Rabbi Storch Responds
A guest post by Rabbi Ari Storch, in response to yesterday's review of his book by David Zinberg
Prior to responding to the recent critique by David S. Zinberg of my work, The Secrets of the Stars, let me thank Rabbi Slifkin for graciously allowing me to respond on his blog. A careful reading of Mr. Zinberg’s review allows the reader to recognize that he is not criticizing my work inasmuch as he is instead criticizing the use of astrology by many sages. The issues raised with my work such as determinism, are actually concerns non-specific to my work.
My work, herein called SOTS, was intended to give the reader a clearer perspective of the thought processes of many of our sages. It is irrefutable that many great rabbinic authorities, although not all, were firm believers in astrology. While one may simply ignore these statements on the basis that they are “pseudoscience”, those who choose to actually learn from these statements to glean further understanding of Torah would benefit from a knowledge of the outlook and of the mindset of that day. Whether or not astrological beliefs should be rejected or adhered in today’s day and age is completely irrelevant to this discussion. In my work I attempt to build a framework to understand works containing astrological references such as: Midrash Rabbah, Tanchuma, Pesikta Zutresa, Midrash Hagadol, Baraisa D’Mazalos, the Talmud, and many others; similarly, of the later sages: Rashi, Tosefos, Ramban, Rashba, Rabbeinu Bacheye, Rokeach, Recanati, R. Yosef Gikatilla, R. Avraham ibn Ezra, R. Avraham ibn Chiya, Tur, R. Yosef Karo, Rema, and others.
While Mr. Zinberg as dissatisfied with how I address the conflict between determinism and freewill, he ignores that this is not my own conclusion, but rather that of earlier Torah giants who believed in astrology. Mr. Zinberg seems to have ignored that I directly cited from the Ibn Ezra when discussing this matter. As for future predictions, Chazal (Sukkah 29a) make the statement that eclipses are predictions of ominous events, yet, even in their era eclipses were predictable via the Saros Cycle. They understood that throughout history, the world was predisposed to certain occurrences, but that has no bearing on how a person chooses to act. Just because a hurricane will inevitably hit does not take away one’s freewill. Thus, my very isolated statement with regards to the events of six-hundred years were an assessment of the predisposition of the world as based on the imagery utilized by the sages who believed in astrology. I have never suggested nor attempted to calculate when the messiah will arrive. In fact, I am a firm believer that the practice of doing so is frowned upon by our Sages as seen in Sanhedrin 97b. (The reader should not think that there were no authorities who have attempted to predict these matters, though. In his Megilas Hamegaleh, R. Avraham ibn Chiya did, in fact, estimate the date of the messiah via astrological reasoning. This date was then repeated by Ramban and others. Alas, the projected date has come and gone.) Furthermore, this is an isolated comment and the book in its entirety does not address future events, rather, it focuses on the perspective of the many sages’ view of the natural world as it pertains to the celestial realm.
Mr. Zinberg harshly criticized the exclusion of Rambam’s opinion in SOTS. Any student of medieval rabbinic literature is well aware of Rambam’s staunch opposition to the acceptance of astrology. Rambam made that clear in the eleventh chapter of hilchos avodas kochavim of his Mishneh Torah where he expresses an extremely derisive view of astrology as well as in Moreh Nevuchim, Peirush Hamishnayos, his letter to Montpelier (Marseilles), and other works. However, SOTS was never intended to be a comprehensive compilation of Jewish thought regarding astrology. As such, there was no need to cite Rambam or mention his ardent opposition. The exclusion of his opinion was purely because it had no relevance. The purpose of SOTS was to allow one to understand many of those otherwise confounding statements of Chazal, as most of modern day man is not proficient in medieval astronomy or astrology. My goal was to provide the perspective of those sages that did espouse these beliefs and allow one to recognize how these sages saw beauty and significance in this world. Furthermore, throughout much of our history, our Torah writings are replete with these colorful astrological/astronomical references, and neglecting them by simply writing them off as archaic would tragically erase much of their message. One can understand these statements regardless of whether or not he believes astrology to be a valid science.
But to address Mr. Zinberg’s point, in a previously published work, Tiferes Aryeh: Kuntras Hatemimus, I addressed the rabbinic dispute of astrology more comprehensively and detailed Rambam’s approach there. I concluded that, philosophically, one is free to believe or reject astrology. (Although I feel the need to note that practicing forms of astrology is certainly prohibited and one should consult a competent rabbi prior to engaging in this practice. This is even if one feels that these practices are silly and baseless.) My personal positions on the validity of astrology are neither addressed in this earlier work nor in SOTS.
Mr. Zinberg mentions my creativity and provides an example that is intended to show how I have taken quite the literary license and is, in his words, “bizarre.” Although I do believe I have a creative side, it probably would have been best for Mr. Zinberg to have reread that passage prior to mentioning the association of the tribe of Judah to Cancer, the crab. This association was not one fabricated or concocted by me, rather, it is, in fact, mentioned by the Pesikta Zutresa which is clearly footnoted in the text itself. The Pesikta Zutresa mentions that the twelve tribes are associated with the signs of the zodiac and that the tribes are aligned to the months based on the order of their birth. As such, Judah, the fourth son, is associated with the month of Tammuz and the sign of Cancer. I am merely attempting to show the reader how this Midrash understood these associations.
Another concern of Mr. Zinberg seems to be my understanding that much of Greek mythology parallels biblical narratives. I find it difficult for one to reject this assessment. There are numerous examples of both biblical and midrashic narratives bearing an extremely close resemblance to Greek mythology. The story of the twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux, invading the kingdom of Attica to save their sister Helen who had been kidnapped by King Theseus bears a striking resemblance to the invasion of Shechem by the two brothers, Shimon and Levi, after their sister Dinah had been kidnapped by Prince Shechem. Procustes’ bed in which he would stretch the legs of short wayfarers and gruesomely amputate those of tall wayfarers is identical to the talmudic account (Sanhedrin 109b) of the ways in which the people of Sedom would act.
Mr. Zinberg attempts to marginalize the Ibn Ezra by painting him as controversial. Despite this attempt, anyone who has studied R. Avraham ibn Ezra’s writings knows that they are piercing, invaluable, and a testament to his great scholarship. Mr. Zinberg mentions that in some circles Ibn Ezra’s views are unpopular and this, no doubt, is an attempt to present me as one who unknowingly rests upon, what Mr. Zinberg feels to be, unstable shoulders. I am fully aware of the views he mentions and have even addressed them in a public forum. Those who are offended by citations of the Ibn Ezra will probably not be comfortable with SOTS (or a standard Mikraos Gedolos for that matter), but somehow I suspect that was not what Mr. Zinberg was getting at with those comments. Although I would have no problem relying solely upon the Ibn Ezra, he is but one of many sources cited in my work. I have not tallied how many times I have quoted specific sources, but I would venture to say that I quote Rabbeinu Bacheye just as frequently, in addition to many other Rishonim and Midrashim. The controversies surrounding Ibn Ezra’s writings are irrelevant to SOTS. Just as I did not mention that science has honored Ibn Ezra by naming a crater on the moon, Abenezra, for him; I did not mention the Ibn Ezra’s views with regards to post-Mosaic authorship. Although these are fascinating tidbits of information, they have no bearing on SOTS.
The attempt to discredit Ibn Ezra, and my usage of him as a source in my work, by citing Maharshal’s scathing critique of Ibn Ezra is at best disingenuous. Mr. Zinberg, very apologetically, rejects small portions of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah due to discrepancies between those writings and contemporary science (“To be fair, much of Maimonides’ cosmology, summarized in Basic Principles of the Torah, the very first section of the Mishneh Torah, is also obsolete ...”), but it seems clear that he has no problem adhering to the rest of Mishneh Torah. If Mr. Zinger defers to Maharshal’s opinion as to which books should be read and which should be censored, then he should wholeheartedly reject the adherence of any opinion espoused by Rambam in Mishnah Torah. Just a few lines prior to Mr. Zinberg’s citation of Maharshal’s criticism of Ibn Ezra, the Maharshal comments on Rambam’s Mishnah Torah, “Therefore, one cannot accept [Mishnah Torah] in an intellectually honest way because one never knows what is the true source [of Rambam’s halacha].” I have tremendous respect for Maharshal, but it would seem that most scholars have not adhered to these statements found in his introduction to Yam Shel Shlomo.
Mr. Zinberg states that my work is part of an increasing trend to prove that the Sages were infallible. Nowhere has Mr. Zinberg shown where this idea was gleaned from SOTS, nor is this concept even expressed in the work. I can only guess that he misunderstood two of my statements (in an over two-hundred page work) that express my amazement of how two interpretations of Chazal bear striking resemblance to scientific thought that had not yet been discovered at their time. Mind you, had these two statements of mine not been included in SOTS, the work would remain entirely intact, and yet, Mr. Zinberg attempts to discredit the entire book based upon them. Furthermore, he has grossly misinterpreted my words as I have NEVER stated in my work that Chazal were infallible. I have not addressed the topic of fallibility of the Sages in this work, or in any other public forum. This topic, albeit fascinating and a point of heated debate in recent years, has no place in my SOTS, as it is addresses an entirely different topic. Once again, the purpose of the work was to display the beauty of the world, specifically the celestial objects, as seen through the perspective of many of our great sages. It does not take a stance, nor does it project an opinion one way or another as to whether or not the Sages were able to err. I hardly see how the Sages’ comparison of the twelve tribes to the twelve signs of the zodiac, or the comparison of Yechezkel’s prophetic vision to the zodiac (matters discussed from pp. 61-164 and which constitute about half of the book), or any similar imagery (of which the rest of the book is compiled but would take a lot more than a quick sentence in a blog to describe), could be taken to advocate the concept that the Sages were infallible. In fact, the overwhelming majority of SOTS has nothing to do with contemporary science. Rather, it explains how the astrological imagery and symbolism of earlier generations allows a better understanding of these writings.
I am not certain, but it seems to me, that Mr. Zinberg assumed that I had some other agenda and he proceeded to attack what he feels is an alarming trend. It appears that he stereotyped me in some way or another. Perhaps this was because my work deals with astrology, or maybe because my publisher was located in Lakewood. It is also possible that as a self-proclaimed “rational person of the twenty-first century” it is his desire to “gladly consign astrology to its rightful place next to alchemy, magic, divination, and other medieval fallacies.” Nevertheless, it seems this bias forced him to read into SOTS an entire perspective that does not exist. Any objective reader of SOTS will notice that the concerns Mr. Zinberg has with SOTS are actually concerns he has with the approach of the sages in our history that believed in astrology. Whether one rejects astrology in today’s day and age or whether he embraces it is his choice, however, censorship of early works or of attempts to explain them, would be tragic as it would undoubtedly be the cause of hundreds of years of rabbinic thought relegated to misunderstandings and misinterpretation.