Rabbi Slifkin responded to my post, Not-So-Solid Proof About The Spheres. Because my response to this entails much special formatting that is tedious to insert in the Comments section, and because I feel the subject is so important, I’m transplanting the discussion to a blog post.
Rabbi Slifkin wrote, responding to my point that the sources show that despite his claims, it is very uncertain that the ancients entertained a belief that the “spheres” by which they described the stars movements were solid entities:
It's not entirely clear how to define the medieval view -but it is largely irrelevant. My point was NOT that Chazal, or Rambam, held the spheres to be solid in the scientific sense of solid as opposed to liquid or gas.
I see. You were not using the word “solid” in the “scientific” sense…
Rabbi Slifkin, I’m afraid you’re backtracking. In the very post to which you are replying, I included your mention of “the question of how we would penetrate the solid crystalline sphere in order to get [past them]!” You have repeatedly stated many times and emphasized the claim that Chazal unanimously held that the rakia is a solid dome And you meant solid, as opposed to liquid and gas, and as opposed to unknown ethereal substance, and as opposed to gravitational or other force fields..
You have done this because
a. the rakia is an object mentioned in the pesukim, and
b. by convincing your readers that there was a mesorah about it, and that the mesorah was that it is a solid dome,
c. you led them to believe that we are forced to say a mesorah can be wrong; and
d. therefore there is license for you to dismiss—in favor of the evolutionary natural process paradigm—the mesorah attributing to the Creation process a fundamentally meta-natural character, including the creation of Adam sans biological ancestors
At least, this is how your readership who commented on this blog understood you. Step two, establishing (falsely) that there is a mesorah that the rakia is solid, is essential to your thesis.
Are you now retracting?
Rather, it was that the sphere is something with substance i.e. it is not the atmosphere, or outer space.
The atmosphere does not have substance?? Outer space cannot have substance that would have been described as a non earthly-type of substance that is colorless and weightless, accordingly lacking any mass (basically making the theory un-falsifiable, and perhaps therefore unscientific, but by no means proven false)??
The point is that, as Chazal make clear in Pesachim, the sun moves on both sides of it surface and it is opaque such that the sun cannot be seen when it is behind it.
The opinion of the Chachmei Yisrael in Pesachim is one opinion among others in Chazal. Our girsa in the Gemora—as some understand it—has Rebbi supporting the gentiles’ model. Rebbi is also part of Chazal. Rav Yehudah [bar Ilai] in Chagigah 12b holds that the sun, moon and stars are all embedded in the 2nd of seven rakias—which differs with the description of the sun independently boring through the rakia of the stars and traveling anywhere not within it. R. Shimon bar Yochai (Breishis Rabbah 1:8) disagreed with the entire model of spheres, and declared one cannot know how to explain the stars’ movements.
So how do you justify your claim about what “Chazal” make clear about the opaqueness of the rakia?
And in fact, the opinion of the Chachmei Yisroel in Pesachim itself is very difficult to understand internally. I would like to understand, for instance, how the Chachmei Yisroel accounted for seeing the moon at night, when its visibility is dependent upon the sun’s influence on it—even according to the ancient Babylonians—if the sun at night is blocked by an opaque rakia.
You have a lot to learn to understand the all the talmudic and midrashic passages, both internally and how they interreact, before you can build your case that—despite the vast Torah literature that makes it clear that the mesorah is that the Creation process was a meta-natural one—you have the license to reject that mesorah. And even if you declare that you feel it is more likely to find a way to mix and match sources in a way that results in disagreeing with the mesorah, you are choosing an iconoclastic approach that is in opposition to the behavior of Torah scholarship throughout the millennia that strove instead to defend it.
Moreover, Chazal in the Yerushalmi certainly held it to be "firm" in some sense.
Need I elaborate on the senses in which “firm” can be taken, without it meaning that it is literally a solid, especially when used in reference to the atmosphere—as the Rambam explicitly understands it? (And, by the way, there you went again intimating the idea that you just backed away from, that the rakia was understood to be a solid object…”in the scientific sense.”)
And for the life of me I can't figure out why you're claiming that I'm proving what Chazal held about the rakia from the writings of a 6th century monk.
I’m claiming it because you wrote:
As we shall later demonstrate from both general history as well as the
interpretations of the Geonim and Rishonim, the view of the Sages of Israel was that
of ancient Babylonian cosmology. They believed that the earth is a roughly flat disc,
and the rest of the universe is a hemispherical solid dome fixed above it. The stars
move around the surface of this dome; hence, “the [hemi]sphere is fixed and the
constellations revolve [within it].”
“The rest of the universe,” besides the earth, “is a hemispherical solid dome fixed above it” refers to the rakia, or the spheres, or shamayim, no? You set out to prove that, no?
There are those who doubt whether the dispute between the Sages of Israel and the sages of the nations was as we have described it. However, if we look at the very next lines of the Talmud, we will be able to show that this is clearly the case.
“as we have described it”—the “it” is that, for one thing, “the rest of the universe is a hemispherical solid dome,” no? “we will be able to show that this is clearly the case”—“this” being the “it,” being that “the rest of the universe [besides the earth] is a hemispheric solid dome,” no? And the next of the Talmud shows that “this is clearly the case” because, why?--
This is because it [the Talmud] presents a set of arguments which we find elsewhere…
Where’s “elsewhere”? You explain:
The Sages of Israel say, During the day, the sun travels below the firmament, and at
night, above the firmament. Cosmas Indicopleustes [the 6-th century monk] uses the same terminology as the Talmud…
Since the identical arguments are used, we can see that the Jewish and gentile sages were indeed involved in the dispute between the ancient Babylonian cosmology and the newer Ptolemaic model. The Talmud immediately continues to relate another difference of opinion between the Jewish and gentile scholars: The Sages of Israel say, During the day, the sun travels below the firmament, and at night, above the firmament….This is a corollary of the first dispute. Consistent with the ancient Babylonian cosmology, the Jewish Sages believed that…
So the fact that a 6th-century monk (who was plausibly familiar with the talmudic passage in question) took it and interpreted its arguments a certain way (or, otherwise, came up with them on his own), is the “elsewhere” from which know that “it is clearly the case” that “the dispute between the Sages of Israel and the gentile sages were indeed involved in the dispute between the ancient Babylonian cosmology and the newer Ptolemaic model,” and that Chazal “believed that the rest of the universe [besides the earth] was a hemispherical solid dome.”
So how do you now claim that “for the life of me I can't figure out why you're claiming that I'm proving what Chazal held about the rakia from the writings of a 6th century monk”?
and in I only quoted him with regard to some particular aspects of that discussion. And incidentally, Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam and others explain those aspects in exactly the same way.
Okay, so exactly what aspects are you deducing, and what aspects are you not deducing, from the 6th-century monk, Chazal’s beliefs about the rakia? And if Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam and others explain the same aspects to you were referring, in exactly the same way the 6th-century monk did, why did you resort to the Christian monk’s opinion as proof to what the Talmud means, rather to that of the rishonim? Because he lived earlier? Because the monk was less biased than Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam and others when it comes to understanding the true meaning of Chazal’s words?
But the fact of Chazal believing the rakia to be an opaque, substantive dome is the UNIVERSAL view of the Rishonim.
This may be the first sentence you’ve written that does not put the word “solid” near the words “rakia” and “dome.” Congratulations on finally retracting! Regardless, I already explained why your claim is wrong. And, as I will explain, is largely irrelevant.
It's odd that you are ignoring the big issue - Chazal's view of the rakia - and instead talking about Rambam's view of the rakia, which is not particularly relevant
It is very relevant because it demonstrates the falseness of your mantra that the spheres were thought of as solid objects, which until now you saw cause to constantly repeat. The Rambam upheld the model of the spheres, yet he distinctly describes them as not being solid. And as I’ve shown, many Greek philosophers as well did not think they were solid. And I doubt you have evidence that the Babylonians thought they were literally solid.
Wikipedia, “Ancient Mesopotamian Astronomy”
Crude Celestial Concepts
(Source: S. Toulmin and J. Goodfield. The Fabric of the Heavens)
In any case, to be honest, we do not know for certain whether the [Babylonian] astronomers had any theoretical ideas about the heavenly bodies or not. All we can say is that their practical achievements did not require any theoretical insight, and that scarcely a trace has survived of any theories they may have had. One of the rare pieces of evidence, and a very indirect one at that, is contained in the following passage from Vitruvius… At first sight this may seem to discredit our generalization about Babylonian astronomy—namely, that it was purely computational, and that theoretical speculation played a negligible part. On closer examination, however, the passage rather seems to bear out rather than to falsify this claim
Yet you write with such confidence that “the view of the Sages of Israel was that of ancient Babylonian cosmology. They believed that the earth is a roughly flat disc, and the rest of the universe is a hemispherical solid dome fixed above it.
This is the big issue because you’ve built your case on the claim that there was a mesorah that the rakia is an opaque solid, and since we know this isn’t so, you see that the mesorah is not reliable, and therefore you have license to dismiss as well the mesorah that Creation was a not a natural, but a meta-natural process.
But you are right that the solidity or non-solidity the Chochmei Yisrael attributed to the spheres is ultimately not so relevant. Indeed, even your false claim that Chazal unanimously attributed opaqueness to the rakia is irrelevant.
Because your next mistake is that you invoke the Rambam’s et al shitta--that when it comes to astronomy, etc., Chazal may have been wrong—for license to dismiss the mesorah of the meta-natural creation process, when that very shitta makes a clear and fundamental distinction between matters known through mesorah and matters such as the substance of the spheres and the movements of the stars.
But the fact is that the Rambam et al, and all Torah scholarship throughout the millennia, do not countenance disagreeing with a matter recognized as the mesorah. This is clear to anyone who studies the millennia of Torah literature with an unbiased and un-agenda-inspired attitude. If the Rambam et al thought that talmudic statements about astronomy were meant to be taken at their surface meaning as part of the mesorah they would never countenance disagreeing with it. The Rambam et al held that the rakia’s makeup, and the path the sun takes at night, is not a matter of mesorah. And the Rambam himself admitted that he really felt it beyond his ability to know for certain what in the world the causes of the heavenly bodies’ motions or what their makeup are—because there is no mesorah about that.
מורה נבוכים ב:כב
ואמנם כל מה שבשמים לא ידע האדם דבר ממנו אלא בזה השעור הלמודי המעט, ואתה תראה מה שבו. ואני אומר ע״צ מליצת השיר, "השמים שמים לה׳ והארץ נתן לבני אדם," ר״ל שהשם לבדו ידע אמתת השמים וטבעם, ועצמם, וצורתם, ותנועותם, וסבותם על השלמות, אמנם מה שתחת השמים נתן יכולת לאדם לדעתו, מפני שהוא עולמו וביתו אשר ירד בו והוא חלק ממנו וזהו האמת, כי סבות הראיה על השמים נמנעות אצלנו, כבר רחקו ממנו ונעלו במקום ובמעלה. והראיה הכוללת מהם שהם הורונו על מניעם, אבל שאר ענינם הוא ענין לא יניעו שכלי האדם לידיעתו, והטריח המחשבות במה שלא יניעו להשגתו ואין כלי להם שיגיעו בו, אמנם הוא חסמן דעת או מין מהשגעון, אבל נעמוד אצל היכלת ונניח הענין כמה שלא יושג בהקש, למי שבאהו השפע האלהי העצום עד שיהיה ראוי שנאמר עליו פה אל פה אדבר בו, זה תכלית מה שאצלי בזאת השאלה, ואפשר שיהיה אצל זולתי מופת יתבאר לו בו אמתת מה שסופק אצלי, ותכלית בחירתי לאמת שאני בארתי בלבולי אלו הענינים, ואני לא שמעתי מופת על דבר מהם ולא ידעתיו
What I said before (2:22) I will repeat now, namely, that the theory of Aristotle, in explaining the phenomena in the sublunary world, is in accordance with logical inference. Here we know the causal relationship between one phenomenon and another; we see how far science can investigate them, and the management of nature is clear and intelligible.
But of the things in the heavens man knows nothing except a few mathematical calculations, and you see how far these go. I say in the words of the poet," The heavens are the Lord's, but the earth He hath given to the sons of man" (Ps. cxv. 16): that is to say, God alone has a perfect and true knowledge of the heavens, their nature, their essence, their form, their motions, and their causes; but He gave man power to know the things which are under the heavens: here is man's world, here is his home, into which he has been placed, and of which he is himself a portion. This is in reality the truth. For the facts which we require in proving [anything about] the existence of heavenly entities are withheld from us: the heavens are too far from us, and too exalted in place and rank. Man's faculties are too deficient to comprehend even the general proof the heavens contain for the existence of Him who sets them in motion.
So, the Rambam does not only say that the mechanics of the stars’ movements—something not specified in the pesukim of Maasei Breishis—is something for which there is no extant mesorah (—and by the way, the Rambam was not the first to declare this: Rav Saadia Gaon said this as well—); he also says that we do not really know what causes the stars to move—despite his tentatively following Aristotle in attributing this to some spheres--and that we do not really know the composition (nature, essence, form) of the heavenly bodies—despite his confident description of the same.
By the way, I am still waiting for you to retract your baseless charge that I depicted the rakia in a cartoonish manner in order to ridicule Chazal. Which was especially ironic in light of your cartoonish depiction of Chazal themselves on the cover of your book.
I already addressed this in the comments section to another post, but b”n I will address it on this one again in a separate comment.