Guest post by David S. Zinberg
Review of The Secrets of the Stars by Rabbi Ari Storch (Lakewood: Israel Bookshop Publications, 2011).
May a Jew believe in astrology? Most modern-leaning, traditional Jews would likely say no. Astrology has long been considered a pseudoscience, and we Jews have a proud tradition of scientific study and accomplishment which has flourished in parallel to our religious legacy. As rational twenty-first-century people, most of us would gladly consign astrology to its rightful place next to alchemy, magic, divination, and other medieval fallacies. Furthermore, from a moral and religious standpoint, we tend to regard free will as an axiom, and astrological determinism undermines the very foundation of human freedom and accountability. To posit a mechanism by which human behavior may be guided by the zodiac and the planets, acting as a sort of providential conduit between God and man – even if man is allowed to overcome that mechanism – is to diminish both man’s freedom and God’s omnipotence.
Yet references to astrology are found throughout the Talmud and the Midrash, and in the writings of great medieval Jewish thinkers. Abraham Ibn Ezra (c.1089-c.1161), for example, wrote several treatises on the subject and generously applied astrological theory in his biblical commentaries. Even Rashi (1040-1105), in his commentary on Exodus (quoting the Midrash), says that Pharaoh received advice from his astrologers on the day Moses was born and, before agreeing to release the Israelites, warned Moses of “a star that is a sign of blood and murder” awaiting them in the desert. So how can we reconcile the undeniable presence of astrology in Jewish texts with our modern conviction that it is nonsense?
There are three general approaches to this problem, particularly with respect to the literature of the Talmudic Sages. There is the historical approach, which places astrology and other discredited notions in the context of the ancient world in which the Talmud was formulated. Despite their greatness, the Sages repeated ideas – including many now known to be false – that were prevalent in the Near East in the first few centuries BCE and CE. They were simply operating within the intellectual climate of their day. The second approach is apologetic; its adherents insist that the Sages would not err, even in scientific matters. Therefore, we misunderstand what appear, only superficially, to be incorrect notions about the physical world. Such statements in the Talmud, according to this approach, must have an esoteric meaning representing a deeper metaphysical, rather than scientific, truth. The third, and most radical, response is fundamentalist. Talmudic fundamentalists reject the historical approach and do not feel compelled to rationalize the Sages’ statements. Much like biblical fundamentalists, they maintain that everything in the Talmud and Midrash, even from the realm of biology and the physical sciences, is literally accurate.
The Secrets of the Stars is a product of the fundamentalist approach to astrology in Judaism. It is based on the premise that astrology is a true science having the full support of Jewish tradition. The author does not argue this position; he takes it as a given, based on passages in the Talmud, Midrash, and medieval Jewish works sympathetic to his thesis. He does not acknowledge the disputes over astrology in both general and Jewish intellectual history, and includes only a passing reference to a debate in the Talmud itself about Israel’s subjection to astrological influence. To avoid being cast as a full-fledged determinist, or as a proponent of predictive astrology, the author attempts to hedge his astrological philosophy with the following disclaimer, in his Introduction: “Despite the power of the mazalos suggested in this work, it does not suggest pre-determined destiny. The Creator endowed man with free choice, a fundamental belief in Judaism . . . While this sefer points to the strong parallels between the events and figures of history and the constellations, never is a cause-and-effect relationship suggested. The argument that as mirror images one affects the other is easily countered. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, and it is only after the fact that one can decode the celestial secrets. The stars do not necessarily dictate the future, but history may be read from them.” This makes astrology sound like a purely subjective art form, valid only for past events. But, in fact, this is not the consistent message of the book. In a chapter entitled “Nearing Completion,” for example, the author predicts what will occur when the point of the vernal equinox on the celestial sphere enters the constellation Aquarius (this will indeed take place in approximately 600 years from now – the precise date depends on where you decide to draw Aquarius’ border – due to a real astronomical phenomenon called precession of the equinoxes). Identifying Aquarius as “the mazal of Yisrael,” Rabbi Storch states that this event “will undoubtedly infuse the year with a spirituality that only Klal Yisrael can bring, and ultimately with geulah, redemption.” (This discussion may recall a hit song from the late 1960’s on “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”).
Rabbi Storch is an energetic advocate for astrology as an interpretive method for Judaism and has tapped into deep creative reserves to implement his program. He offers several novel parallels between the zodiac – which he considers divinely ordained – and a variety of themes, such as the Hebrew months, the twelve tribes, and Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariot. But his unbridled creativity leads him down some strange and dangerous paths; he makes a rare proposal for a syncretism of Greek mythology and biblical narratives (though Rabbi Storch maintains that the Greek myths are merely corruptions of our own traditions). Thus, Hercules, who defeated Draco the Dragon, “represents the ideal man who overpowered his evil inclination, in contrast to the failure of Adam and Chavah.” And, “the centaur, a man-like creature with four legs . . . depicts this handicap – Noach’s inability to walk on his own two feet.” Occasionally, his ideas take a turn to the bizarre, such as when he links the tribe of Judah with Cancer, the crab. Adding to the famous midrashic tradition which has Nachshon ben Aminadav jumping into the Red Sea before it parted, Rabbi Storch says that Nachshon “quite literally took on the persona of the crab . . . He was not bound by perceived boundaries.”
Not surprisingly, Rabbi Storch finds a kindred spirit in Ibn Ezra. Describing him only as a “great Torah scholar,” Rabbi Storch cites Ibn Ezra’s astrological works numerous times throughout the book. He fails to mention, however, that Ibn Ezra was a highly controversial figure, in his own lifetime and for centuries following his death. Today, in fact, many of his opinions – unrelated to astrology – are considered heretical in some Orthodox circles. Ibn Ezra often rejected midrashic exegesis on the narrative portions of the Bible, preferring his own brand of natural (peshat) interpretation. He was a harsh critic of Rashi for being inclined towards midrashic commentary. Ibn Ezra pointed to verses in the Torah which could not have been written by Moses and believed that the latter half of Isaiah (from chapter forty) was written by an anonymous prophet who lived at the end of the Babylonian Exile. The great Polish Talmudist, Rabbi Solomon Luria (known as Maharshal, 1510-1574), wrote scathingly of Ibn Ezra, “he did not master the Talmud . . . he frequently criticized great Torah scholars . . . we do not follow his commentaries . . . for he opposed Halakhah on many occasions, and even came out against the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud . . . I believe he has already been punished, since he has lent support to heretics and disbelievers.” Ibn Ezra is hardly a mainstream figure within rabbinic Judaism, and one wonders whether Rabbi Storch has thought through the implications of standing on the shoulders of this particular giant.
While Rabbi Storch champions Ibn Ezra’s astrology, he conspicuously neglects Maimonides. Maimonides stated his objections to astrology explicitly and repeatedly within his halakhic and philosophical writings. Incredibly, though consistent with its fundamentalist approach, there is not a single reference to Maimonides’ rejection of astrology in this book. Responding to an inquiry on astrology from the Rabbis of Provence, Maimonides wrote: “Know, my masters, that every one of those things concerning judicial astrology that (its adherents) maintain – namely, that something will happen one way and not another, and that the constellation under which one is born will draw him on so that he will be of such and such a kind and so that something will happen to him one way and not another – all those assertions are far from being scientific; they are stupidity.” Because it is false, Maimonides insisted, the Torah prohibited astrology as it prohibited other forms of idolatry. Referring to the Bible’s list of idolatrous practices, including astrology (me’onen of Deut. 18:10), Maimonides wrote in his Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Idolatry (11:16): “Whoever believes in these and similar things and, in his heart, holds them to be true and scientific and only forbidden by the Torah, is nothing but a fool . . .” In the Laws of Repentance (5:4), he argued that the fatalism of the “foolish astrologers” is contradictory to all moral and religious law. 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 (e.g., the four-element theory and the idea that the celestial orbs are intelligent). But like the Sages, Maimonides could only work with the best science of his day. His rejection of astrology, unique within medieval Jewish thought, remains on target from the perspective of modern, traditional Judaism.
The Secrets of the Stars draws mostly from post-biblical sources or, more precisely, from a carefully selected sample of sources. To gain a wider perspective on the issue, it is helpful to take a step back from the period of the Sages, when Hellenistic astrology was pervasive in the Near East, and return to the Bible. As part of its unrelenting campaign against paganism, the Bible sharply condemns astrology. The Torah and the Prophets repeatedly contrast Israel, who is told to place her faith directly in God, with her neighbors, who divine their future from the stars. Thus, Deuteronomy (18:13-14): “You must be wholehearted with the Lord your God. Those nations that you are about to dispossess indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, the Lord your God has not assigned the like”; Isaiah (47:13): “You are helpless, despite all your art. Let them stand up and help you now, the scanners of the heavens, the star-gazers, who announce, month by month, whatever will come upon you”; Jeremiah (10:2): “Thus said the Lord: Do not learn to go the way of the nations, and do not be dismayed by portents in the sky; let the nations be dismayed by them!”
Just as Judaism as a whole evolved considerably since biblical times, the Bible did not have the last word on astrology. However, we need not be overly embarrassed by astrology or by other false scientific beliefs in the Talmud; after all, they represent the Sages’ best attempt at engagement with general culture. On the other hand, we must not embrace these statements as the truth simply because they are in the Talmud.
Viewed in its larger ideological context, Secrets of the Stars represents an alarming tendency within recent Orthodox thought to make the Sages infallible, even on matters of nature and science. But an attempt to bolster tradition by assigning quasi-divine status to the Sages is a desperate measure that is ultimately destined to fail. On a practical level, by adding unnecessary layers of superstition to our religion, we risk alienating a critically important segment of Jewish society that would like to come closer to Jewish tradition, but will be repelled by a theology so obviously out of touch with reality.
Hopefully, Secrets of the Stars will generate further discussion about the interaction of Jewish thought and law, today and in the past, with both good and bad science. That discussion deserves a much deeper and more balanced treatment than is found within its pages.