Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Nature of “The” Rakia, Part Six—Mistranslation…Again—“חזק” Means “Strong,” Not “Hard”

clip_image002“Chazal (and most of the Rishonim) universally interpreted various words in the Torah to be describing the heavens as a solid firmament above us. This was the universal, uncontested, view of Chazal, based on Pesukim such as that in Iyov 37:18: ‘Can you spread out the heavens with Him, hard as a mirror of cast metal?" as well as various other usages in Tenach of the root רקע.’ ”

--Rationalist Judaism Blog, “How the Firmament was understood by our Sages,” Monday, November 22, 2010

Rabbi Slifkin’s resorting to mistranslation to support his thesis makes the weakness of his case all the more transparent.[1] In the above passage, to make a case for his more-solid-than-air-dome-thesis, he translates the word “חזק”, a reference to the rakia’s strength, as “hard:”

Now, even had the text used a Hebrew word that specifically refers to hardness, it would not necessarily imply that Chazal thought that the sky is literally a hard and impenetrable substance. All the less does it imply this, in view of the fact that the actual word used—חזק—refers only to the characteristic of strength. We have seen previously that this “strength” is taken to mean characteristics other than “hardness.”


In the previous parts of this series, we have seen the explicit statements by the rishonim who—sometimes citing the Iyov verses and the “congealing” Midrashim in their own names and/or in the name of Chazal—do not consider “the” rakia to be something hard. How then can one excuse Rabbi Slifkin’s repeated assertions (The Big Picture of the Firmament) that:

… the unequivocal mesorah that there is … a dome above the earth, made of some sort of substance (i.e. not air or space), …. This was the universal, uncontested, view of Chazal, based on Pesukim such as that in Iyov 37:18: "Can you spread out the heavens with Him, hard as a mirror of cast metal?" as well as various other usages in Tenach of the root רקע. …

And again:

The words of Chazal in the Bavli, Yerushalmi, and Midrash about the nature of the rakia, in terms of it being a firm substance with a particular thickness, in turn based on pesukim such as that in Iyov and others which use the root רקע in other contexts, and the words of Chazal concerning the sun's passage on both sides of the rakia, are explicit. Nowhere in Chazal or the Rishonim is there anything to indicate that any of Chazal held differently. January 18, 2011 12:40 AM

Yes, indeed, “explicit” are the words of Chazal about the nature of the rakia based on pesukim such as that in Iyov [mistranslated by Rabbi Slifkin as saying that the rakia is “hard”] and others which use the root רקע in other contexts.” But the claim that “Nowhere in Chazal or the Rishonim is there anything to indicate that any of Chazal held differently” “in terms of it being a firm substance with a particular thickness” in the sense of being hard, is absolutely false.

In a telling dialogue, called on this fact by Dr. Jonathan Ostroff, the “Rationalist”[2] reacted explosively:

Do not trust Ostroff's citation of the Rishonim[3]….Ostroff has been extremely selective in his citation from Rambam…this blog is not a worthy forum for such a discussion”),[4]

—and immediately made still another wild assertion that is false:

RambaN is likewise clear that there is a solid firmament - just read his commentary to the Chumash.[5]

—as if oblivious to the Ramban’s concept of the substance of the galgalim and the stars therein as being an unearthly, ethereal one—and then shifted gears again, reverting to the Gemora Pesachim to prove that Chazal as a body considered the rakia to be a solid.

When Rabbi Slifkin does finally concede (temporarily, of course) that despite his original claim, the rishonim did not understand Chazal to hold that the rakia is a hard solid, he is not at all fazed. When caught denying that the rishonim say what they say, he simply goes on to assert that the rishonim, by attributing ethereality to the rakia, were actually arguing against or “ignoring” Chazal’s “unanimous” opinion that the rakia is a hard solid:

Now, much later, during the time of the Rishonim, Ptolemaic cosmology had already become widely accepted, and some of the Rishonim reinterpreted Tenach to suit it. It is possible that some of them did not believe the rakia to be a substantive firmament (the best general discussion that I have found on this topic is Edward Grant's paper "Celestial Orbs in the Latin Middle Ages"). But all this would mean is that the Rishonim were ignoring Chazal… and reinterpreting Torah in light of science. ("The Big Picture of The Firmament," Jan., 2011)

The “Rationalist” holds that the rishonim disingenuously claimed to be explaining Chazal. But they were actually ignoring them. In contrast to the disingenuous rishonim, only The “Rationalist” is honest, unbiased and sincere enough to know and teach what Chazal “really” meant in these texts. Only he, in contrast to the rishonim, is really faithful to Chazal’s intent.

This is disturbingly reminiscent of the accusations made by the Karaites and Saducees. They accused Chazal of claiming to be loyal to the Torah but actually knowingly perverting what the Torah “really” means. I realize this is a damning comparison. But how less damning can one be with someone who attempts to promulgate the illegitimate ideas that (parts of) the mesorah can be rejected, and that the rishonim were disingenuous in claiming to be interested in accurately conveying the intents of Chazal when they said they were?

In the next and final posts in this series, I will bli nedder and b’ezras Hashem deal with the issue of the alleged opacity of the celestial-rakia, and treat the passage in Gemora Pesachim 94b that deals with the path of the sun at night.

[1] Mistranslation of sources is a repeated feature of the “Rationalist’s” “evidence.” For another example, in his Monograph, “The Sun’s Path at Night, he translates Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (6:8):

“R. Shimon b. Yochai said: We do not know if they fly up in the air and scrape the firmament, or if they travel as usual; the matter is exceedingly difficult and it is impossible for humans to determine”

—whereas it actually reads:

We do not know if they are flying in the air or if they are sliding in/along the rakia…

אמר רבי שמעון בן יוחאי אין אנו יודעין אם פורחין הן באויר ואם שפין ברקיע ואם מהלכין הן כדרכן הדבר קשה מאד ואי אפשר לבריות לעמוד עליו:

Similarly, he uncritically accepted a published mistranslation of a passage from the Guide For The Perplexed to support his view. My bias about the Rambam’s likely stance alerted me to scrutinize Friedlander’s faulty translation, whereas Rabbi Slifkin’s bias caused him to accept it uncritically.


[3] Reminiscent of, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

[4] A Freudian slip? I think Rabbi Slifkin meant to assert that such a discussion is not worthy of his blog’s forum.

[5] Well, if you do read the Ramban’s commentary on the Chumash, you will see that he says that the celestial region’s substance is more ethereal than the earth’s:

רמב"ן בראשית פרק א פסוק א

ודע, כי השמים וכל אשר בהם חומר אחד, והארץ וכל אשר בה חומר אחד. והקב"ה ברא אלו שניהם מאין, ושניהם לבדם נבראים, והכל נעשים מהם. והחומר הזה, שקראו היולי, נקרא בלשון הקדש "תוהו", ... והצורה הנלבשת לחומר הזה נקראת בלשון הקדש "בהו"...ואם כן יהיה פשט הכתובים על נכון, משמעותו: בתחלה, ברא אלהים את השמים, כי הוציא חומר שלהם מאין, ואת הארץ, שהוציא החומר שלה מאין. ו"הארץ" תכלול ארבע היסודות כלם, כמו ויכלו השמים והארץ וכל צבאם (להלן ב א), שתכלול כל הכדור התחתון...והנה בבריאה הזאת, שהיא כנקודה קטנה דקה ואין בה ממש, נבראו כל הנבראים בשמים ובארץ... וכן אמרו רבותינו (ב"ר א יד) את השמים לרבות חמה ולבנה כוכבים ומזלות, ואת הארץ, לרבות האילנות ודשאים וגן עדן. ואלו כלל כל הנבראים בעל הגוף:

רמב"ן בראשית פרק א פסוק ח

ויקרא אלהים לרקיע שמים... בעבור שירצו החכמים עוד להעלות החומר הראשון עד תכלית ולעשותו דק מן הדקים, לא יראו שהשמים--שהם גוף מתנועע בעל חומר וצורה--הם הנבראים מן האי. אבל אור הלבוש הוא הנברא הראשון, וממנו יצא חומר הממש בשמים. ונתן לארץ חומר אחר ואיננו כדקות הראשון, והוא "שלג שתחת כסא הכבוד", כי כסא הכבוד נברא, וממנו היה "השלג שתחתיו," וממנו נעשה חומר הארץ, והנה הוא שלישי בבריאה.

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