Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Back to Kolmus
I would like to return to discussing Mishpachah magazine's Kolmus supplement, which I first introduced last week. The lead article, on geocentrism vs. heliocentrism, is, on the whole, quite good. It contains a vast amount of information about the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the universe. Furthermore, it explores a range of rabbinic responses to the Copernican revolution. Presenting such a wide range of views about a scientific topic is quite unusual for a charedi publication. (This is a good example of what I was referring to in describing Mishpachah as a positive force.)
There are some unfortunate errors. The article was originally written in Hebrew, and whoever translated it mistranslated a key term. Bedolach--the substance of which the Ptolemaic spheres were thought to be made--is crystal, not ether (ether is the substance that was thought to fill outer space). The article describes Ralbag as "completely disproving" the Ptolemaic model, but in fact, while Ralbag did raise several difficulties with Ptolemy’s geocentric model, he rejected the heliocentric model (which had already been proposed much earlier) in favor of a modified version of the Ptolemaic system. 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. (I have finished an article on this topic and will publish it at some point.) Even Rav Yaakov Emden, who is cited in the article as noting that some find support for Copernicus in Chazal, elsewhere made it clear that he himself subscribed to the geocentric model, and writes extremely derogatorily about the modern science of astronomy in general and Copernicus in particular.
But the most serious problem with the article is in its treatment of Chazal's cosmology. In discussing the Gemara in Pesachim, which is the key source for Chazal's view of the universe, the article only mentions the mystical interpretation of Maharal and Ramchal! It makes no mention of the view that Chazal were speaking literally and subscribed to the ancient Babylonian cosmology, even though this was the universal view of the Rishonim!
For all the excellent information in the article - and I know the author to be a very fine, honest and rational person, who certainly did not intend to distort anything and was probably constrained by editorial considerations - this is a very serious deficiency. How can one discuss the "Torah view" on the Ptolemaic model and the Copernican model, while concealing Chazal's own rejected view of the Babylonian model? In any discussion about cosmology, such a fundamental misrepresentation of Chazal and the Rishonim is not only innately problematic, but also empowers those who believe that there is no traditional view that Chazal were wrong in any of their beliefs about the world. I have notified the author and I can only hope that there will be some kind of correction printed in a future issue.