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Guest Post: Rav Yonah Merzbach on Modern Geocentrists
"And the earth abideth forever"-- Is it literal or figurative? (click here for original Hebrew version)
Written by Rav Yonah Merzbach ZT"L, published 1976
Translated by David Ohsie (corrections welcome and encouraged)
Man was commanded to "replenish the earth, and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) -- the command includes subduing the forces of nature, forces that were hidden in the creation, which was created by the maker of all things. In order to subdue them, one must investigate and understand them. It is well known, and a tradition in our hands, that before the end-times there will slowly be revealed to the eyes of all, many of the secrets of the creation, and God's honor will be thereby elevated.
And in truth, within the past few hundred years, and especially in the past few decades, many of the of the secrets of nature have be deciphered by Man. The vast distances of space in the universe and the paths of the stars have been clarified; hidden waves invisible to the eye have been revealed. The structure of the tiny atom has been deciphered, and within it is contained a mighty power capable of destroying worlds, except that its creator restrained it with a mysterious power that holds it together. If not for that, all things would disintegrate in an instant...Blessed is the one who in his goodness renews each day the act of creation.
And inasmuch as man expands and understands the creation and its secrets, and the image of world is renewed in his eyes, behold he trembles, is fearful and is terrified by the greatness of his Creator and His wisdom, in matters both large and small (see Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Hatorah Chapter One, that according to the understanding of his time he mentioned only great things); and the righteous will walk on that path, and will understand and see the divitinity of it, and will add to the love and fear of Him, and the transgressors who close their eyes from seeing, will be stumbled by them.
To the masters of the holy spirit, and to them alone, are revealed the ways of nature and its laws from the verses of scripture and the words of our sages of blessed memory. Others are liable to make errors in this. The Torah was not written to be a book of natural science, and it was not for this purpose that our sages of blessed memory said what they said. Whoever wants -- and there were some like these -- to prove that there is a boundary to the sky in the east and the west, or that the earth is flat and not spherical, relied on the statements of our sages of blessed memory and erred, because they didn't understand that "the Torah speaks in the language of man" (see Rambam, Yesodei Hatorah, 1:9 and 1:12) and in like manner spoke our sages of blessed memory and similar things can be found in the figurative language of our prayers and our praises. These words are only an outer vestment for the extremely deep matters, and riddles by which to express secrets (see the Rambam's introduction to the Commentary on Mishneh). And there are those instances where they spoke according to the knowledge of their era to the people of their generation. And as much as mankind enlarges his understanding, he changes his language, however the words of God will stand for eternity and his word stands erect in his laws and in their lofty ideas and thoughts hidden in the garb of their words.
"Who is a wise man? One who learns from any man" -- the word "man" was precise, meaning even a gentile. And one who says to you there is wisdom among the nations -- believe him; יש אמונה בגויים - חס-ושלום! אל תאמין, and do not learn from others faith and a worldview, but rather knowledge and wisdom. And the Rambam wrote (laws of the sanctification of the moon, end of chapter 17) that in such matters where the reason for each claim is revealed and the truth is known, we don't concern ourselves with the identity of the author, even if a gentile authored it. And an aspect of the holiness of our Tannaim was demonstrated in the argument -- which outwardly touches upon scientific matters -- that occurred between the sages of Israel and the sages of the nations, in that which they said that "their words appear truer than our words".
For what purpose have all these words been said? In an article published in "Digleinu" in the Tishrei 5736 issue entitled "revealing faces in the Torah", the author poured out brimstone and fire on the heads of those who "paskened" like Copernicus, that the earth rotates on its axis over the course of a day, rather than the sun and stars revolving around it. With the holy anger of the jealousy of God and his Torah, he saw in this "position" denial and apostasy. In truth, he himself writes that there were among the our great decisors -- Rav Yaakov Emden and Rav Moshe Sofer -- who apparently did not see in the position of Copernicus any defect in the foundations of our faith, and one actually agreed to it , while the other -- in truth, apparently in accordance with the experts of his generation that he asked, because he himself did not feel himself to be an expert in this matter -- was doubtful because there were arguments on either side of the issue; however, he did not write of any defect in this belief. However, the author of the article was angry and annoyed and judged as evil and found guilty anyone who accepted this "position".
And he set down his foundations and his proofs on the verses from the story of creation -- about which the Ramban in his commentary on the Torah said that it is "a deep mystery that is not well-understood from the scriptures" -- and from the words of our sages of blessed memory an their statements according to the their outward appearance (see above). And all of this was written in a era  where man can go into outer space and to land -- with precise calculations and understanding of their laws of motion -- his man-made devices on the moon and the planets, and all this is beside the other proofs of the rotation of the earth, all of which has been proven true. But he, the author, in his article wants to claim that all the of the heavenly bodies, the sun, the moon, and all the stars, among them at huge distances that are counted in millions and billions, revolve in twenty-four hours around the sphere of the earth -- that is to say, if so, with such great speed that they are moving millions and billions of times faster than the speed of light . He hides his face from facts, and then finds others guilty of "revealing faces"?
It is not because of the ignorance that is contained in this "jealousy of God" that I am angry and mock, and not even because, through this, he calls believers and the pious  deniers and heretics, or because it would be permitted to degrade one that calls me an evil one.
Rather it is because I am concerned with three things: 1) The desecration of God's name, that through this he makes us targets of mockery and laughter in the eyes of others who will mock the denial of reality by those who are God-fearing. 2) And of the purity of belief, that through this he mixes up the concepts of belief which the Torah and Chazal have described, with regard to which beliefs are mandatory and which are not. 3) And because of the danger to to the public, that through this he endangers the belief of those young people who will go out at some point and hear from others that which will open their eyes, and they will infer a general principle from this case in which they were taught ignorance, to respond, God forbid, in the same way to everything that they are taught.
It is incumbent upon sages who write in periodicals to be careful in their words so that they not become a stumbling block. And therefore I wrote these words.
[*] Biographical details from the preface to the reprint of Rav Merzbach's article in Ohr Yisrael, Dr. Jeremy Brown's New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought, and the wikipedia entry for Yeshivas Kol Torah.
 Rav Emden actually ended up opposing Copernicus although some things that he wrote seemed to indicate possible agreement.
 Written in 1976.
 According to Relativity, this apparently would not actually violate any physical laws. On can, if one likes, look at the earth as stationary and the universe revolving without violating any physical laws including the velocity of the stars from that viewpoint. However, in the ordinary usage of the term, it is the earth that rotates (e.g. the rotation causes an equitorial bulge).
 Literally, חרדים, and I originally translated as Charedim. This left the a possibly faulty impression of who was being referred to (per commenter "Norm").
Update: Here is the full quotation regarding the "faster-than-light" argument:
There are other arguments used [against geocentrism], and they seem like good ones but in fact they don’t work out in real life. For example, the most obvious one is that distant stars are light years away. If they circle us once per day, they must move faster than light, which is impossible! This is true even for Neptune; at its distance it would have to move at just faster than light to make one circle every 24 hours.
I thought about this, and wound up asking my friend the cosmologist and fellow Hive Overmind blogger Sean Carroll. He confirmed my thinking: relativity says the math has to work out if you change a frame of reference, so if you do the detailed relativistic equations to look at the motion of distant objects, it still works. Things actually can move faster than light relative to the coordinate system, it’s just that things cannot move past each other with a relative speed greater than light. In the weird geocentric frame where the Universe revolves around the Earth, that is self-consistent.
In other words, the Neptune-moving-too-quickly argument sounds good, but in reality it doesn’t work, and we shouldn’t use it.