Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Rabbi Storch Responds

A guest post by Rabbi Ari Storch, in response to yesterday's review of his book by David Zinberg

Prior to responding to the recent critique by David S. Zinberg of my work, The Secrets of the Stars, let me thank Rabbi Slifkin for graciously allowing me to respond on his blog. A careful reading of Mr. Zinberg’s review allows the reader to recognize that he is not criticizing my work inasmuch as he is instead criticizing the use of astrology by many sages. The issues raised with my work such as determinism, are actually concerns non-specific to my work.

My work, herein called SOTS, was intended to give the reader a clearer perspective of the thought processes of many of our sages. It is irrefutable that many great rabbinic authorities, although not all, were firm believers in astrology. While one may simply ignore these statements on the basis that they are “pseudoscience”, those who choose to actually learn from these statements to glean further understanding of Torah would benefit from a knowledge of the outlook and of the mindset of that day. Whether or not astrological beliefs should be rejected or adhered in today’s day and age is completely irrelevant to this discussion. In my work I attempt to build a framework to understand works containing astrological references such as: Midrash Rabbah, Tanchuma, Pesikta Zutresa, Midrash Hagadol, Baraisa D’Mazalos, the Talmud, and many others; similarly, of the later sages: Rashi, Tosefos, Ramban, Rashba, Rabbeinu Bacheye, Rokeach, Recanati, R. Yosef Gikatilla, R. Avraham ibn Ezra, R. Avraham ibn Chiya, Tur, R. Yosef Karo, Rema, and others.

While Mr. Zinberg as dissatisfied with how I address the conflict between determinism and freewill, he ignores that this is not my own conclusion, but rather that of earlier Torah giants who believed in astrology. Mr. Zinberg seems to have ignored that I directly cited from the Ibn Ezra when discussing this matter. As for future predictions, Chazal (Sukkah 29a) make the statement that eclipses are predictions of ominous events, yet, even in their era eclipses were predictable via the Saros Cycle. They understood that throughout history, the world was predisposed to certain occurrences, but that has no bearing on how a person chooses to act. Just because a hurricane will inevitably hit does not take away one’s freewill. Thus, my very isolated statement with regards to the events of six-hundred years were an assessment of the predisposition of the world as based on the imagery utilized by the sages who believed in astrology. I have never suggested nor attempted to calculate when the messiah will arrive. In fact, I am a firm believer that the practice of doing so is frowned upon by our Sages as seen in Sanhedrin 97b. (The reader should not think that there were no authorities who have attempted to predict these matters, though. In his Megilas Hamegaleh, R. Avraham ibn Chiya did, in fact, estimate the date of the messiah via astrological reasoning. This date was then repeated by Ramban and others. Alas, the projected date has come and gone.) Furthermore, this is an isolated comment and the book in its entirety does not address future events, rather, it focuses on the perspective of the many sages’ view of the natural world as it pertains to the celestial realm.

Mr. Zinberg harshly criticized the exclusion of Rambam’s opinion in SOTS. Any student of medieval rabbinic literature is well aware of Rambam’s staunch opposition to the acceptance of astrology. Rambam made that clear in the eleventh chapter of hilchos avodas kochavim of his Mishneh Torah where he expresses an extremely derisive view of astrology as well as in Moreh Nevuchim, Peirush Hamishnayos, his letter to Montpelier (Marseilles), and other works. However, SOTS was never intended to be a comprehensive compilation of Jewish thought regarding astrology. As such, there was no need to cite Rambam or mention his ardent opposition. The exclusion of his opinion was purely because it had no relevance. The purpose of SOTS was to allow one to understand many of those otherwise confounding statements of Chazal, as most of modern day man is not proficient in medieval astronomy or astrology. My goal was to provide the perspective of those sages that did espouse these beliefs and allow one to recognize how these sages saw beauty and significance in this world. Furthermore, throughout much of our history, our Torah writings are replete with these colorful astrological/astronomical references, and neglecting them by simply writing them off as archaic would tragically erase much of their message. One can understand these statements regardless of whether or not he believes astrology to be a valid science.

But to address Mr. Zinberg’s point, in a previously published work, Tiferes Aryeh: Kuntras Hatemimus, I addressed the rabbinic dispute of astrology more comprehensively and detailed Rambam’s approach there. I concluded that, philosophically, one is free to believe or reject astrology. (Although I feel the need to note that practicing forms of astrology is certainly prohibited and one should consult a competent rabbi prior to engaging in this practice. This is even if one feels that these practices are silly and baseless.) My personal positions on the validity of astrology are neither addressed in this earlier work nor in SOTS.

Mr. Zinberg mentions my creativity and provides an example that is intended to show how I have taken quite the literary license and is, in his words, “bizarre.” Although I do believe I have a creative side, it probably would have been best for Mr. Zinberg to have reread that passage prior to mentioning the association of the tribe of Judah to Cancer, the crab. This association was not one fabricated or concocted by me, rather, it is, in fact, mentioned by the Pesikta Zutresa which is clearly footnoted in the text itself. The Pesikta Zutresa mentions that the twelve tribes are associated with the signs of the zodiac and that the tribes are aligned to the months based on the order of their birth. As such, Judah, the fourth son, is associated with the month of Tammuz and the sign of Cancer. I am merely attempting to show the reader how this Midrash understood these associations.

Another concern of Mr. Zinberg seems to be my understanding that much of Greek mythology parallels biblical narratives. I find it difficult for one to reject this assessment. There are numerous examples of both biblical and midrashic narratives bearing an extremely close resemblance to Greek mythology. The story of the twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, invading the kingdom of Attica to save their sister Helen who had been kidnapped by King Theseus bears a striking resemblance to the invasion of Shechem by the two brothers, Shimon and Levi, after their sister Dinah had been kidnapped by Prince Shechem. Procustes’ bed in which he would stretch the legs of short wayfarers and gruesomely amputate those of tall wayfarers is identical to the talmudic account (Sanhedrin 109b) of the ways in which the people of Sedom would act.

Mr. Zinberg attempts to marginalize the Ibn Ezra by painting him as controversial. Despite this attempt, anyone who has studied R. Avraham ibn Ezra’s writings knows that they are piercing, invaluable, and a testament to his great scholarship. Mr. Zinberg mentions that in some circles Ibn Ezra’s views are unpopular and this, no doubt, is an attempt to present me as one who unknowingly rests upon, what Mr. Zinberg feels to be, unstable shoulders. I am fully aware of the views he mentions and have even addressed them in a public forum. Those who are offended by citations of the Ibn Ezra will probably not be comfortable with SOTS (or a standard Mikraos Gedolos for that matter), but somehow I suspect that was not what Mr. Zinberg was getting at with those comments. Although I would have no problem relying solely upon the Ibn Ezra, he is but one of many sources cited in my work. I have not tallied how many times I have quoted specific sources, but I would venture to say that I quote Rabbeinu Bacheye just as frequently, in addition to many other Rishonim and Midrashim. The controversies surrounding Ibn Ezra’s writings are irrelevant to SOTS. Just as I did not mention that science has honored Ibn Ezra by naming a crater on the moon, Abenezra, for him; I did not mention the Ibn Ezra’s views with regards to post-Mosaic authorship. Although these are fascinating tidbits of information, they have no bearing on SOTS.

The attempt to discredit Ibn Ezra, and my usage of him as a source in my work, by citing Maharshal’s scathing critique of Ibn Ezra is at best disingenuous. Mr. Zinberg, very apologetically, rejects small portions of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah due to discrepancies between those writings and contemporary science (“To be fair, much of Maimonides’ cosmology, summarized in Basic Principles of the Torah, the very first section of the Mishneh Torah, is also obsolete ...”), but it seems clear that he has no problem adhering to the rest of Mishneh Torah. If Mr. Zinger defers to Maharshal’s opinion as to which books should be read and which should be censored, then he should wholeheartedly reject the adherence of any opinion espoused by Rambam in Mishnah Torah. Just a few lines prior to Mr. Zinberg’s citation of Maharshal’s criticism of Ibn Ezra, the Maharshal comments on Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, “Therefore, one cannot accept [Mishnah Torah] in an intellectually honest way because one never knows what is the true source [of Rambam’s halacha].” I have tremendous respect for Maharshal, but it would seem that most scholars have not adhered to these statements found in his introduction to Yam Shel Shlomo.

Mr. Zinberg states that my work is part of an increasing trend to prove that the Sages were infallible. Nowhere has Mr. Zinberg shown where this idea was gleaned from SOTS, nor is this concept even expressed in the work. I can only guess that he misunderstood two of my statements (in an over two-hundred page work) that express my amazement of how two interpretations of Chazal bear striking resemblance to scientific thought that had not yet been discovered at their time. Mind you, had these two statements of mine not been included in SOTS, the work would remain entirely intact, and yet, Mr. Zinberg attempts to discredit the entire book based upon them. Furthermore, he has grossly misinterpreted my words as I have NEVER stated in my work that Chazal were infallible. I have not addressed the topic of fallibility of the Sages in this work, or in any other public forum. This topic, albeit fascinating and a point of heated debate in recent years, has no place in my SOTS, as it is addresses an entirely different topic. Once again, the purpose of the work was to display the beauty of the world, specifically the celestial objects, as seen through the perspective of many of our great sages. It does not take a stance, nor does it project an opinion one way or another as to whether or not the Sages were able to err. I hardly see how the Sages’ comparison of the twelve tribes to the twelve signs of the zodiac, or the comparison of Yechezkel’s prophetic vision to the zodiac (matters discussed from pp. 61-164 and which constitute about half of the book), or any similar imagery (of which the rest of the book is compiled but would take a lot more than a quick sentence in a blog to describe), could be taken to advocate the concept that the Sages were infallible. In fact, the overwhelming majority of SOTS has nothing to do with contemporary science. Rather, it explains how the astrological imagery and symbolism of earlier generations allows a better understanding of these writings.

I am not certain, but it seems to me, that Mr. Zinberg assumed that I had some other agenda and he proceeded to attack what he feels is an alarming trend. It appears that he stereotyped me in some way or another. Perhaps this was because my work deals with astrology, or maybe because my publisher was located in Lakewood. It is also possible that as a self-proclaimed “rational person of the twenty-first century” it is his desire to “gladly consign astrology to its rightful place next to alchemy, magic, divination, and other medieval fallacies.” Nevertheless, it seems this bias forced him to read into SOTS an entire perspective that does not exist. Any objective reader of SOTS will notice that the concerns Mr. Zinberg has with SOTS are actually concerns he has with the approach of the sages in our history that believed in astrology. Whether one rejects astrology in today’s day and age or whether he embraces it is his choice, however, censorship of early works or of attempts to explain them, would be tragic as it would undoubtedly be the cause of hundreds of years of rabbinic thought relegated to misunderstandings and misinterpretation.

38 comments:

  1. As for future predictions, Chazal (Sukkah 29a) make the statement that eclipses are predictions of ominous events, yet, even in their era eclipses were predictable via the Saros Cycle.

    Is there any evidence that the that those Chazal quoted in that Gemara were aware of the predictability of eclipses or why they occurred?

    In the their era, it was known that the earth is spherical, yet the astronomical discussion on Pesachim 94b is premised on the notion of a flat earth. For example, the heating of the spring waters as the sun passes beneath the earth at night implies the assumption of a flat earth as does the prior discussion of the size of the earth and the thickness of the Rakia on 94a.

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  2. A very nice response.

    I find all too often, that people project all sorts of nasty thoughts onto writers and tend to distort what is actually written.

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  3. The worst part is, that based on the earlier "review" I never would have bothered to look at the book. Now based on the response, it actually looks like it might be an interesting original resource.

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  4. "If Mr. Zinger defers to..."
    Whether that was a typo or a Freudian slip, it should say Mr. Zinberg.

    I think Mr. Zinberg, in mentioning your creativity about the Yehudah-crab connection, was not commenting about the connection per se, but about how you elaborate on that connection.

    Other than these two critiques, I thought your letter was very good.

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  5. R. Storch seems to have vindicated himself completely, and I have just ordered a copy of his book. Sounds like a fascinating read!

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  6. - David Ohsie

    I am unfamliar with a direct source indicating their knowledge or lack thereof. However, it is notable that the Jewish populace had interest in knowledge of the calculable position of the moon since it pertained to both the calendar and any astrological beliefs they may have espoused. The shape of the earth would have had less practical application.

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  7. However, SOTS was never intended to be a comprehensive compilation of Jewish thought regarding astrology. As such, there was no need to cite Rambam or mention his ardent opposition. The exclusion of his opinion was purely because it had no relevance.

    Thank you Rabbi Storch for a well written response. I would suggest, though, that a mention of the Rambam's opposition would have been well worth it, perhaps in your introduction. Ignoring his stance is akin to ignoring an elephant sitting in the living room. I suggest that you copy and paste a few lines from your essay here and add them to the next edition of your book.

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  8. Whether one rejects astrology in today’s day and age or whether he embraces it is his choice
    ==========================
    Clarification-are you saying that it is halachically acceptable to accept astrology today? If so, what is a practical application?
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  9. Whether or not astrological beliefs should be rejected or adhered in today's day and age is completely irrelevant to this discussion.
    [...]
    However, SOTS was never intended to be a comprehensive compilation of Jewish thought regarding astrology. As such, there was no need to cite Rambam or mention his ardent opposition. The exclusion of his opinion was purely because it had no relevance.


    Look, you're free to write about whatever you want, but the failure to address hashkafic objections to astrology in a book about astrology is an entirely valid grounds for criticism. Imagine if you had submitted your book as a doctoral thesis. What would be the first thing your reviewer would have said?

    In my view, you're doing the reader a disservice by purporting to write about astrology in Jewish thought and not mentioning the Gedolim who took a dim view of the entire subject. The fact that you were aware of those objections when you chose not to write about them just makes your decision more baffling; it hardly excuses it.

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  10. A nice response, though Pliny and Yitx Waxman's comments are also correct.

    With regard to infallibility of the sages - its understood that you never come right out and say that. No ONE, not even the most right wing charedi in Bnei Brak, ever says that DE JURE. But DE FACTO, that is exactly how many people deal with them. When one strains to impute knowledge of quantaum physics or other 20th century discoveries to chazal, it is a good "siman" that such a person believes chazal infallible. Perhaps one can see this type of mindest in the two examples you acknowledge. (Which I've not yet read personally.)

    Likewise, when one resorts to very forced readings to explain statements of chazal, that is another sign of belief in infallibility. It indicates that the writer is not prepared to say simply that someone from the Talmudic age (or even beyond, as in the case of some midrashim) made a mistake. That is an example of not SAYING chazal were infallible, but for all intents and purposes treating them as though they were.

    A third sign is the reading of too much into rabbinic statements. I have seen countless "binyanim" which attempt to read ever-more tenuous ideas into perfectly straightforward ideas of chazal. In other words, rabbinic statements are read in the same way we are accustomed to reading the Torah - as though each word was laden with infinite strands of depth and meaning. This too, inidcates that one treats chazal in the same way he treats the Torah - INFALLIBLE.

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  11. There would seem little profit in engaging R. Storch in debates over the efficacy of astrology as Mr. Zinberg seems to have havde wasted his time in the doing, posing deterministic kashas for R Storch to upshlug and so on (parenthetically, his preferred solution to the free will s’tiroh – downgrading determinism to a “pre-disposition” – sounds rather of R Hai gaon). His point that such beliefs were prevalent amongst chazal and rishonim is both true and unassailable. Such beliefs, in the context of the knowledge base of their time might even be called scientific. But to a modern, such belief in astrological "truth" is of course just silly and a curiosity, at least to me, that such as R. Storch and fellow believers continue to persist amongst us (where have you gone nancy reagan, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you, woo, woo, woo…).

    So what I’d like to know is how many others believe in this stuff. In particular, does this book come with haskomos as I might expect for volumes issuing forth from a Lakewood address, and who would such maskimim be?

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  12. While your rejoinder to R' Zinger seams to address all his points by siting the scope of your book, I believe R' Zinger's main critique is precisely that; the narrow scope of your book.

    As the author it is your prerogative to define the scope of your book, however, as an author on astrology by neglecting to discuss the obvious weaknesses in astrology - your book comes across as a work of an apologist.

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  13. Excellent response.

    While it is unclear what Rabbi Storch believes about astrology, it is also quite irrelevant.

    I think the appeal of a book like this speaks to a yearning and desire for magic and mysticism in the lives of many orthodox Jews today. This book would have never been written for a market of rationalists.

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  14. R. Storch's rejoinder that he is merely reporting on the opinions of Hazal and does not necessarily advocate a belief in astrology strikes me as deceitful and not a little hypocritical.

    In a book written for a well-defined audience there is no reason to state what is obvious to the reader from the content of the book. Surely, R. Storch will not say that he does not necessarily believe in God because has not said so explicitly in his book. In any case, R. Storch's personal beliefs about astrology are not relevant. What is relevant is that R. Storch would like his reader to believe in astrology. Omitting conflicting opinions, such as that of the Rambam, while promoting and enlarging on the opinions and fantasies of believers in astrology strikes me as an attempt to do just that.

    I am reminded of an accusation against Arab politicians, to the effect that they speak one way to their fellow Arabs in Arabic and another way to outsiders in English. R. Storch seems to be doing the same thing.

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  15. - Joel Rich,

    I am stating that the belief is not prohibited, nor is it obligatory. Besides the ramifications of whether or not it is a permissible or obligatory belief, some more practical applications can be found. The Shulchan Aruch and Rema discuss various customs that arose because of beliefs in astrology (see Yoreh Deah 179:2). If one believes in astrology then he may want to preserve those customs and if he does not then he may wish to reject them.

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  16. I think this was a great response.

    For those who keep harping on the fact that astrology is not considered a valid science and that somehow this book represents the view that the sages are infallible - I don't think these are any more valid claims than a claim that a study in Greek mythology automatically assumes belief in it.

    Whether or not their ideas were scientifically correct, there is plenty to glean from seeing the world from the perspective of the sages, and understanding the world they lived and breathed. I haven't yet read the book, but R. Storch's response makes it sound like it is an insight into the minds of the sages. Who wouldn't want that? And clearly, opinions such as that of the Rambam who maintained that the sages were incorrect here, are totally irrelevant to this topic. You don't preface your thesis on the world of Greek mythology with a discussion of whether or not Zeus actually existed or a disclaimer of sorts. It has nothing to do with anything.

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  17. To Dov F.:

    But doesn't one begin his discussion of Greek Mythology with a preface stating that it is MYTHOLOGY?

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  18. " When one strains to impute knowledge of quantaum physics or other 20th century discoveries to chazal, it is a good "siman" that such a person believes chazal infallible"

    This is not a siman for anything other than skepticism towards the limited knowledge of ancient people. "They knew more than we think" is a common believe amongst many people from many cultures, none of which believe ancient people were infallible. They just don't believe they were blind ignoramuses about the world around them either. Take for example the Antikythera mechanism. Talk of ancients building computers does not mean anybody believes they were infallible.

    "But doesn't one begin his discussion of Greek Mythology with a preface stating that it is MYTHOLOGY?"

    And one prefaces a discussion about Astrology by stating that it is ASTROLOGY.

    You can find numerous books about Greek Mythology that at no point tell the reader that some people don't believe the stories to be true historical accounts.

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  19. What you fail to recognize is that your book will be brandished by those who refuse to accept rabbinic infallibility as evidence supportive of their position. We know, as Rambam states, that astrology is absolute nonsense. It is nothing short of stupidity. Your work essentially argues that many great rabbis believed in utter stupidity.

    I, for one, subscribe to your theory. I do believe that past rabbis - all the way back to the pre-Chazal period - believed in astrology, just like sages of all cultures and religions did. But I am not a subscriber to the modern concept of rabbinic infallibility. To me, your theory is not news. However to apologists who strive so desperately to perpetuate the myth of rabbinic intellectual superiority, your book will serve as a dagger in their collective hearts. Or at least it should, if they possess a modicum of intellectual honesty.

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  20. Rabbi Storch,

    You state that you think that philosophically speaking one can choose to believe or reject Astrology. Through out your letter appear to avoid taking a stand on the truth of astrology. You do not seem to understand what is at stake here. The problem with believing in astrology is m;dvar sheker tirchak. Astrology is not a take it or leave it proposition. it has been proven beyond reasonable doubt to be completely false and with out basis. I have little doubt that were the ibn Ezra to have seen the evidence provided by modern science, he would be modeh all ha-emes and recant his beliefs on this matter.

    Believing in astrology means rejecting modern empirical science. Such a possibility is most dangerous to the Jewish community because rejection of science is part and parcel of know-nothing fundamentalism which is the anti thesis of Torah. You failure to condemn astrology is thus a very serious omission.

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  21. @Moshe Shoshan

    The astrology in the book is of the unfalsifiable type that k popper would not dignify by calling it science. the predictions are vague enough so as to be compatible with modern science. the book's discussion of past events are based on our biblical history. rambam rejects even this limited astrology, but there's no midvar sheker tirchak if you choose to follow ibn ezra et al.

    r slifkin has written that

    "The appeal of Maharal’s approach is clear.... It allows one to attribute astonishing layers of depths to Chazal’s
    words. It presents a sense of security in our Mesorah and places the words of
    Chazal in a position from which they cannot be disproved by science...."

    the same is true of the material in this book.

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  22. R' Storch - excellent response and i agree that there is no need to bring in the rambam's opinion. As you state: "... the purpose of the work was to display the beauty of the world, specifically the celestial objects, as seen through the perspective of many of our great sages. " and "...it explains how the astrological imagery and symbolism of earlier generations allows a better understanding of these writings." Your book should enable many to better understand and appreciate the words of chazal via their use of astrology.

    you also state: "Whether one rejects astrology in today’s day and age or whether he embraces it is his choice..." also, "I concluded that, philosophically, one is free to believe or reject astrology."
    would you say the same if someone believed in chazal's view that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around the earth? i am perplexed.

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  23. R' Storch - another question:
    You state with regards to future events predicted by astrology of the sages: "Furthermore, this is an isolated comment and the book in its entirety does not address future events, rather, it focuses on the perspective of the many sages’ view of the natural world as it pertains to the celestial realm."

    I am perplexed then how does Rav Belsky - in his haskakmah - states: "He has found many important statements that connect the circumstances of the holy Patriarchs and their offspring throughout the generations, both with regards to events that have occurred and those that are destined to occur, based on that which our Sages z”l have revealed to us through their holy words" and "He has found that the stellar motions not only parallel the life events of the exalted people, but also the events and happenings that have transpired and those that have yet to transpire, up until the time of the final generation of the children who will stand in their stead until Mashiach arrives.."

    i am wondering if Rav Belsky and maybe others in reading your book has assessed it in the same way you described it or is there a misunderstanding (maybe by me on what R' Belsky means) in that you limited it to the understanding of imagery and nothing more - like future predictions confirmed by chazal? can you explain.... thanks

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  24. David Ohsie

    I am unfamiliar with a direct source indicating their knowledge or lack thereof. However, it is notable that the Jewish populace had interest in knowledge of the calculable position of the moon since it pertained to both the calendar and any astrological beliefs they may have espoused. The shape of the earth would have had less practical application.


    Rabbi Storch, thank you for your response. I find it unlikely that anyone knowledgeable enough of astronomy to have the correct theory of eclipses in the ancient world post-Aristotle was likely to be ignorant of the proofs for a spherical earth. Especially given that one of the most compelling proofs is the shape of the earth's shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. Thus it seems more likely that the statement about eclipses portending evil was written without a full understanding of their mechanism or predictability.

    Thank you again for your response.

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  25. R' Storch definitely has the better in this debate. The review was just a terrible polemic. The view I was raised with was basically we don't know much about astrology, but that certainly the astrology that is espoused and known today was not the astrology of the ancient world -- there is no way of projecting how changing orbits etc. should be projected into the future from the ancient astrological maps. I am not arguing for the validity of this over another approach, but it allows one to read the astrological aspects of the Talmud with interest in an astrology that we can no longer use practically. However, this was neither the position of the rationalist ramba"m or the rishonim who believed in practical astrology. But it certainly could have been the view of the host of rishonim who do not fall into either camp (like rash"i).

    As for flat earth discussed here - my understanding was they knew the Earth was at least a hemisphere (horizons, etc.), but not necessarily a globe. Thus the sun could still go "under" the Earth.

    Earth is such a great Anglo-Saxon word.

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  26. - David Ohsie

    The mathematics required to determine eclipses is completely independent from the shape of the earth even if one of the proofs that the earth is spherical was deduced from shadows during eclipses. The Ptolemaic system (albeit this point happens to predate Ptolemy by several centuries) is based on calculating the celestial positions by attributing to them various orbits and epicycles. Knowledge of these calculations and the system as a whole are not indicative of the shape of the earth. This system is solely based on the (apparent) motion of the celestial objects. Thus, it is extremely reasonable that they were familiar with the calculable side and not the other.

    - Ruvie

    I suppose one would have to ask Rav Belsky what he intended. In response to your other comment, the comment from my response was not addressing projecting one's beliefs back into the minds of Chazal. It was commenting on the permissibility to believe in astrology in the modern world.

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  27. Rabbi Storch,

    Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful response to my review of your book.

    For the record, I am not an advocate of censorship of any book, idea, or opinion, no matter how mistaken or misguided. I believe that "The Secrets of the Stars" should be read by all who are curious about its contents and that each reader should draw his own conclusion regarding its message.

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  28. @ Moshe Shoshan

    How does belief in astrology reject empirical science? Astrology works (if it does) in some metaphysical sense, whilst science observes the physical world. Astrology could be complete garbage (especially modern astrology), but your statement appears patently false.

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  29. "Rabbi Storch, thank you for your response. I find it unlikely that anyone knowledgeable enough of astronomy to have the correct theory of eclipses in the ancient world post-Aristotle was likely to be ignorant of the proofs for a spherical earth. Especially given that one of the most compelling proofs is the shape of the earth's shadow on the moon during a lunar eclipse. Thus it seems more likely that the statement about eclipses portending evil was written without a full understanding of their mechanism or predictability.

    Thank you again for your response."

    These are two VERY different things.

    To calculate the positions of stars, and notice patterns in the night sky, including eclipses does not require a fully working model of how the night sky works. It only requires 28 years or so of recorded information.

    There is a piece of Gemorah which mentions a rabbi who sends hundreds of letters from Israel to Bavel regarding the calculations of the calendar. The Rabbis in Bavel dismiss it as being trivial information, and say they would rather hundreds of letters regarding some area of Kodshim (if I remember correctly)

    The Ancient Pyramids were built to line up perfectly with some astronomical events. It doesn't mean they knew where the shadows on the moon came from.

    They could have easily believed that the Regular eclipses, happened because the Moon might missed one of the 365 windows in the sky on a regular basis. They could have also easily believed, that this regular occurance meant that something "down below" would also get blocked, and bad things would happen.

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  30. To all commentators who did not read the book, thanks, because I ordered my copy, and read through the first two chapters, and its an amazing read. All I can say is wow, I always looked to understand what the chazal are referring to. The torah and midrash are full of it, rambam or not rambam, this subject definitely, deserved the book.
    And to all rationalists, do not worry, READ THE BOOK, you will not start believing.

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  31. These are two VERY different things.

    To calculate the positions of stars, and notice patterns in the night sky, including eclipses does not require a fully working model of how the night sky works. It only requires 28 years or so of recorded information.


    It's going to take a lot more than 28 years to infer 18 year cycles and you have to multiple by 3 for solar eclipses. More important is the time that it takes to figure out how to make observations and make sense of them. That's a long cultural march, if done independently.

    But main point is that anyone with a decent understanding of astronomy at that time in that region of the world (post Aristotle) would have also known that he earth is spherical, since those his proofs are easy to understand and verify. It strains credulity that they could have built up all the measuring and record keeping skills to make calculations in a cultural vacuum. You are correct that perhaps other civilizations could have done it differently.

    Finally, even if the cycles become somewhat predictable, if you understand the mechanisms and their (in principle) full predictability, then it is unlikely that you would view eclipses as an omen of anything. I find it doubtful the assessment of eclipses as omens would be maintained today by those authors.

    Some evidence for this is that no-one except on the fringe does take them to be omens today. Instead they are celebrated as interesting objects of study and wonder.

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  32. - David Ohsie

    The two sciences are completely independent and there were plenty of societies that were quite knowledgable of the calculable part and not of the true shape of the earth (i.e. he Chinese and Egyptians). The Ptolemaic system, for example, was a phenomenal work that was relatively accurate at predicting celestial positions even though it is predicated on the earth being stationary and the objects encircling it. Each object was designated an orbit and then its own epicycle (mini-circle) to accomodate why planets sometimes went retrograde (or backwards). Although based on completely faulty mechanisms, accuracy was achieved based on earlier recorded positions. It is entirely reasonable to suggest that a society that was focused on the calculable side would have been familiar with those portions and not with the shape of the earth which has no bearings on the positions of the objects according to the Ptolemaic system. In fact, the Saros Cycle seems to predate the discovery that the earth was spherical, clearly indicative that knowledge of one does not mean there was knowledge of the other!

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  33. The two sciences are completely independent and there were plenty of societies that were quite knowledgable of the calculable part and not of the true shape of the earth (i.e. he Chinese and Egyptians).

    This may be true, but it irrelevant to point I was making. Chazal did not live in China. They lived in a area of the world and at a time where anyone educated in contemporary science understood that the world was spherical backed with very clear and easy to understand proofs. Yet at least some of Chazal at some times did not seem to know of these proofs. Thus, even if Thales was able to predict a solar eclipse using the Saros Cycle (which is questionable), not all Chazal may have known the method.

    One could argue that they developed an advanced astronomy completely independently, but this seems unlikely and quite odd to imagine: why would dispense with readily availble knoweldge of the surrounding societies on a scientific matter? One other point to make here is that the only surviving "Jewish" lunar cycle prediction (the Molad) is clearly based Ptolemy (or perhaps Hipparchus, his cited source), since it is identical to his, and thus not independent. So there is little to no evidence of an *independent* development of astronomy among Jewish sources of that time although that is clearly not a proof that there was none. Perhaps Rabbi Storch knows some evidence for this.

    Moreover, since solar eclipses are not visible over the entire earth, the Saros cycle is not sufficient to predict them. See this page which indicates that it is unlikely that the ancient Greeks had the knowledge to predict solar eclipses. http://image.gsfc.nasa.gov/poetry/ask/a11846.html. Which again makes it unlikely that all of Chazal could have (lunar eclipses are visible everywhere and therefore easier, but still not easy).

    More importantly, the real question is not practical predictability, but an understanding of the causes. If you correctly understand that eclipses are simply shadows and that the orbits of the Moon, Earth and Sun are completely mechanical (even if not completely understood and predictable to you), then you aren't going to read meaning into their occurrence, which is why modern societies don't do so and almost all ancient societies did so (because they didn't have this understanding).

    If so, there is no need to try to reconcile a correct understanding of eclipses with beliefs that they were bad omens: they simply didn't have this understanding of eclipses as mechanical occurences.

    Here is something that would easily refute my theory: if you could produce some explicit statement of Chazal that explains eclipses as shadows or otherwise mechanical or predictable in principle. Rabbi Storch, you know much, much more of that topic than I do, so if there are any statements that seem to indicate or even hint that, I would love to see them and learn something new.

    I'll also understand if you think that we've exhausted the topic and you just aren't going to be able to educate me :).

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  34. One clarification: the web page that I cited indicates that it is unlikely that the ancient Greeks could predict eclipses through the Saros cycle (and thus Thales's prediction must be taken with a grain of sale). Their ability to predict depended on greater sophistication in the precise "apparent paths" of the Sun and Moon, which again is unlikely to have been developed completely independently in the same area of the world and with no surviving record.

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  35. - David Ohsie

    I don't recall stating my opinion anywhere about whether Chazal knew their astronomy independently or whether they acquired it from surrounding civilizations. In fact, one of the major points in my response was to state that my book does not have anything to do with whether Chazal's knowledge of science exceeded that of the other cultures of their time. I also mentioned earlier that I am not aware of any source that indicates that Chazal were aware of how to predict eclipses. The purpose of that brief paragraph was to illustrate, via parable, that a predictable event could still be considered an omen. I did not want to use any of the original parables, offered by Rishonim, that I already cited in the book. That being said, one can replace "Ibn Ezra" for "Chazal" in that segment and the parable still stands. The Ibn Ezra, in his Reishis Chachmah, clearly states that eclipses are ominous signs. He, as well as other astrologers such as Ptolemy (as seen in his Tetrabiblos), did not see predictability as negating the astrological effects of the celestial objects. This goes for positions of planets, conjunctions, eclipses, occultations, etc. So, one could alternatively replace "eclipses" with "celestial positions of calculable objects" and leave "Chazal" in the original paragraph. (See Ibn Ezra's Reishis Chachmah and Sefer Hataamim, as well as Ptolemy's Almagest and Tetrabiblos.) Although events were predictable they were still seen as omens thus indicating a predisposition to either good or bad tidings. Nevertheless, I still feel it is likely that they were aware of the predictability known to the surrounding cultures (which there was certainly a degree of predictability known) and that is why I chose that example (also, because most are unfamiliar with what conjunctions, etc. are). This was mentioned in earlier comments. The best proof that knowledge of this predictability can predate knowledge of the spherical shape of the earth is that knowledge of the Saros Cycle predated the discovery of the spherical shape of earth. When mentioning China, I was not suggesting that Chazal lived there, rather, that knowledge of the calculable side was not indicative of shape of the earth as seen by other cultures such as the Chinese. Once again, let me state, I certainly hear the counterargument, the example was for illustrating a different point. Parenthetically, someone else had mentioned the Antikythera mechanism when discussing this point. This mechanism was uncovered in a shipwreck in the early twentieth century and dates back to the times of Chazal. It is a device that has intricate gearwork and was used to "display" and predict celestial events, including eclipses. The intricate manner in which it was constructed has many theorizing that the knowledge of both the gearwork and astronomy may have been more prevalent than assumed (and with regards to the gearwork, signifcantly more advanced than originally assumed). I must state, though, they have only found one mechanism and therefore it would seem to be impossible to make any reliable assumption based on it. (Although reading about how they figured out how it worked and what its purpose was is quite fascinating both in terms of the science of how they "broke its code" and the tragic stories of some who spent lifetimes attempting to do so.)

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  36. That being said, one can replace "Ibn Ezra" for "Chazal" in that segment and the parable still stands. The Ibn Ezra, in his Reishis Chachmah, clearly states that eclipses are ominous signs. He, as well as other astrologers such as Ptolemy (as seen in his Tetrabiblos), did not see predictability as negating the astrological effects of the celestial objects.

    Rabbi Storch, this is an excellent point and I think that you are fundamentally correct here. They could have been referring to eclipses as events with astrological influence like conjunctions at the time of birth or whatever they based their systems on (I haven't read your book, and don't believe in astrology, so I don't know too much about the subject :). In that case, the eclipse or other occurrence is a bad omen because it causes the various effects to occur (or is otherwise correlated).

    BTW, I without much evidence one way or the other, I assume that some of Chazal probably did have a much deeper understanding of astronomy than others, much as R. David Gans studied with Kepler and Brahe while others are not accepting of heliocentrism to this day!

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  37. "Rabbi Shim’on said, ‘We learned in all these בָּרַיְיתַי that all these seventy sefirot of the King are compared to seven רָקִיעַים firmaments, and seven planets that run to and fro, and they are called by names. But though they conceal all the [seven] firmaments, as for the seven planets, שַׁבְתַאִי Saturn; צֶדֶק Jupiter; מַאְדִים Mars; חַמָה Sun; נוֹגַה Venus; כּוֹכָב Mercury; לְבָנָה Moon; they relate these to those [seventy sefirot] in order to conceal matters regarding those. It is written: You are wearied in the multitude of your counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save you from these things that shall come upon you [Isaiah 47:13]. They conceal matters [in these teachings] even though they are not the ways of Torah. But we follow the ways of Torah, as written: And he gave them names, like the names his father had called them [Genesis 26:18]. Namely, we follow the words of the blessed Holy One and walk with Him, as is written, and walk in His ways [Deuteronomy 28:9]" (Zohar Ekev).

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