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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2015
Number 83
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Judaism and a Heliocentric Universe

A review essay by Frederic Krome

New Heavens and A New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought by Jeremy Brown.
Oxford University Press

An oft-quoted anecdote tells of a seventeenth century Italian astronomer who reacted to Galileo’s observations about the moons of Jupiter by saying:

These satellites of Jupiter are invisible to the naked eye,
and therefore exercise no influence on the Earth, and
therefore would be useless and therefore do not exist.

While the enlightened mind of the early twenty-first century might recoil at the astronomer’s logic, the passage makes some sense in its early modern context. By necessity astronomy had to be an exact science, for the accurate charting of the heavens was necessary to the philosophy of prognostication (i.e. astrology). Actually knowing where the planets (known as the moveable stars) and the fixed stars were at any given point meant that you could chart their influence on earthy events. Therefore, since the moons of Jupiter were invisible without the telescope, and we should add were not mentioned in the ancient astronomical text or other authoritative sources, they could not have any role in prognostication. If they had no philosophical role, then why rock the boat and chart their existence? On a basic level, therefore, the anonymous Italian Astronomer was making a statement about both the source of authority and the impact of this information. For the Jews of Early Modern Europe, exact astronomical observations were also critical for calculating the beginning of the new lunar month and the lunar New Year, around which all religious life revolved. Indeed, the accurate calculations of the beginning of the month was considered a mitzvah, and as such the skill sets required to conduct such work were highly valued.

The Italian astronomer and his Jewish contemporaries shared some basic assumptions about the universe; the central shared belief was the Ptolemaic system. Over a millennium and a half old by the sixteenth century, the Ptolemaic vision of the universe regarded the earth as fixed in place, the center of a finite universe, with the sun and planets revolving around it. This geocentric universe was the result of a fusion of Greek Philosophy and Judeo-Christian traditions, in particular based on interpretations of the Hebrew bible. What then happened to this vision when Nicolas Copernicus published his revolutionary challenge to the Ptolemaic universe in 1543? How did the concept of a Heliocentric (sun centered) universe reshape the intellectual landscape of science and religion? Two additional questions can also be asked: what impact did the Copernican system have on Jewish thought? And why is that important? Jeremy Brown provides a tour de force of rabbis and their reaction to the heliocentric world, and in the process reveals why answering these questions is important.

Brown begins his study by examining the traditional Jewish understanding of the universe in the early modern world and the authoritative sources for this world view. The sources of authority should not surprise any student of Jewish thought, for they include Biblical text, the Talmud, and Maimonides. In their traditional readings all support, or at least seem to support, the geocentric vision of a fixed earth. Copernicus’s challenge to the Ptolemaic universe threatened to remove the earth from the center and move it to the periphery, in more than just a physical sense. For the notion that the earth was a moving body, just like the other planets, also challenged the notion of special creation as elucidated in the Genesis narrative.

As Brown adroitly points out, this movement of the earth — both figurative and literally — meant a challenge to the generally accepted interpretation of the sources of authority in Jewish life. This is one of the critical themes running through his narrative, for what sources of authority can be considered authoritative when seeking to understand the shape of the universe goes to the heart of a larger question: how much did Jews know about the intellectual currents of the Scientific Revolution? Starting in the sixteenth century a fundamental shift in European intellectual life was taking place, one that challenged conventional assumptions of the relationship between science and religion. What Brown reveals is that some Jewish religious thinkers were also involved in this redefinition of the relationship between Science and Religion.

Brown demonstrates that from the sixteenth century on to the present the rabbinic world is divided into two camps: pro and anti-Copernicus. Initially only a few rabbis, such as David Gans (1541-1613) even mentioned Copernicus, and even fewer accepted his theories. Among this later group the most notable was Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (1591-1655), who studied with Galileo. Delmedigo challenged the rabbinic world not only by accepting as authoritative the scientific method, independent of the Bible, for establishing facts about the natural world. He also set a pattern by arguing that if authoritative religious sources were read properly, then they would reveal support for the Copernican model. These two attributes — acceptance of the scientific method and the “proper” reading of Jewish sources — characterize the pro-heliocentric Rabbinic response up to the present day.Brown charts a very slow process for a majority of rabbis to accept Copernicus, although the Jews were not necessarily unique in this. We tend to regard history as a linear process, with a clear movement in one direction when it comes to something like scientific truth. In this vision, Copernicus was a lone visionary, largely derided in his own time and vindicated posthumously within a generation. In fact, as Richard Westman’s recent study [The Copernican Question: Prognostication, Skepticism, and Celestial Order (University of California Press, 2011)] argues, a century after Copernicus’s death only a handful of astronomers accepted his heliocentric theory; indeed, it was not until the experiments with the parallax and Foucault’s Pendulum in the early nineteenth century that scientific proof that the earth moves was conclusively demonstrated (at least to those who accept the scientific method). Brown’s cataloguing and analysis of the rabbis and the texts that deal with astronomy risks becoming tedious. What prevents this from happening is his active engagement with the wider historical context. For example, an examination of Jewish texts on astronomy not only reveals whether Jewish intellectuals were cognizant of wider trends within European (and later American) intellectual life, but even if they were aware of previous Jewish astronomical texts. Indeed, the debate over the validity of the heliocentric universe is revealed to be part of a wider debate among rabbis as to the value of secular knowledge.

By the time of the late Haskalah (early nineteenth century) a preponderance of rabbis who wrote about science had come to accept the Copernican model. Many of these rabbis argued that a proper reading of traditional sources revealed that Jews had always been aware of the truth that the earth moves, and that the knowledge was lost as a result of the diaspora. Of particular interest in this section is Brown’s analysis of David Friesenhausen (1756-1828), a Hungarian Maskil who embraced both traditional yeshivot learning and secular study. The intended audience of Friesenhausen’s Mosdot Tevel (Foundations of the Universe) was young adults, a writing genre that some historians and literary scholars argue first appeared in the eighteenth century. Some argue that if the student of history wants to understand how new ideas are inculcated in a population it is necessary to consider young adult literature. For a comparative example: one of the bestselling English language books of this new genre was Tom Telescope (first edition published in 1761), a popular science book that taught Newtonian physics to teenagers, and which remained in print throughout most of Friesenhausen’s lifetime.

While Brown documents the preponderance of rabbinic acceptance of Copernicus by the nineteenth century, he does not ignore the Anti-Copernicans. Indeed, he treats them in great detail and while clearly rejecting their arguments, he also treats them with some dignity. Rather than regard individuals such as Reuven Landau (died 1883) who wished for Copernicus to “be removed from the world,” as just reactionary cranks, Brown recognizes that to traditionalists the up-ending of customary sources of authority represented an existential threat to their world view. In order to defend the geocentric model of the universe, however, Landau not only had to reject the modern scientific method, he had to disregard several generations of rabbinic writings that sought to reconcile faith and reason. By the modern era most rabbis, whether they be liberal or traditional, not only accepted the heliocentric universe, but also embraced a concept enunciated by Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-88), considered one of the founders of modern Orthodoxy. Hirsch regarded the Bible as a source of moral lessons and not of scientific truths, and utilized a famous passage in the tenth chapter in the Book of Joshua, in which the sun was commanded to stand still, as an example of the separation of science and religion. While traditionally this is one of the passages that was and is used to justify the geocentric world view, Hirsch argued that the passage was not intended to teach anything about the solar system. As Hirsch argued: “Rather, because the Bible is a book of moral lessons it was included to demonstrate that God assigns a special position to men, who live for the fulfillment of God’s will.” (186).

Brown concludes his study with an analysis of contemporary Jewish geocentrics, many of whom are found in the Haredi or Hasidic community, and while they are a small minority in the Jewish world, they are also extremely vocal. Indeed, the vitriol of the anti-Copernicans seems inverse to their actual influence, providing a proof-text of George Santayana’s assertion that for fanatics, the further away their goal, the more fanatical they become. Interestingly, some of the Anti-Copernicans actually use another modern idea, Einstein’s theory of relativity, as a mechanism to argue for the notion that the earth stands still. For those who like a bit of irony with their historical analysis, it should be remembered that the theory of relativity had few proponents in the decade after it was published. Even after the Royal Society for the Advancement of Science accepted it as factual in 1921, skeptics did (and still do) dispute it.

Brown’s study is based on an impressive level of research, in rare book collections, libraries, and among the book stalls of the modern Ultra- Orthodox world in Jerusalem. By linking his analysis of the Jewish reception of Copernicus with consideration of what constitutes acceptable sources of information for understanding the natural world, he answers the question “why should we care how the rabbis regarded the heliocentric universe” definitively. What harm is there in rejecting the Copernican model? Did the Italian astronomer hurt anyone by rejecting the existence of the moons of Jupiter? By refusing to see the universe as it is, rather than as we want it to be, we reject scientific truth. There is, indeed, a correlation between rejecting the notion that the earth moves with a rejection of evolution, global climate change, and vaccinations. If we reject science we abandon those tools needed to save lives via medical research, we lose a sense that weather prediction can help prevent or prepare for hurricanes, and if we ignore the moons of Jupiter, we accept that we live in a finite universe with nothing new to teach us.

Frederic Krome is a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College and a contributing editor.

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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