain? Also keep in mind where you live!

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  22. Todd, anything written by Rambam is appropriate for this forum. What Rambam wrote is based on a Gemorah and is as true today as it was then. Please check the percentage of women who experienced assault and harassment by country. I certainly follow what Rambam wrote.

    Student V, ditto.

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  23. Todd, is this a lie?

    What on earth is this? Women involved in systematic dehumanization of women to inflict fear and force them to leave their communities, humiliating the men in their communities? Can
    this really be true? Amnesty International, in a report* dated 19 July 2004, says while African women in Darfur were being raped by the Janjaweed militiamen, Arab women stood nearby and sang for joy.

    Todd, the singing women are the wives of the attackers. Please see the full report.

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  24. Todd, please listen to this female Egyptian attorney speaking on Egyptian television. It's available on youtube. Do a search for 'Arab Men Should Sexually Harass Israeli Woman As Resistance'

    In this video provided by MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), the Al-Arabiya News Channel informs the Arab World that an Egyptian lawyer believes that young Arab men should sexually harass Israeli woman at any time, in any place, using any means possible as a form of resistance against Israel. This sick and completely racist, sexist, and bigoted remark is just another sign of the horrible ignorance and backwardness which grips the Arab and Muslim world. 11/12/08.

    Rambam NEVER lies.

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  25. anything written by Rambam is appropriate for this forum.

    If you mean appropriate to be analyzed, fine. But if you mean that anything written by Rambam automatically reflects Chazal, or automatically must be correct, then that is an irrational kind of fundamentalism and is not appropriate for this forum.

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  26. Please... Of course I mean the former. Had I accept his view of women I would not be posting. LOL. Was there something in my posts that made you think otherwise?

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