Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Happy Copernicus Day

Today is Copernicus Day, celebrating the birth of Nicolas Copernicus. He is rated as "the father of modern astronomy"; and he was the first person to present a scientific basis for the Sun being at the center of the universe rather than the Earth.

Jewish reactions to Copernicus range from hostile rejection to ambivalence to warm reception. Those who rejected his model did so for a variety of reasons. Some of these objections were of little merit from a religious perspective. But others presented more powerful objections. Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Hurwitz of Vilna (d. 1821) authored a popular work on science entitled Sefer HaBris. He points out that “as everyone from old to young knows,” the heavens are God’s domain, and the earth is man’s domain. As the verse states, “The Heavens are the Heavens of God, and He gave the earth to mankind” (Ps. 115:16). How, then, could the earth be moving within the heavens? R. Hurwitz, writing to a fictitious interlocutor, is astounded: 
…According to your words, the earth and everything in it is placed in the heavens…. not in the area below the heavens, which was designed to be a dwelling place for mankind and a place for the lower world. Who is foolish enough to turn to and accept such folly and nonsense as this? …What place does he who is born of woman have amongst the stars of the heavens, and the angels of fire and water…? (Sefer HaBris 1:9 Chug Ha’Aretz 8)
This is an intriguing and significant objection, that was also raised by a few other Acharonim. By placing the earth in orbit around the sun, just as with the other planets, Copernicus had blurred the Biblical and traditional distinction between heaven and earth.

Jewish reactions to Copernicus generally fall into two categories. There were those who claimed that heliocentrism is against traditional Judaism, and is therefore false. There were those who claimed that it is true, and did not see anything in traditional Judaism that opposes it (or did not make any mention of any opposition). But there were also those who acknowledged the point raised by R. Hurwitz and others, and recognized that traditional Judaism did indeed oppose the Copernican model, and yet nevertheless accepted it as true and did not see it as a threat to Judaism.

The only rabbinic scholars to present such an approach were Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook. Rav Hirsch writes that Scripture is simply speaking from the ordinary human perspective and is not making any statement about astronomical facts:
Jewish scholarship has never regarded the Bible as a textbook for physical or even abstract doctrines. In its view the main emphasis of the Bible is always on the ethical and social structure and development of life on earth; that is, on the observance of laws through which the momentous events of our nation’s history are converted from abstract truths into concrete convictions. That is why Jewish scholarship regards the Bible as speaking consistently in “human language;” the Bible does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God, but in terms of human understanding, which is, after all, the basis for human language and expression. It would have been inconceivable that the Bible should have intended, for example, Joshua’s command “O sun stand still” as implying a biblical dogma confirming or denying the existence of a solar system. The Bible uses human language when it speaks of the “rising and setting of the sun” and not of the rotation of the earth, just as Copernicus, Kepler and other such scientists, in their words and writings, spoke of the rising and setting of the sun without thereby contradicting truths they had derived from their own scientific conclusions. (Collected Writings vol. 7 p. 57)
There are two ways of employing the approach of “the Torah speaks in the language of men” for this case. One is that just as we today speak of sunrise even though we know that it is the earth moving, so too the Torah uses such figures of speech and they were not intended to be understood as actually describing the sun moving. Another is that the Torah is speaking in accordance with how people actually understood the universe. Hirsch seems to be following the latter approach, with his mention of the Torah speaking in terms of human understanding. Elsewhere, Hirsch stresses that the different understandings of the universe are of no consequence to the goals of Judaism:
Whether or not man is able to find an adequate or correct explanation for the natural laws governing any phenomenon of nature does not alter his moral calling. What Judaism does consider vitally important is the acceptance of the premise that all the host of heaven move only in accordance with the laws of the one, sole God. But whether we view these laws from the Ptolemaic or Copernican vantage point is a matter of total indifference to the purely moral objectives of Judaism. Judaism has never made a credo of these or similar notions. (Horeb, translated in English by Dayan I. Grunfeld, London: Soncino 1962, p. clviii)
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook likewise stated that heliocentrism is true, and yet simultaneously admitted that it opposes the traditional understanding of the universe. He applies the concept of dibra Torah k’lashon bnei adam to mean not just that the Torah uses figures of speech that ordinary people use, but also that it speaks within the intellectual framework of the generation that received the Torah, with regard to their model of the universe. According to Rabbi Kook, the Torah describes the age of the universe as being only a few thousand years, even though that is not scientifically accurate, because of the necessity of staying within the intellectual limits of the generation that received the Torah. While Rabbi Kook does not specify that the Torah itself supports the geocentric model, the clear result of his approach is that even if the Torah does do that (and it does), this does not mean that we today are obligated to accept this model; on the contrary, it was simply a necessary concession for the Torah to make for its readership.

It was therefore only Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook who provided a viable approach. There was a very real problem with the Scriptural cosmology. The problem was not with verses speaking of the earth being still or the sun moving, which could easily be seen as simply figures of speech, but rather that, as R. Pinchas Hurwitz and a few others pointed out, Scripture presents the Heavens as being a spiritual domain and standing in contrast to the earth, whereas the new astronomy demoted the Heavens to being merely space, with the earth inhabiting it. In Scripture, the Heavens are the abode of God; in the new astronomy, the heavens are the abode of man. The only way to accept the new astronomy and maintain religious faith was to propose that Scripture speaks not only in the language of the people that received it, but also according to their intellectual framework. A maskil could never say this, because it would be making too much of a break with tradition. And an ordinary traditionalist could never imagine that the Torah contains concepts that are not scientifically accurate, or that we could discover a truth that was unknown to the ancients. Only figures such as Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook, confident in the authenticity of their traditionalist credentials, and yet exceptionally broad-minded, could propose this approach. Ironically, it took a traditionalist to be truly enlightened.

I have written a lengthy study of Jewish reactions to Copernicus, which I plan to publish one day in the distant future as a chapter in Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions. (This book will also include discussion of rabbinic responses to the first astronomical revolution, that of Ptolemy, which you can preview in my monograph The Sun's Path At Night.) But much sooner it should be possible to purchase Jeremy Brown's New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, which I am sure will be a superb work.

Meanwhile, you can freely download "Ma'amar Mevo HaShemesh" - a booklet (in Hebrew) by Rabbi Pinchas David Weberman which "proves" that heliocentrism is heresy. It's available on the "Controversy" page of the "Books" section of my website, www.zootorah.com. My site has been newly redesigned, thanks to Yudi Rosen. Please check it out, and let me know if you have any ideas regarding improvements.

35 comments:

  1. R. Eliezer Brodt has an essay on the same topic (Hebrew) in, I think, one of the Yeshurun books. (For the readers' benefit, I'm sure you already know.)

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  2. > This is an intriguing and significant objection,

    Intriguing, perhaps, but significant? The world is as it is, and neither the incredulity of a religious scholar nor the world’s failure to confirm religious doctrine are arguments against recognizing reality. For those who are so inclined, religious assertions can be allegorized or otherwise softened so they can be molded to fit with reality. Protesting that received truths contradict the way the world is, and therefore we should cling to faith and ignore reality, is foolish, not significant.

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  3. I have written a lengthy study of Jewish reactions to Copernicus, which I plan to publish one day in the distant future as a chapter in Shaking the Heavens: Rabbinic Responses to Astronomical Revolutions.

    Does this include early Acharonim contemporaneous with Copernicus?

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  4. What frightens me is how many of my observant, "traditional" Jewish acquaintances still reject heliocentrism on religious grounds.

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  5. "This is an intriguing and significant objection, that was also raised by a few other Acharonim. By placing the earth in orbit around the sun, just as with the other planets, Copernicus had blurred the Biblical and traditional distinction between heaven and earth."

    Rabbi -

    It sounds like you are being a bit too charitable to this perspective. This is neither an "intriguing nor a signficant objection" to anything. Copernicus did not "place" the earth's orbit around the sun; God did, and Copernicus discovered it (Kepler was also key in this regard)!

    The human author of Ps. 115, like everyone else in the ancient near east, looked at the sky with their eyes and concluded, very plausibly, that the sun moves around the earth because it travels from one edge of the horizon to another. Moreover, it's not clear why that verse must be interpreted to require a geocentric perspective (i.e. perhaps the verse refers to God being "in charge of" the heavens and the divine host, while human beings are in charge of what happens on the ground and have dominion over the animals and so forth).

    It was only with the advance of technology and the ability to track the moon and other planets that Copernicus was able to propose his theory, which was confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt and is now our reality. However, this does not mean that reality was "different" for the author of Ps. 115; what was different was the limitations of his (and others') eyes!

    Best,
    M. Singer

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  6. Another way of framing Copernicus' revolution: What we thought of as "the heavens" are now seen to be material and subject to the same physical/chemical laws as "earth."

    The Torah informs us that God acts within the physical universe, but is not subject to its physical/chemical laws.

    We do not understand how this can be, but there are hints. For example, we cannot know, simultaneously and with full precision, the position and momentum of a given subatomic particle. Mustn't we assume that God can? I choose to believe that that is what “The Heavens are the Heavens of God, and He gave the earth to mankind” means.

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  7. I need to add a word: Mustn't we assume that God can and does?

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  8. One follow-up...to call planets orbiting around the sun "heliocentrism" makes it seem like a religious belief (or even its own religion).

    Why is this reality being treated as a belief, when it can be shown to be empirically true without a shadow of doubt? Is this a "theory" just like "evolution" and the "big bang" are "just theories?"

    I think that folks would suffer a lot less anxiety if they simply accepted that people's eyes can be fooled and it's ok to be incorrect (a point that pretty much encapsulates your arguments for the last 5-6 years).

    Thanks again,
    M. Singer

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  9. R. Eliezer Brodt has an essay on the same topic (Hebrew) in, I think, one of the Yeshurun books. (For the readers' benefit, I'm sure you already know.)

    Here is his article on the subject in Hakira (in Hebrew):

    http://www.hakirah.org/Vol13Brodt.pdf

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  10. M. Singer said...
    One follow-up...to call planets orbiting around the sun "heliocentrism" makes it seem like a religious belief (or even its own religion).

    Why is this reality being treated as a belief, when it can be shown to be empirically true without a shadow of doubt? Is this a "theory" just like "evolution" and the "big bang" are "just theories?"


    I think this is mostly historical coupled with some evidence, a very strong common sense intuition which turns out to be false and the religious intuition that R. Slifkin speaks of. Heliocentrism scientifically was almost 2000 and years old, and as a non-scientific theory much older than that. Aristarchus of Samos was charged with impiety for suggesting Heliocentrism. The lack of observable stellar parallax was evidence against heliocetrism and the common sense intuition that the earth was simply too large to move at all, let alone as fast is it must to revolve around the sun once a year.

    Put that all together and heliocentrism and was sometimes called the "Copernican Paradox" even by those who accepted it.

    Today you wouldn't call it heliocentrism except in a historical context. But it was truly a large intellectual shift. Think of quantum theory and the EPR paradox in more recent times.

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  11. "This is an intriguing and significant objection, that was also raised by a few other Acharonim. By placing the earth in orbit around the sun, just as with the other planets, Copernicus had blurred the Biblical and traditional distinction between heaven and earth."

    Rabbi -

    It sounds like you are being a bit too charitable to this perspective. This is neither an "intriguing nor a signficant objection" to anything. Copernicus did not "place" the earth's orbit around the sun; God did, and Copernicus discovered it (Kepler was also key in this regard)!


    I think that what R. Slifkin means is that it is intriguing from a religious point of view, not a scientific one. The change in our thinking about science required a revision to our way of thinking about some traditional concepts in Judaism.

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  12. It was only with the advance of technology and the ability to track the moon and other planets that Copernicus was able to propose his theory, which was confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt and is now our reality.

    Apologies in advance for nitpicking, but I believe that historically, Copernicus proposed his theory in order to banish Ptolemy's equant because it did not fit Aristotle's notion of uniform circular motion, not because he had better data. His system was still quite complex, although it did have the advantage of explaining the distinction between the inferior and superior planets and also allowed for some measurement of the size of the orbits, and it was easier to compute with. Most importantly, putting the Earth in motion around the sun provides an much easier explanation for the retrograde motion of the planets. These are all things that could have been recognized by the ancients, although you are right that complete evidence was not there to prove it.

    It was Tycho Brahe's naked eye observations that provided the evidence for Kepler to finally get the laws of planetary motion correct and Galileo's telescopic observation that proved that Jupiter had moons and that Venus orbited the Sun.

    However, this does not mean that reality was "different" for the author of Ps. 115; what was different was the limitations of his (and others') eyes!

    I think that the point is that, for whatever reason, the mindset was quite different before Copernicus (and Galileo and Kepler). The difficulties that both the ancients and the moderns had with this shift in mindset attests to how deeply ingrained it was, although today it is hard to imagine that.

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  13. Rav Hirsh and Rav Kook had very different outlooks, one (Rav Kook) mystical and the other non-mystical. Among the rejecters of Copernicus one finds the same, the mystical and non-mystical.

    Doesn't it seems strange then that "rational judaism" as conceived here "allows" for non-mysticism only?

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  14. Despite the quote from Psalms 115 that seems to say that the heavens are Hashem's abode--I read a chassidic discourse which discusses the verse in Psalms 113: המשפילי לראות, בשמים ובארץ--which seems to imply that the author also conceived of Hashem as transcending even the heavens.

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  15. Not that its quite germane to the idea of earth being man's domain but modern astrophysics holds I believe to a kind of relativistic heliocentric and geocentric view depending on your position as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was fond of noting.

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  16. Sorry, both you and the Lubavitcher Rebbe are misinformed. If you don't believe me, go ask a physicist.

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  17. Not that its quite germane to the idea of earth being man's domain but modern astrophysics holds I believe to a kind of relativistic heliocentric and geocentric view depending on your position as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was fond of noting

    Spin a bucket filled with water around your body on a string. The water doesn't fall out because the bucket is rotating. We can measure the rotation of the earth in a variety of ways (e.g. the earth bulges at the center and is flattened at the poles).

    Anyhow, there are other simpler differences to note. In the geocentric view, Mercury and Venus are always between the Sun and the Earth. In actuality, Mercury and Venus are sometimes on the other side of the Sun as viewed from Earth, because they revolve around the Sun and not the Earth. In fact, this one of Galileo's proofs for Heliocentrism was that the phases of Venus showed that it was revolving around the Sun.

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  18. Joebug, I'm afraid you and the late Lubavitcher rebbe are simply wrong.

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  19. Years ago at Caltech I heard Steven Jay Gould speak about his experience as a witness at one of the "let's teach creationism" trials in some southern state. He started out by saying that the church opposed Galileo and heliocentrism for a number of reasons. Yet, 60 years later, every university in Europe,Catholic or otherwise, taught that the earth revolves around the sun. Why? Steven then said "it is true that the earth goes around the sun". Regardless of religious sensibilities, the world is as it is. Our opinions are just that and all the rabbis in the world cannot change that.

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  20. Or as Maimonides states in Guide 1:71: "To sum up: I shall say to you that the matter is as Themistius puts it: that which exists does not conform to the various opinions, but rather the corrct opinions conform to that which exists."

    LawrenceKaplan

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  21. In the Overview by Professor Branover to the book "Mind over Matter", there is a quote from Hans Reichenbach, a disciple of Einstein, who said it is impossible to prove absolutely whether the Earth is standing still, or the Sun is standing still, or if they're both going around a certain point.

    (I don't remember relativity so well, but I thought Reichenbach's statement would apply in an inertial frame, where there is no acceleration. The question is whether that applies in a frame where there is acceleration.)

    In any event, I prefer Rabbi Slifkin's term, as saying that the view is "misinformed" (seeing it follows from the statement of a noted physicist), rather than flat- out saying it is "wrong".

    David Ohsie's point is a good one--with Galileo using the telescope for viewing Venus, he was the first to see that Venus goes through phases--concluding it must be going around the Sun.

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  22. R' Slifkin, technically, bodies in space orbit each other, so the sun does orbit the earth as well as the other way around. That said, geocentricism has all of the planets orbiting the earth as well, and that has no basis in physics.

    Separately, though, the Earth *is* the center of the universe. After all, if the universe extends infinitely in all directions from the earth, then the earth is in the center (since the distance to the "circumference" is the same in all directions). By the same token, *I* am the center of the universe - and so is everyone else, and everywhere else :)

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  23. There were those who claimed that it is true, and did not see anything in traditional Judaism that opposes it (or did not make any mention of any opposition).


    but elsewhere you say

    And when describing the responses to Copernicus, the article presents an even number of authorities who opposed and accepted it, but in my survey of over thirty rabbinic responses to Copernicus in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, I found that the response was overwhelmingly negative

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  24. david

    It was Tycho Brahe's naked eye observations that provided the evidence for Kepler to finally get the laws of planetary motion correct and Galileo's telescopic observation that proved that Jupiter had moons and that Venus orbited the Sun..
    ...................

    gallileo could only disprove ptolemy's geocentric view not tyco brahe's version of it

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tycho_Brahe#Tycho.27s_geo-heliocentric_astronomy

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  25. R' Slifkin, technically, bodies in space orbit each other, so the sun does orbit the earth as well as the other way around. That said, geocentricism has all of the planets orbiting the earth as well, and that has no basis in physics.

    If you consider only two bodies at a time, then they each orbit in an ellipse with their center of mass (think average location of the mass) at one focus of the ellipse. Since this Sun is so much more massive than the earth, that center of mass is actually inside the sphere of the Sun. With more than two bodies involved, it gets more complex than I am qualified to speak to, but suffice it to say that practically speaking, the earth orbits a point inside the Sun while the Sun wobbles around a bit.

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  26. David, nothing like two YBT boys talking physics on a blog . . . :)

    Akiva

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  27. Yes Akiva indeed
    I'm not wrong neither was the Rebbe. I wasn't suggesting that the earth is at the centre of the universe in a mediaeval sense, but rather that relativity indicates that both models can be used. The Rebbe, sophisticated theologian that he was, also argued this, pointing out that the Bible's position was in this sense compatible with modern science. See http://www.universetoday.com/36487/difference-between-geocentric-and-heliocentric/ for a simple discussion (not that I am any astrophysics expert.) I thought that your blog discussion was deficient without at least considering this point.

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  28. Thank you for this informative post (it's a topic that should be discussed more). As an aside: I think they key point about relativity is that both Special and General relativity as confusing subjects (for *anyone*!). The statements of H. Reichenbach are highly nuanced and also probably not quite understood, and small changes in language gives different ideas to different people. One can see how this is a recipe for increasing confusion on many levels.

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  29. gallileo could only disprove ptolemy's geocentric view not tyco brahe's version of it

    You are 100% correct. For someone insisting on freezing scientific "truth" at the level of the Rishonim, Galileo is enough to cause issues, since even the Tychonic system doesn't match up. For someone trying to simply preserve the notion of a stationary earth, you probably do need to go the equatorial bulge and other similar phenomena.

    Yes Akiva indeed
    I'm not wrong neither was the Rebbe. I wasn't suggesting that the earth is at the centre of the universe in a mediaeval sense, but rather that relativity indicates that both models can be used. The Rebbe, sophisticated theologian that he was, also argued this, pointing out that the Bible's position was in this sense compatible with modern science.


    As R. Slifkin has pointed out, the plain Pshat of the Chumash, as well as many/most opinions of Chazal, and in fact some of our extant liturgy seems to fit best with a flat earth capped by a hemispherical dome. Relativity won't help there anyhow.

    If you simply let go of the idea that you are going to find revelations of science in your religion, then you find these issues are resolved and you don't need to try to find modern analogs to statement that seems strange to the modern ear.


    See http://www.universetoday.com/36487/difference-between-geocentric-and-heliocentric/ for a simple discussion (not that I am any astrophysics expert.) I thought that your blog discussion was deficient without at least considering this point.


    I don't claim to have any deep understanding of even basic physics. I will say however that the quoted website is of questionable reliability. For example: "New evidence has also shown that the Solar System’s center of gravity is not the exact center of the Sun." Since the center of mass of the solar system is known not to be at the center of the sun using basic Newtonian theory, I don't know why you'd need "new evidence" to learn this.

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  30. David

    Fine see http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heliocentrism#section_3 for a better analysis but the relativist point about helio and geo are not really in dispute - if you are on another star the question of helio or geo in our solar system has no meaning.

    But you do of course raise the substantive point - let go of the idea of revelation of science in religion and you have no problems. A good point well made. Of course it then begs the question why assume revelation of anything divine in your religion. Extending your argument based on Occam's razor to its logical conclusion perhaps quite reasonably leads to a human not divine origin of religion.

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  31. For those who harp on relativity and its ability to save the geocentric model, keep this in mind:
    The earth goes around the sun in once per year. If you want to invoke relativity, perhaps you can argue (in a somewhat misinformed way) that equivalently, the sun goes around the earth. But that is that the sun goes around the earth once per YEAR. The geocentric model would have the sun go around the earth once per DAY. But days are really caused by the earth revolving around itself, which has absolutely nothing to do with the sun. Center of masses of the sun/earth system are not going to help you here. Even with the sun completely absent, the earth spins about itself. To be sure, the sun does not zoom around the entire solar system (centred about the earth) each day. You can always set up a frame that rotates with the earth, but there is simply no force that causes the sun to orbit the earth once per day. Appealing to relativity doesn't help you here.

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  32. Fine see http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heliocentrism#section_3 for a better analysis but the relativist point about helio and geo are not really in dispute - if you are on another star the question of helio or geo in our solar system has no meaning.


    Disclaimer: I claim no expertise here. But I think that you misreading that source. Of course from a modern PoV, the Sun is not at the center of the universe. But when we study other star systems, we do study them using the an approximately "star-centered" model (or as a binary star system, etc).

    But you do of course raise the substantive point - let go of the idea of revelation of science in religion and you have no problems. A good point well made. Of course it then begs the question why assume revelation of anything divine in your religion. Extending your argument based on Occam's razor to its logical conclusion perhaps quite reasonably leads to a human not divine origin of religion.

    That may be true, but I think that insisting on the idea that modern science is fundamentally mistaken is a principle that drives more people away. That said, if the so-called "rationalist" approach is not for everyone.

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  33. Interesting from a historical, pseudo-scientific, point of view: “The holy Zohar is not merely a book for the pious… It also contains many matters of natural science… It is known that the Zohar appeared in the world a hundred [sic] years before the discovery of the portion of the earth [which includes] America… yet there is found in it the science of geography just as later discovered by the two scientists, Columbus and Copernicus. That is that the earth is round like a ball, that it is inhabited on all sides and that it possesses two types of motion, one motion spherical… like a wheel on its axle and the other motion elliptical around the sun. Everyone who understands will be able to see that almost the same things were hinted at [in the Zohar] as were discovered by the scientist Copernicus about three hundred years after the Zohar appeared in the world” (Yudel Rosenberg, Nifla’ot ha-Zohar, p.145-46).

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  34. I'm confused Rabbi Slifkin, where does the Torah say (or imply) that it is the sun that moves and not the earth? Please provide a source(s).
    Thank you.

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  35. I'm confused Rabbi Slifkin, where does the Torah say (or imply) that it is the sun that moves and not the earth? Please provide a source(s).
    Thank you.

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