Monday, January 3, 2011

The Rakia - Part 1

About a month ago, Rabbi Slifkin released his monograph entitled ‘The Sun’s Path at Night’. It deals with obscure and outdated models of cosmology and how they interface with the cosmological models adopted by our sages. It is based on an essay Rabbi Slifkin composed as part of the course requirements for an MA in Jewish Studies. Normally such a paper would not generate much interest outside the sphere of academia but in this case it is of special interest to the authors of this blog. Rabbi Slifkin’s monograph (as opposed to his essay) was animated by a desire to demonstrate that Chazal can, and should be understood as having erred in matters of science. This is clear from the very outset. In his introduction he writes as follows:

"The clash between reason and authority has many manifestations. But it comes to the fore with the issue of statements by the Sages of the Talmud concerning the natural world that are subsequently contradicted by science…Dealing with an aspect of cosmology that is outdated and obscure from a modern perspective, most students of the Talmud today gloss over it with little comprehension; indeed, the very word "cosmology" (which refers to the structure of the universe) is unfamiliar to many people. Yet when clarified, and the views of rabbinic scholars throughout the centuries on this passage are surveyed, it powerfully illustrates the radical transformation that has taken place over the ages with regard to how Jews view the Sages of the Talmud."

A proper analysis of Rabbi Slifkin’s paper is beyond the scope of this venue. However, in keeping with the mandate of this blog, something should be said regarding his paper. Today I finally downloaded the paper and read it. Knowing in advance what Rabbi Slifkin’s mandate was, I will freely admit that I went in with a healthy measure of skepticism. However, much to my surprise his presentation began to tickle my fancy! It was apparent that he had done significant research and his methodology seemed genuinely objective. As such, I have chosen to focus this blog entry on one thing, and one thing alone. Rabbi Slifkin’s personal view of the gemara in Pesachim 94b as developed in the first five pages of his monograph (pp 4-8).

While it remains true that the real issue at hand is his attitude towards Chazal, it is imperative that we first analyze Rabbi Slifkin’s view of the gemara in Pesachim in an attempt to determine precisely what Chazal are saying there. After all, before this gemara can be used as a justification for rejecting the science of Chazal, we first must understand what Chazal are saying. Towards this end, I intend on listing five questions on his pshat in the gemara. Rabbi Slifkin’s approach is truly intriguing and shows some real promise. As such, I am genuinely interested in discovering if it can be adopted. But as it stands now, I feel his pshat is untenable; here’s why.


Before listing our questions, I would like to synopsize Rabbi Slifkin’s view for the benefit of our readers. Rabbi Slifkin maintains that the view of the "sages of Israel" is aligned with the Babylonian model of cosmology, to wit, 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 view of the gentile sages is aligned with the Ptolemaic model that "the earth is a perfect sphere, and the rest of the universe is a larger sphere which encompasses it and revolves around it. The stars are permanently embedded in the surface of the larger sphere, and move along with it; hence, "the sphere revolves and the constellations are fixed."

Based on the similarities of an argument found in our sugya and a polemic found in the writings of one Cosmas Indicopleustes of Alexandria, a sixth century Christian monk, Rabbi Slifkin concludes that his description of the machlokes in the gemara is clearly correct. Although his assertion can be challenged, in keeping with the stated purpose of this post we will grant Rabbi Slifkin this claim. Here are the questions.

1) In the initial dispute between the chachmei Yisrael (CY) and the chachmei umos (CU), Rebbi attempts to defend the CY by stating as follows: "Rebbi said: A response to their words is that we have never found the Great Bear constellation in the south and the Scorpion constellation in the north."

If, as Rabbi Slifkin contends, the opinion of the CY is that the constellations move freely around within the dome, how does Rebbi’s question support his own model over that of the CU?

2) In the second dispute found in the gemara, Rebbi concedes that the CU (i.e. the Ptolemaic model) seem to be correct because "during the day the wellsprings are cool and at night they steam (due to being heated by the sun passing beneath them—Rashi)." But if the earth is a perfect sphere, this argument is absurd. The sun is passing under another part of the earth, not under the springs!

3) This next question is a bit complicated. Rabbi Slifkin’s thesis is based on the assertion that the CY are aligned with a Babylonian cosmology, defined by Rabbi Slifkin as the earth being "roughly [a] flat disc" while the universe is "a hemispherical solid dome fixed above it." As Rabbi Slifkin explains:

"Consistent with the ancient Babylonian cosmology, the Jewish Sages believed that when the sun sets, it cannot continue downwards, and it must instead change direction. First it enters the firmament horizontally, and then after passing through the firmament, it changes direction again, rising up to pass behind the firmament back to the east."

Based on our current understanding, the position that ‘nighttime’ is engendered by the sun ducking behind a solid dome is obviously problematic and that’s fine. But here’s the problem. On page 6, Rabbi Slifkin quotes a gemara in Bava Basra (25a-b) which discusses a dispute between R’ Eliezer and R’ Yehoshua. In his glosses to this dispute, Maharsha comments that R’ Yehoshua follows the CU. Rabbi Slifkin takes issue with Maharsha’s comment and instead explains R’ Yeshoshua as follows:

"R. Yehoshua is not saying that the sun passes below the earth at night, in a circular route; rather, he is of the view that the sun moves horizontally along the northern edge of the celestial dome. This is consistent with how others present the view of the Babylonian cosmology. Severianus, Bishop of Gabala (d. 408), wrote that the earth is flat and the sun does not pass under it in the night, but travels through the northern parts "as if hidden by a wall."

"Horizontally along the northern edge of the celestial dome"? What’s this? The Babylonian model is a solid firmament and the sun ducks outside of the dome through a window low in the firmament in the northwest region, travels in an upward arc outside the dome, and then descends to the southeast region and reenters the solid dome through a window and reinitiates its daily travel!! What’s up with this horizontal travel pattern? And what’s up with this "northern edge of the celestial dome"? Isn’t it supposed to be outside the dome?

Regarding this latter question, one might be tempted to respond that the "northern edge" refers to the edge outside of the dome but Rabbi Slifkin makes it clear that this is not so. In support of his description, he once again quotes our friend the Christian monk as follows:

"…the sun issuing from the east traverses the sky in the south and ascends northwards, and becomes visible to the whole of the inhabited world. But as the northern and western summit intervenes it produces night in the ocean beyond this earth of ours, and also in the earth beyond the ocean; then afterwards when the sun is in the west, where he is hidden by the highest portion of the earth, and runs his course over the ocean through the northern parts, his presence there makes it night for us, until in describing his orbit he comes again to the east, and again ascending the southern sky illumines the inhabited world…"

Well then. It seems clear from this description that the reason the sun is not seen by the "inhabited world" is because it travels to the extreme northern region of the "uninhabited" world and ducks down low behind "high portions of the earth" thus creating nighttime for the inhabited part of the world. It travels horizontally along this northern edge all the way back to the east and reappears again in the east when it begins to rise up above these "high portions". No solid firmament here! No windows in the sky! What’s going on??

I think it seems clear that Rabbi Slifkin’s "Babylonian" descriptions are contradictory. He needs to work out precisely what the Babylonian paradigm was before imputing it to Chazal!

Truth to tell, I made a list of 13 questions on Rabbi Slifkin’s pshat to Pesachim 94b (i.e. just from pages 4-8). I figured I would be able to outline at least five of them but I see that this post is way too long already so I will leave it at three questions, for now.

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