The Gemara and Science

[With Simcha Baer!]

When summarizing the Gemara’s understanding of the natural world, modern questioners often get hung up on how “unscientific” our sages were – after all, any quick perusal of the Gemara shows us that our medieval ancestors often regarded the sun as rotating around the earth!

The common reply to this is that it is equally arbitrary to declare that the sun is at the center, when any astronomer will tell you that the solar system is itself wheeling away from a notional center of the known universe.  In a world where there are no fixed points, there is no obvious “wrong” place to put a pin, and call it the center. So far so good – but we don’t actually learn anything from this answer, except perhaps a better appreciation for relative space.

A far more interesting answer can be seen by reading the Gemara more carefully, and setting aside our modern conceits. Everyone knows about Galileo and Copernicus and Kepler – we expect to see the medieval debate as between those who see the earth as the center of the world, and those who are aware that there is a larger solar system.

But this is NOT the perspective of the Gemara at all! On the contrary. Our sages (in stark contrast to the Greeks and Babylonians, to take two examples) were not fanatical trackers of stars and planets, and they were also not particularly interested in identifying the center of the world as the sun or the earth. By jumping to conclusions and not reading carefully, we fail to realize that the perspective of the Gemara is not earth-centric at all: it is invariably centered on the individual observer. Knowing full well that the horizon is entirely relative to the person looking for it, the halacha nonetheless does not aim for an absolute measure of time or space. Shabbos  begins when the individual perceives sundown, and it ends when the individual sees three stars.  The sun does not rotate around the earth – it rotates around each and every one of us.

Seen from this perspective, a lot of things become more clear. We already know from the Torah that the earth was created for the purpose of mankind. But we also learn through this insight how extremely egalitarian Judaism really is – each and every person is understood to legally have their own reality. And it is entirely legitimate for everyone to see that the world really was created for the sole purpose of their own existence.

In other words, when we say that someone who saves a life is as if he saved the whole world, we are supporting the core notion that every life has incalculable value, that G-d made the entire universe so that a single person could draw breath and choose whether or not to follow in Hashem’s path.

Both the sun and the earth are important, but they are not the reason Hashem made the world.  We are not pagans; we do not consider either the sun or the moon to be divine, or important in themselves. Whether the sun rotates around the earth or vice-versa, the universe exists for, and rotates around, every living human being.

Comments are welcome!