Tuesday, July 31, 2012
The Sun's Path at Night Redux
In previous posts, I explained that placing things in context is a key feature of the academic approach to Torah literature, and gave several examples. In this post, I would like to present an example that is, I think, extremely significant to readers of this forum.
One of my biggest mistakes during the 2004-2006 controversy over my books was neglecting to properly study the Gemara in Pesachim 94b, which records Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi as conceding that the Sages of Israel were mistaken in their belief that the sun travels behind the sky at night. It's by far the clearest and most overwhelming evidence that the notion of Chazal being fallible in scientific matters has broad support from Rishonim and Acharonim, and it's a pity that I didn't present it while the controversy was raging. Eventually I did study the topic properly, and wrote a monograph entitled "The Sun's Path at Night" (which you can download at this link).
In this monograph, I surveyed all the views that I could find on this topic. I divided them according to the approach that they took. Thus, in one section, I listed all the rationalist approaches, from the Geonim through to recent authorities; in another section, I listed all the mystical approaches, and so on. That reflects a traditional, yeshivish way of arranging sources.
When I applied for the PhD program in Jewish History at Bar-Ilan, I had to submit a thesis (my MA was course-based rather than thesis-based), and I decided to rework this monograph. Under the guidance of Dr. David Malkiel, I reorganized the material with a more academic approach.
From the academic standpoint of evaluating intellectual Jewish history, it matters little how many sources can be listed with each approach. The point is to examine the context in which intellectual history develops. With this topic, the most relevant way to divide up the different views is not via their approach, but rather the historical setting. And the key is the sixteenth century. Prior to the sixteenth century, every single rabbinic authority, without exception, understood the Gemara to be talking about astronomy (as opposed to mystical matters). Furthermore, prior to the sixteenth century, virtually all understood it according to its plain meaning (that the Sages were mistaken regarding the sun's path at night). Most reported this in a matter-of-fact way, apparently not seeing it as any cause for concern, while for some it was positive testimony of the Sages’ intellectual honesty. The few who did not understand the Sages as being mistaken apparently took this approach not because they believed the Sages to be infallible, but because they really did believe the sun to go behind the sky at night.
It was in the sixteenth century that everything changed. Some reinterpreted the Gemara in very forced ways. Others claimed that the Gemara was speaking about mystical phenomena, despite the complete lack of precedent for this approach, and the difficulty of reading it into the Gemara. Still others entirely ignored this part of the Gemara and focused instead on an adjacent section of the Gemara in which the Sages' views on astronomy appeared to be vindicated. And even those who accepted the plain meaning of the Gemara were very apologetic about it, in contrast to the Rishonim.
Once it becomes clear that the sixteenth century marks a dramatic transition, the next question to ask is why. In my thesis, I suggested that Jews in Europe, feeling intellectually put to shame by the scientific advances of Christendom in general, and the dramatic achievements in astronomy of Prague and Cracow at that time in particular, could not accept that the Sages of the Talmud had been so grossly mistaken in these matters. I am, of course, open to other suggestions, but this seems to be the historical context that explains the dramatic shift in approaches to this topic.
In other news: If you live in Chicago, don't forget that this Sunday is the Torah Tour of the Lincoln Park Zoo. Reservations are required! There may also be a Sunday evening lecture; details to follow.
Posted by Natan Slifkin