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Torah and Science: Scientific Progress from the Geocentric to the Heliocentric Descriptions of the Solar System
Science Versus Torah?
It is often asked how the Torah deals with empirically proven scientific discoveries that seem to contradict the traditional teachings of Judaism.
Some of the most blatant of these apparent contradictions are paramount in astronomy. For instance, we find that in the Torah the universe is considered geocentric, with all the heavenly bodies, the sun, the stars and the moon revolving around the earth, whereas modern science clearly teaches that the earth is actually revolving around the sun, the solar system being heliocentric.
Until Copernicus, the scientific view of the earth corresponded to the Torah's point of view. The earth was considered static and the whole universe revolved around the earth-center. However, Copernicus proved empirically that the sun is actually the center of the universe and we on earth, together with the other planets, are moving around the sun-center. This new angle is probably the most significant change of perspective that science has offered in all of history and at first glance it apparently presents a challenge to the Torah perspective.
The way that Kabbalah and Hassidism deal with questions such as these is unique, as the following anecdote illustrates, beautifully capturing the relationship between science and the Torah's view of scientific discovery, especially scientific innovations that seem to change the way people relate to the universe.
Although Copernicus, initiated heliocentricity and totally negated geocentricity with his mathematical equations, this new theory did not reach the general public until several centuries later, in the time of one of the great Hassidic masters, the Ruzhiner Rebbe.
When disciples of the Holy Ruzhiner, as he is called in Chabad tradition, heard of this apparently heretical scientific discovery that had turned the world inside-out, as it were, they brought the news to their Rebbe, probably anticipating his absolute denial that such a phenomenon could ever be reconciled with true Torah teachings and that anyone who believed such a thing was an heretic.
However his reaction was very unusual. When he was informed of this, the Holy Ruzhiner remained completely composed and his response was a very special one. He said that whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun revolves around the earth depends on the service of the tzaddikim, the righteous Jews of the generation. The answer to the question of "What revolves around what?" is not an absolute answer. If, for instance, the tzaddikim in this generation would serve God in a manner in which it would be correct to see Pluto as the center of the solar system, then in some mysterious way scientific discoveries would adapt to reflect that change.
This reply is a revolutionary thought that suggests that in truth there is no debate between Torah and science; rather it is an open field in which the Torah influences science's perspective on physical reality. Moreover, we will see that our understanding of science can actually offer us greater insight into Torah principles.
The service of the tzaddik influences the way science perceives the world because in the eyes of the tzaddik, the earth and the sun etc. are all merely symbols that represent his service of God. The verse in Psalms reads, "The sun and its shield are GOD [Havayah, God's essential Name] God [Elokim]." From this verse we can clearly see that the sun and its shield represent two different aspects of God in some way, Havayah, the essential Name of God corresponds to the center of the sun, while the Name Elokim corresponds to the sun's shield. The Name Elokim is the only Name of God that is used throughout the story of creation and its numerical value in Hebrew (86) equals the value of hateva, "nature"; Elokim is the revelation of the supernatural, essential Name of God (Havayah) as it appears in nature. Just as the sun's shield can be observed and studied physically, so too we can observe the direct effects of God, Elokim as they manifest in nature. The actual sun within its shield cannot be measured at all and therefore alludes to God's Essential Name, Havayah. The Torah thus identifies the two dimensions of Divinity, the supernatural dimension and the natural dimension, as the sun and its shield. Similarly, the other celestial bodies, including the earth, can be identified as symbols of creation itself.
A Case of Perspectives
Accordingly, the variation between geocentricism and heliocentricism can be compared to a difference between a service of God that sees man (on earth) as the center, with God, as it were, revolving around man and caring for all of man's needs; or perceiving God as the center, whereby man is obligated to God and His commandments. This philosophical perspective is well-illustrated by a second story.
There was once a Hassidic fund-raiser who set out to raise funds for a worthy cause. Knowing that in certain towns the Misnagdim (opposers of Hassidism) who lived there did not welcome Hassidim, who were considered a near-heretic cult, the Hassid took pains to disguise his Hassidic behavior, realizing that otherwise he would be thrown out of town without a penny. On passing through one such town, he posed as usual as a misnaged. His disguise paid off and he received generous donations, however one of the leaders of the community got inkling that maybe this fundraiser was actually a hassid. In order to try to discover his real identity, he went over to the hassid and asked him very bluntly, "What do you have to say about this Hassidic cult?" The hassid thought for a moment and replied, "The cult? I know some of those hassidim, all day long they think and talk about themselves, and they don't talk about God at all. The misnagdim, though, they think and talk about God all day and they never talk about themselves." This answer pleased the community leader very much and he gave him an additional contribution. Once the hassid had received all the money and was ready to leave town, he called the man over and said, "I'll explain now what I really meant before when I replied to your question. You see, for Hassidim, it is obvious that God exists, God is an axiom, the question they ask is 'Do I exist?' So all day long they are contemplating whether or not they exist, because God certainly exists. But for a misnaged, the opposite is true, the fact that he exists is obvious to him, but whether or not God exists, that is the question, maybe God never existed? If God exists is He present in my life? Is there Divine Providence? The misnaged questions this all day long, so he is always thinking about God. That is what I meant." The hassid then took to his heels and ran off as fast as his legs would carry him....
This story clearly illustrates two different perspectives of our Divine service relative to our Creator. The contemporary debate whether or not there is an Intelligent Designer to the universe, exactly pinpoints the position of the general public in America today. In Hassidic terminology this is called, "elokut behitchadshut" meaning that God is a conscious novelty, for were it not so, then God would be taken for granted and man would be questioning his own existence. Hassidism offers the reverse perspective, seeing God as being obvious while man's own existence is a constant novelty, my own experience of existence is not the core of reality; it is merely some exterior shell that hides the true essence of reality, which is God.
The Hassidic perspective is looking at reality from God's point of view, so to speak, which is termed da'at elyon, the Divine, higher perspective, where God exists and all of creation is virtually nothing and God re-creates reality at every moment. Whereas the other point of view that sees the world from the position of mankind is called da'at tachton, the lower perspective. From this perspective, God is imperceptible – not that He does not exist – He is merely intangible to our senses and is so hidden from us that we have to constantly remind ourselves of His existence. This gives rise to the intellectual question, "Is there a Designer?" since we will never be able to know Him. We may be able to logically conclude that there must be an Intelligent Designer to the universe but even so, the most we will be able to do is to believe that He exists from this lower perspective of reality.
Two Torah Perspectives
Until Copernicus, as we have mentioned, there was no dispute between Torah and science as to what revolved around what. According to the Holy Ruzhiner, there must have been some change in the way the tzaddikim in Copernicus' time served God that affected the way science perceived the universe. As we are beginning to outline in this article, the Torah also has two different perspectives, these are nigleh, the revealed level of the Torah, and nistar, the hidden level of the Torah. Nigleh is da'at tachton, the lower perspective of the Torah which includes the Bible and all its commentaries, the Talmud and general practicable Torah law, while nistar is da'at elyon, the higher perspective of the Torah that includes Kabbalah and the more esoteric teachings of Jewish mysticism.
Through their service of God, the tzaddikim who diligently study the higher perspective of the Torah, succeed in raising themselves out of the lower, egocentric perspective on reality and begin to see how God perceives the world. This type of service only became available to the general public in the time of the Arizal, and even more so later, in the time of the Ba'al Shem Tov.
The Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria, was the outstanding Torah leader who lived in the time of Copernicus. Until the time of the Arizal, study of the holy writings of the Kabbalah was forbidden except by a choice few. Kabbalah had always existed and those who studied nigleh, even though they did not study the Kabbalah, were well-aware of its existence, but it was forbidden to expose the teachings of Jewish mysticism, the inner dimension of the Torah. However, the Arizal received permission from on High to publicize the teachings of Kabbalah and he said that it was a positive commandment to do so, as long as the student fulfilled certain conditions. Later on, the Ba'al Shem Tov released the study of the inner dimension of the Torah to the general public, with the aim of illuminating the world with the inner soul of the Torah in order to hasten the redemption.
Here we are beginning to see how Copernicus' scientific innovation coincided with the opening of new horizons offered by the Arizal. The fact that Copernicus' discovery did not become public until over a century later, can be seen to coincide with the Ba'al Shem Tov, who lived at that time and removed even more restrictions from the study of Kabbalah, the actual meeting between the two becoming apparent in the anecdote about the Holy Ruzhiner, who was the great-grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov's foremost disciple and successor, the Maggid of Mezeritch.
To summarize these stages, we will say that the sun is a symbol of Godliness, something static and unchangeable, while the earth represents a consciousness of change, constant adaptation to the one given, absolute reality and absolute truth.
Even though all our human senses perceive the earth as being static and the sun revolving around the earth, modern physics, beginning with Copernicus, comes to teach us that in actual fact, man is not the center of the universe. In contrast to the general geocentric-egocentric trend of mankind, even according to Einstein's first version of the specific theory of relativity, it was still not possible to prove or write equations for the sun revolving around the earth, and it is infinitely more simple to describe the sun as the center of the universe. Yet if God created man in such a way that he can only experience the world as being heliocentric, then there is obviously some legitimacy to da'at tachton. This legitimacy manifests scientifically in Einstein's second theory, the general theory of relativity, which proves that it is possible to represent the earth or the sun as being the center of the universe.
A God of Two Perspectives
Although the human scientist may have a problem reconciling this apparent paradox in which two contradictory hypotheses are in force simultaneously, God has no difficulty in doing so. God Himself is called nimna hanimnot, the Paradox of all paradoxes, and in Hannah's song of thanksgiving she declares, Kel deiot Havayah, "GOD is a God of perspectives ." Since the word deiot appears in the plural, with no specific number affixed to it, we follow the general rule of the Torah in such cases and assume that it refers to the minimum plural – two. From here we understand that God simultaneously possesses two perspectives, two levels of consciousness or two ways of knowing His creation. He knows creation as being nothing, looking at it from on High, yet He is not limited to being God on High. While He perceives the whole of creation, man included, as nothing, He is simultaneously present in our psyches, which are also "an actual part of God above." God is simultaneously both infinite and finite!
God's ability to simultaneously contain both extremes of an absolute paradox is one of the most profound concepts in Torah and Kabbalah which until Einstein could not be illustrated on the physical plane. However, the Holy Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin preempted Einstein by a few decades with his own statement of relativity, "Whether the universe is geocentric or heliocentric, depends on the service of the great righteous Jews of the generation."
New Vessels for Old
Copernicus' new discovery not only inverted man's perspective on the solar system, it also paved the way for the discovery of new planets. In ancient times seven celestial bodies in the heavens were considered to be in motion, revolving around the static earth. They are the sun, the moon and the five visible planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The three planets that have been discovered in the past three centuries, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, are all invisible to the naked eye. Now, every phenomenon in the world, whether psychological, physical, celestial or in the cosmos, the micro-cosmos, or any other natural system, possesses a Kabbalistic model, corresponding to very basic Kabbalistic frames of reference, the most important of which is the ten sefirot, the ten channels of creation. These ten sefirot are also the ten powers of the soul: three intellectual powers and seven emotive powers. As such, the seven visible, moving celestial bodies were identified with certain sefirot. Kabbalah accepted this perspective and based its teachings upon it – as the Ruzhiner said, that was the way that the tzaddikim served God in their own consciousness at that time – and a very definite model was given as to which planet corresponds to which sefirah. Seven is a very important number, as we are taught that "all sevenths are beloved," and God created the world in such a way that we perceive seven bodies moving in the sky and they correspond in a one-to-one correspondence to seven different powers.
Now, modern day astronomers have reached a different vision of the whole solar system and there is no difficulty in representing this new perspective in corresponding terms. If now tzaddikim serve God in such a way that there are nine, or even ten powers involved in their service of God, then the whole solar system is seen in a different way and this change necessitates outlining a new model that explains that change. If scientists would discover that in actual fact the whole universe is inside-out or upside-down, then this could be explained and depicted by some other Kabbalistic model. Therefore, the inner dimension of the Torah sees no conflict with scientific discoveries of any generation.
We will emphasize once again the most important point of this article: changes in human perception and understanding of the universe depend on our service of the Almighty and once this change affects our perspective of the universe, it is merely a matter of finding the correct Kabbalistic model to describe the system under consideration.
In our case, the addition of three more planets and the innovation of a heliocentric solar system actually improve the previous model of seven, for now all ten sefirot are included in the model, as opposed to the previous model which included only seven sefirot.
Whereas Ptolemy's mathematics of the way the sun and the planets all revolved around the earth was tremendously complex, using cycles and semi-cycles to describe the motion in a very complicated manner, Einstein's statement of E=mc2 is a simple equation and that is the sign of true genius for true genius is recognized by its simplicity. Genius is to be able to conceive and to express profound insights of truth in very simple statements. However, Keats was not the first to claim that truth and beauty are interchangeable, for in the Zohar we are taught that the sefirah of tiferet, beauty, is the attribute of our forefather Jacob, of whom it says, "Give truth to Jacob," so when we see something that is as beautifully simple as the fact that the earth is revolving around the sun, we know that it must, in some way be closer to the truth than a more complex illustration of the same idea. Similarly, the discovery of three new planets creates a new and more beautiful model for the universe which is far simpler than the old model.
A World of Knowledge and Lovingkindness
According to our new model the sun is in the place of keter, the super-conscious crown; Mercury represents chochmah, wisdom; and Venus is binah, understanding. This then brings us to our planet earth. Although the sefirah that comes after binah is da'at, when counting the ten sefirot including keter, da'at is usually not included and chesed, loving-kindness, is the sefirah that follows binah. In our case, since there are ten celestial bodies including the sun, we would expect the earth to be in the position of chesed. This is in accordance with the verse in Psalms, "A world of loving-kindness will be constructed." Nonetheless, there is a third power that serves as a bridge between the mind and the heart that is da'at, consciousness itself. Thus according to this model, the planet earth, being the third planet that revolves around the sun, has two aspects to it.
In accordance with this idea, we find that in Hebrew, there are two synonyms for the earth, both of which appear in the verse in Psalms 24, "To GOD is the earth (ha'aretz) and all that fills it, the terrestrial planet (tevel) and all that inhabit it." Whenever there are two words for the same concept in Hebrew, we are taught that each of them has its own specific connotation or meaning to it. In this case, ha'aretz, the earth, refers to the physical planet earth, whereas the second word, tevel, refers specifically to a planet inhabited by intelligent beings.
Similarly, we find in the Zohar that there are two opinions mentioned why God created the world. The first reason is in order that there be intelligent beings that are able to be conscious of God's existence. The other reason mentioned is in order to express His goodness and loving-kindness by the creation of beings who are able to emulate His goodness and loving-kindness to one another and to all creatures on earth. This means that we have two basic missions to carry out on this planet: 1. To become conscious of God and 2. To emulate His loving-kindness to all of mankind, to animals and to the whole of creation.
In our present analysis of the solar system these two qualities are manifest in the position of the earth as the third planet that revolves around the sun, which represents the keter, placing the earth in either the position of da'at, corresponding to the human ability to be conscious of God, or chesed, corresponding to the human ability to emulate and manifest God's power of loving-kindness.
This brings us to the planet Mars which, being red, is clearly suited to the attribute of gevurah, might or severe judgment. Mars is the common point of contact between the old model and the new model, since according to both opinions, Mars corresponds to gevurah. However, in this present analysis it is much clearer that Mars does indeed correspond to the sefirah of gevurah, because of its position directly after the earth which has the position of chesed.
Next is Jupiter, or in Hebrew tzedek, meaning justice. Science currently knows that if Jupiter would be just a little bigger, it would possess significant mass to be a luminary sun in its own rights. In Kabbalah, one of the ways of dividing the sefirot is by dividing them into two groups of five in which the first five parallel the last five. In this model we can definitely see how this quality of Jupiter almost being a sun corresponds with this division, as Jupiter is the first of the second set of five, while the sun itself is the first of the first group of five.
The next planet Saturn, corresponds to netzach, victory, which leaves us with the three new planets, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, which then correspond respectively to hod, yesod and malchut, as shown in the following table:
A Naming Game
The Torah, especially its inner dimension, Kabbalah, is called sha'ashuim, delights, indicating that for God, the Torah is like a game. One part of the game that has been conferred upon man is creating a language by which new things that are discovered can be named. The first activity of Adam, the first conscious being, was to name each of the creatures that God brought before him to be named. Similarly, we are taught that the Messiah will invent new words, obviously based on the permutations of known Hebrew roots. From this we can see that a human has the innate ability to name new things that he sees around him and he has the insight to give them the correct name.
Since God creates the world through His ten lights which are the sefirot and the 22 vessels which are the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the correct name for an article is the word whose Hebrew letters in that particular combination and permutation serve as the channel of the article's continual re-creation.
On being presented with three new planets, as yet unnamed in Hebrew, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, we can suggest Hebrew names for them based on their positions in the sefiriotic tree and the inner meaning of their corresponding sefirot. Uranus could then be called Tam, a conjugate of the root of temimut, simplicity, the inner sense of the sefirah of hod. Amitai would be the name for Neptune, in accordance with the inner sense of the sefirah of yesod – emet, truth; while Pluto would receive the name Shaful, from the root of shiflut, lowliness, the inner sense of the final sefirah, malchut.
A Three-Step Development Process
Returning to the question of heliocentricism versus geocentricism, we can see a definite development in the changes of thought that follows the three-step Hassidic development process of submission, separation, and sweetening.
Perhaps Copernicus was unaware of it (or perhaps he did indeed intend to prevail over the church to a certain extent, which he certainly succeeded in doing), but he initiated a revolutionary development, or we could even call it a positive mutation of consciousness. He brought mankind out of an egocentric perspective on reality and gave us a little submission. He replaced universal egocentricity with a phase of cosmic humility by teaching us that we should not feel that we are the center of reality and that everything is revolving around us. Prior to Copernicus it was as if man had invented God, as it were, and his inversion of perspective was a definite progression from that primitive state in which God was almost man's personal possession.
Since Einstein's general theory of relativity, it may seem that it has once more become possible to relapse into acceptance of this primitive, egocentric perspective. However, it is actually a progression in development as we now see that both perspectives can be true, depending on which way one is looking at it. The general theory of relativity offers the option of geocentricity or heliocentricity, without distinguishing between them in terms of correctness; either can be correct. This began a stage of separation in which the scientist is able to choose which opinion best suits his needs. For instance, since it is far simpler to explain the motion of the planets etc. by heliocentrism, this is what is still taught in elementary school, whereas a seasoned student of physics will be able to grasp the complex mathematics of the renewed opinion of geocentrism.
When progressing from one point of consciousness to another, we often discover that the new perspective seems to totally negate the first one (submission), only to discover later that the first perspective is also a valid one (separation). Sweetening occurs when we discover a concealed level of the first perspective that is even higher than the second level of perspective. In terms of geocentrism and heliocentrism; geocentricity is an egocentric and primitive system, whereas heliocentricity transcends geocentricity, totally contradicting it. Relativity claims that either perspective is valid, in which case the stage of sweetening has yet to come, perhaps in the form of a new set of equations that will prove geocentricity more efficiently and neatly than the available mathematics, without contradicting heliocentrism in the slightest.
Three Levels of Consciousness – The Power to Bring God Down to Earth
Since everything depends on the way the tzaddikim serve God, we can further our understanding by using this idea as a parable. If one perceives the world as if God is revolving around him, so to speak, that is self-worship, as if one's ego has invented God.
The animal soul that is common to both Jews and non-Jews is man's lower egocentric consciousness, which we call mudaut atzmit, self-consciousness, the sense of thinking that I am the center and everything else revolves around me and seeing everything as a reflection of my own imaginary self-image. We must step out of that perspective, bringing our egos to a state of total submission, and realize that we are merely servants orbiting around their Master, attentive to His every desire, our own needs being totally insignificant.
One of our missions in living on the "planet of conscious beings" is to transcend that perspective of experiencing the sun moving around the earth or God existing to serve our needs and to reach a state of mudaut Elokit, "Divine consciousness," in which we are constantly aware of the Creator creating a new universe ex-nihilo. This stage is an ongoing process of separation by which we come to the conclusion that we are actually nothing and that God, the true Something, is re-creating the illusion of our existence at every moment.
A true tzaddik reaches the stage of sweetening; a third stage at which God grants him a certain extent of power over God Himself. In the Talmud we are taught that a true servant of God has the power to nullify God's own decrees and he also has the power to pronounce a decree that God will fulfill. God's greatest pleasure is when his children beat Him at His own game, as it were, and He smiles and says, "My children have won over Me!" But only a true son of God, a true tzaddik can reach this level. After having reached the stage at which God is obvious, bipshitut, and he is behitchadshut, constantly questioning his own existence, then the tzaddik is miraculously given the power to triumph over God. This final state is called mudaut tivit, "natural consciousness," which is a state of living Divinity – living as a part of God by allowing that part of the soul which is an actual part of God to direct our lives, as the verse states, "I have said that you are God, and all of you are sons of the Supreme." At this stage we are able to control God's decrees or to decree ourselves, in a natural way.
Two Types of Tzaddikim
The ongoing dispute between God and the true tzaddik is over things which appear to be bad in our lives, but from God's point of view they are actually for our own good, because everything that God does is for the best. From God's perspective even intense suffering that is being inflicted upon us is all for the good, although we do not experience that goodness. Once the tzaddik has reached the level of absolute knowledge, having completely negated his egocentric tendencies (the submission stage, corresponding to the initiation of heliocentricity that completely negated geocentricity), he is now conscious of God's hidden motives to a certain extent (separation; seeing the earth either from the perspective of the sun or from an earthly perspective); or at least he realizes that all the suffering is for the best, even though he may not know how. However, the true tzaddik is not willing to remain at this stage of development and is not willing to accept such affliction; instead he represents the Jewish people in exile before God and beseeches Him to stop their suffering, proving his concern for their physical welfare.
It is then that God gives the tzaddik the power to return to the earthly, geocentric perspective and to control God, making Him revolve around the earth, by sweetening His decree, and this is God's greatest pleasure.
This is the difference between Noah and Abraham. Noah did not develop to the stage at which he prayed for the decree to be annulled. He accepted that if God wished to destroy the world in a flood, then it must be good, so he just let it happen, without praying for his generation. This is why he was not chosen to be the founder of the Jewish nation.
Abraham was the first Jew because he not only transcended his primary egocentric status to have complete faith in God; he remained human enough to care for the physical welfare of his contemporaries, as God Himself desires. Nonetheless, the tzaddik does not always win, however hard he tries, for if that was the case then the redemption would already have been here long ago.
The Wedding of Torah and Science
There are some things which are beyond our scope, of which it says, "Do not investigate things that are incredible to you." From this article we can see how we can gain insights into the more profound teachings of the Torah by contemplating phenomena that were once totally incredible, such as the fact that the earth may be revolving around the sun and that there are more planets in the solar system than the eye can see.
As a whole, science represents da'at tachton, the lower perspective, whose innovations are based solely upon empirical observations. Kabbalah represents da'at elyon, the higher perspective that may seem to contradict the lower perspective at times. However, new scientific discoveries may in fact offer us new models of reality that are better than the old ones and more adept to fit the Kabbalistic view of reality.
The Torah perspective on science also enhances our understanding of science; Kabbalah offers a conceptual model that views the various macrocosmic discoveries of science as a microcosm of the universe. When studied as a parable to our own perception and psyches, these models may and should have an educational effect upon us, thus superseding the amoral standpoint that science claims to hold (and the often immoral conclusions that it reaches as a result of its amorality).
Ultimately, Kabbalah and science are interdependent, even though they are currently experienced separately, as we have seen that the service of the tzaddik influences the way science perceives the universe. Once science matures enough to desire the connection between the two perspectives, the time will come for the marriage between the two to take place.
It is not long before science will come to discover that the whole of the universe, the macro-cosmos and the micro-cosmos at all their levels, has one unified structure that is the signature of God. Kabbalah is the key to recognizing that signature.
Based on a class given on the 20th of Cheshvan, 5766 (November 21, 2005) at Stanford University