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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.