Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Copernicus and the Jews

I was always told that the conflict between science and religion was an illusion created by the Catholic Church in the early modern era. They were the ones opposed to the radical scientific advances of the time and not the Jews. It is only our lack of historical knowledge and the influence of our predominantly Christian society that makes us think that Judaism reacted in the same way. The truth, I was told, is that Judaism was much more receptive to those scientific advances. This is not true. While we did not and could not have had anything similar to the Inquisition, we did reject scientific advances for theological reasons.

While I am sure there are better sources for this information, such as Meyer Waxman's A History of Jewish Literature, this is what I have sitting on my desk so this is what I'll use. The following is from Jakob J. Petuchowski, The Theology of Haham David Nieto: An Eighteenth-Century Defense of the Jewish Tradition, pp. 59, 61:

Hardly less medieval is Nieto's attitude towards the Copernican system. It was not, however, that Nieto failed to be convinced by the scientific arguments in favor of Copernicus' hypothesis... Nieto considers this to be absolutely logical. However, he also insists that "our attitude to Science must be that we accept whatever is not opposed to the Written and the Oral Law..." But in the heliocentric view of Copernicus we have, according to Nieto, an instance where Science does contradict the Scriptures. For we read in Joshua 10:12f: "Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon... And the sun stayed in the midst of the heaven, and hastened not to go down about a whole day." This can only mean that, according to the Scriptures, the sun normally does move and revolve like the other planets...

David Gans (1541-1613), in his Nehmad veNaim, is full of praise for Copernicus, whom he considers to be the greatest scholar of the age. But he does not accept his world view which, he says, was already known by the ancients and rejected by them. This attitude is explained by Waxman as being due partly to the influence of Tycho Brahe who was a great opponent of the Copernican revolution, and partly to the piety of the author who could not accept the view of Copernicus since it contradicts Biblical passages.

Tobias Cohn (1652-1729), the author of Ma'aseh Tuviyah, is very wroth against Copernicus for his theory which contradicts a number of statements in the Bible. For this reason he rejects it and clings to the Ptolemaic system.

At the time it appears to have been only Joseph Solomon del Medigo (1591-1655) who was not an outspoken opponent of the Copernican system. In the fourth part of his Ma'yan Gannim he lays special emphasis on the new discoveries from the time of Copernicus to his own. But he does not decide whether the views of Copernicus are correct, though he quotes them.
Even though today everyone agrees that Copernicus was right and does not contradict our religion, the initial Jewish response was that he contradicted the Bible and must, therefore, be rejected.

This is not intended to be an analytical post and I am not rendering judgment on whether the initial conservative response was good or bad. Just an historical FYI.

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