Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 8 June 2015

Book Review - New Heavens and A New Earth

One of the critical differences between Torah and science is that the former builds on a initial Revelation that set down the principles of halacha that can never be changed while the latter developed slowly through human investigation and is open to change if existing presumptions can be shown to be incorrect.  The real conflict between Torah and science comes from scientists who don't understand that halacha's founding principles cannot be challenged and that all subsequent legal development must be guided by them, and by Torah scholars who think that science's approach to destroying its own historical positions means that it has no validity.
Into this ongoing issue comes Jeremy Brown's book, New Heavens and A New Earth.  The book is well-written and organized, presenting a history of the development of Copernicus' theory that we live in a heliocentric universe instead of a geocentric one.
One mistake we often make when looking back at science throughout history is to consciously or subconsciously assume that what it obvious to us was obvious to our forbears.  Brown, however, does a fine job reminding us of the state of science and also brings excellent descriptions of the debates that occurred in the astronomical community when conflicts between the Ptolemaic proponents and Copernican opponents began.
For example, when describing the geocentric model he notes that it did not develop simply out of a superficial literal reading of the Bible but was investigated using the astronomical tools and methods of the time.  The nafka mina was that the Copernican system, when it was first developed, had to challenge not only religious dogmatism but also had to provide sufficient proof it was correct.  Brown notes in a several places that the scientific community had multiple valid objections to Copernicas' system that prevents its immediate adoption and which, using the technology of the time, were quite valid.
The main part of the book is the Jewish encounter with heliocentrism.  Like the Catholics, Jewish thinkers began with the Bible and continued with the Talmud, deriving from there a geocentric view of the universe.  The idea that the sun was the centre and that the Earth was circling it was heresy to them and they initially (and for a while after) rejected it vigorously.
However Jewish astronomers, many of them devoutly Torah-observant, soon began their own investigations in concert with the greatest contemporary Chrsitian astronomers and began to realize that there was something to this heliocentrism thing which only increased the level of debate within the Torah community.  Brown meticulously documents the reactions and counter-reactions within our literature, proceeding from the time of Copernicus up until the present day.  He examines teshuvos and science textbooks written by Torah scholars to show how heliocentrism slowly came to be accepted as an acceptable Torah viewpoint throughout the Jewish community despite aggressive opposition from traditionalist, most of whom had never looked through a telescope.
The final section of the book deals with the issue in modern times and I found this to be most fascinating.  One would think that with the advent of modern telescopes and the launches of space probes over the last fifty years the debate would be settled.  After all we can see the solar system and how it's set up along with its relative position in the galaxy and that galaxy's relative position in the universe.  This is no longer a discussion using indirect evidence or mathematical models.  Yet there are still segments in the Torah world that reject geocentrism, something I find bizarre.
The most famous examples are the Satmar and Lubavitcher rebbes,  For the Satmar to reject heliocentrism should not come as a shock.  He also didn't believe that astronauts really landed on the moon.  His entire understanding of reality came from our holy literature independent of, and probably despite, confirmed scientific knowledge.
But the Lubavitcher Rebbe actually had a real education in his youth and was regarded as having maintain currency in scientific and engineering fields throughout his life in addition to his prodigious Torah knowledge.  Despite this he is on record as rejecting heliocentrism, as brought in Brown's book, for the simple reason that a literal reading of the Bible says it can't be, therefore it isn't and all the scientists in the world are wrong.  The best part of the section is where Brown brings a quote of Rebbe invoking the theory of general relatively to justify his geocentric position juxtaposed with a quote from Einstein, the developer of that theory, stating that anyone who used general relativity to justify a geocentric universe didn't really understand it!
At the very end Brown brushes up against the subject of heliocentrism vs geocentrism in the 21st century and although he only hints at it he does note the trend by modern Chareidism to react to any universal scientific understandings by rejecting them and then setting up that rejection as a ikkar enumah.  This has started happening in astronomy with the Chareidi brain trust essentially creating a new principle of faith that the universe is geocentric and that disagreeing means rejecting the Torah.  It's still a small group, to be sure (most Chareidim have no interest in astronomy it seems) but it seems to me that one day we might be told that, along with direct metzitzah b'peh and a 5775 year old Earth, we must also believe that this same young Earth sits at the centre of everything or risk being labelled as heretics.  I have personally spoken with an educated psychologist in my community who firmly believes in a geocentric universe because a gadol in the large Jewish community next door told me he has to.  In other words we are slowly moving towards a point where a certain community might announce that unless you reject tangible reality you don't believe in the Creator of that reality. 
This book provides a great read but also reassurance that there is enough support in our holy literature to reject such a demand handily.


RAM said...

There is an idea out there that to have the earth travel around the sun would take humanity out of its central position in the universe. This is more a "problem" in symbolism than in reality. The Torah, along with all of Tanach, rightly discusses the physical movements of created objects in terms of our everyday perception. So what if our everyday perception of such things is not objective? We also see a lot of other things in the physical world subjectively, because we're people. In other circumstances, we'd call this sort of subjective language poetic. The objectivity of Torah values and Torah law are in no way diminished by references to what we perceive.

John Jay said...

Excuse me, but where did you get the idea that SatMar Rebbe opposed the Copernican view? The link you provide gives no such info! While your need to rag on Satmar is understood, please provide support.