Thursday, July 08, 2010

The "Firmament" - Is It a Problem for Judaism?


[the expanse of the heavens - or is it firmament?]

In Genesis 1, there are a number of references to the "firmament". Some people assume that this means a "solid dome" and indicates that the author of Genesis understood that the earth was a flat disk and sky was a solid dome sitting on it. This would of course imply that the author of Genesis was ignorant of basic science and therefore obviously not divine. Some Orthodox Jewish converts to atheism have even cited this as being the primary proof of atheism.

Frankly, I don't think this argument is very convincing. Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is the earth ever explicitly described as a flat disk with a solid dome covering it, even though this was apparently the belief of the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians. The word "firmament" is a translation of the Hebrew word רָקִיעַ which simply means "something spread out". The best English translation may be "expanse", which is used for example by the New American Standard Bible.

In essence, there would appear to be Jews apostatizing because of a poor translation of one word in Genesis 1.

As an aside, it's interesting to note that in the Hebrew Bible, רָקִיעַ is almost never used except in two places: Genesis 1 and Ezekiel 1. The Talmudic sages singled out these two chapters of the Hebrew Bible, known as Ma'aseh Bereshit and Ma'aseh Merkabah, as being filled with mystical meanings and therefore their study was strictly limited. In light of this, I don't believe that we may jump to any conclusions about the exact meaning of one ambiguous word. The full meanings of these extremely profound passages has been lost to us today. I think we simply don't know precisely what the רָקִיעַ is.

40 comments:

GodAwful said...

How god and the firmament were created.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIq0UrVlbXY&feature=player_embedded

Rebeljew said...

Once again, scholarship fails you. In the construction of the Temple vessels, the verb of that root Resh Kuf Ayin is used to mean taking metal and beating it flat. Refer to parshios Trumah through Pikudai. There is no doubt as to what Rakiah means. The Torah concept is not different than what surrounding peoples thought at the time. The celestial bodies are implanted in concentric (geocentric) semispherical plates.

This is roughly observably correct, though we now know differently from better observation. It would have been pointless to tell ancients otherwise, even if one had such knowledge. No conclusion about what they actually knew can be made either way.

jewish philosopher said...

Appeal to ridicule. Big deal.

http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/appeal-to-ridicule.html

The idea that we are merely soulless, worthless bags of chemicals who somehow spontaneously developed from nothing is the most ridiculous idea I can imagine.

jewish philosopher said...

"The Torah concept is not different than what surrounding peoples thought at the time."

I don't see any proof of that. And the word does simply mean something spread out, not necessarily metal.

Rebeljew said...

"Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is the earth ever explicitly described as a flat disk with a solid dome covering it, even though this was apparently the belief of the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians."

Agreed. That would be the explicit opinion of the Talmud, for example Pesachim Pey Dalet.

There the Rabbis confirm that the model is similar to the non Jewish model (and we are very clear on what that was) but they concede that certain details are better explained by the non-Jewish experts than by the sages.

Rebeljew said...

"Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is the earth ever explicitly described as a flat disk with a solid dome covering it, even though this was apparently the belief of the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians."

Agreed. That would be the explicit opinion of the Talmud, for example Pesachim Pey Dalet.

There the Rabbis confirm that the model is similar to the non Jewish model (and we are very clear on what that was) but they concede that certain details are better explained by the non-Jewish experts than by the sages.

jewish philosopher said...

Talmudic science is based on the science of their times, as is the writings of present day rabbis.

Rebeljew said...

Where is the appeal to ridicule? You asserted that the term Rakiah could not be conclusively defined because it is only used in Breishis and Merkava. I conclusively refuted that contention since it is clearly false. Refuting incorrect facts is not the same as ridicule.

Your final statement is nonsequiteur. I do not disagree with it, even though I strongly disagree that Rakiah is not clearly defined.

jewish philosopher said...

I was talking about the first comment.

Rebeljew said...

"I don't see any proof of that."
A simple reading of the previously quoted gemora is enough to prove the assertion. It is clearly spelled out.

jewish philosopher said...

There is no proof from the Torah that it's author believed in a solid sky.

Anonymous said...

The Rekiia means something that is streached or spread out. Accprding to the General Theory of Relativity gravity is due to the warping of or streaching of four dimensional space. So maybe this is what the Torah is referring to.

Rebeljew said...

That scholarship failed you?

That is an obvious fact, backed by the rest of the comment. I encourage you learn more. These matters are "effente Chumash". Your later attempt to defend it are no better. I suggest that you take a concordance and cross reference (i.e. scholarship) and you will see my point.

Rebeljew said...

"There is no proof from the Torah that it's author believed in a solid sky."

So you do not maintain that Talmud is the documentation of "Oral Torah", the authorized interpretation?

Anonymous said...

The Rabbi's of the Talmud sometimes turned to the experts of their times for information on science. If they didn't then the skeptics would say that they where wrong for not listening to the experts.

Anonymous said...

Rashi in Berehis says that the Rokia refers to something that is streached.

jewish philosopher said...

Talmudic comments about science are not Oral Law.

What if a rabbi today says "don't smoke; it's unhealthy" and in a thousand years scientists decide smoking is healthy, does that invalidate Judaism? The rabbi accepted the science of his time.

Rebeljew said...

In the gemora (Pes 94) they disagree with the experts on this. They believe that the sun goes behind the rakiah at night, whereas the non Jewish experts believed it went underneath to warm the waters beneath the earth. There is even halacha based on this, as we collect mayim shelanu at sunset.

It is obvious that they think that the rakiah is solid or their model does not work. In all likelihood the non-Jews agreed on this point, but it is not integral to their model.

Rashi says that rakiah is "stretched out" because examples of this as a verb refer to something solid that is stretched out in a sheet, like metal.

jewish philosopher said...

The Talmudic rabbis were trying to decide, again based on their knowledge of hydrology, which type of water should be used for matzah. That's unrelated to genesis 1.

The sky could also be described as "spread out".

I think the theory that the use of the word "firmament" in Genesis 1 proves Judaism is a hoax is very weak. If someone needs an excuse, however, I guess it will do.

Anonymous said...

Rashi says that the verb "roka" means to stretch out based on its usage.

And the Rabbi's defered to the gentile scholars on the details. But the whole concept of a solid spehere was borrowed from the Goyim. The Rambam discusses the four humors. This was a concept borrowed from the Goyim. And it is okay soemtimes to defer to experts in different fields. If the Rabbis didn't you would say they were wrong.

Rebeljew said...

My only contention was that you said that rakiah did not clearly mean "solid" etymologically. The sages of the Talmud explicitly disagree. You mean this to defend Torah, but this explanation attacks the Talmudic Torah view rather than defending it.

No atheists needed to participate.

Rebeljew said...

OK anon. I'll ask you. Where is there an instance of the word rakiah that is defined by the sages to mean anything other than solid. Keep in mind, I agree that "stretched" is the definition. However, show an instance where rakiah is used but a solid sheet is not implied.

Also, keep in mind, that even a solid sheet can be defended. The terrestrial atmosphere is substantial. Airlines and NASA know this fact well.

jewish philosopher said...

The Talmud Pesachim 94 is merely discussing the understanding which the Talmudic sages had of geography and cosmology. It makes no reference to Genesis and has no bearing on this post.

The Talmudic sages comments about science are not part of the Oral Law and are not necessarily correct.

Maimonides wrote in the Guide to the Perplexed part 3 chapter 14: "You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science."

http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/gfp/gfp150.htm

Also, many Talmudic teachings are allegorical, not literal and this may apply to part of Pesachim 94.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aggadah#Literal-allegorical_teachings

Regarding Genesis 1, the New American Standard Bible translates רָקִיעַ as "expanse".

http://nasb.scripturetext.com/genesis/1.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_American_Standard_Bible

This is in contrast to the King James Bible which translates רָקִיעַ as "firmament".

http://kingjbible.com/genesis/1.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authorized_King_James_Version

"Expanse" is probably more correct.

Rebeljew said...

"It makes no reference to Genesis and has no bearing on this post."

Nothing could be clearer than that they assumed that the rakiah was solid. No bearing on this post asserting that the Torah never claimed that the rakiah was solid?

Then you conclude that in science the sages had no special knowledge. Yet your entire blog extols the science of the Bible against the science that is observed, even claiming that you have scientific reasons for rejected observed science, not just ideological reasons. Not only that, but the Lithuanian yeshivas of the 20s and 30s would never have approved of a philosophy such as you assert that the sages did not know science other than the science of the time. They were notoriously fundamentalist in this area.

So you and your anonymous counterpart strongly oppose science, except when it suits you. And you strongly advocate Torah, except when it suits you to abandon it. Oy vey.

jewish philosopher said...

The Torah, written and oral, is based upon prophesy and inerrant. As Maimonides states, the scientific opinions of the rabbis are not.

"Not only that, but the Lithuanian yeshivas of the 20s and 30s would never have approved of a philosophy such as you assert that the sages did not know science other than the science of the time."

I think you're mistaken. Sources please?

Anonymous said...

Excuse me, anon Nathan and JP, but how do you explain verses 6 and 7, wherein a firmament separates two bodies of water, with water above and water below the rakiya? That very clearly implies god creating a solid mass separating the waters. And, of course, there are no waters above the sky (other than atmospheric moisture..). The creation process clearly describes a watery mass in which the rakiya intervenes-- something solid.

jewish philosopher said...

The Torah is stating that above the expanse of the heavens, in which the stars are located (verse 17) there is a body of water.

I have no idea where that is. Perhaps future cosmologists will tell us.

Anonymous said...

The Ramban says that the water above the Rokia is a spiritual water. This is basd on the use of the article before the word HaShomayim in the first posuk. It refers to something other than the Rokia, which is called Shomayim.
Its refers to something else.

And there is water is space. That's what comets are.

And water is sometimes used as a general terms for any fluid, so it migh be refering to gases in space.

Anonymous said...

The Ramban says that the water above the Rokia is a spiritual water. This is basd on the use of the article before the word HaShomayim in the first posuk. It refers to something other than the Rokia, which is called Shomayim.
Its refers to something else.

And there is water is space. That's what comets are.

And water is sometimes used as a general terms for any fluid, so it migh be refering to gases in space.

GodAwful said...

JS,
"The idea that we are merely soulless, worthless bags of chemicals who somehow spontaneously developed from nothing is the most ridiculous idea I can imagine."

Argument from personal incredulity. Typical fundie chareidi logical fallacy.
Ultimately, we are indeed bags of chemicals, but hardly worthless. Evolution has delivered a worthwhile consumation. That you cannot imagine it is a consequence of your desultory religion which is indeed one of the most ridiculous things ever invented, a nice accessory to the pet rock or chastity belt.

jewish philosopher said...

"Argument from personal incredulity."

I'm merely pointing out that if you want to make fun of my beliefs, he who is vulnerable should not attack others.

"but hardly worthless"

For what reason? You came from nothing through some mindless automatic process and if you are past 40, you are rapidly disintegrating too.

GodAwful said...

JS
"I'm merely pointing out that if you want to make fun of my beliefs, he who is vulnerable should not attack others."

You're not just merely pointing out, you're offering hollow arguments to buttress your beliefs. And that's all they are --beliefs with no scientific data to support them.

Me -"but hardly worthless"

"For what reason? You came from nothing through some mindless automatic process and if you are past 40, you are rapidly disintegrating too."

For the same reason that the sky is blue, or the sun rises every morning. Its just the way it is. There are scientific reasons, but unless the earth is menaced by some cosmic catastrophe, it will always be so and so will mankind's strengths, talents and virtues.

Perhaps you are rapidly disintegrating but my physical and emotional condition pretty much assures that I'll live to a healthy ripe old age.
You came into the world alone and you'll die alone. In between you can rise to your potential or slave under the oppression of religious dogma. For the atheisticaly enlightened, the choice is clear. For the religiously deluded, the choice has already been determined. How sad.

jewish philosopher said...

My beliefs are based on the clearest logic and the most obvious facts of nature and history. A watch must have a watchmaker. The Jews could not all have been pursuaded to lie about the Exodus.

You on the other hand believe in some delusions that a tornado hitting a junk yard can produce a supercomputer. This is silly dogma which would make a witch doctor blush.

Also, please explain to me, how is a human being more important or valuable than an earthworm or a bag of trash.

Anonymous said...

NLG:

Does reaching your atheistic potential inclue becoming a mass murderer like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc, etc, etc, or a drunk like Christopher Hitchens?


And the reason the sky is blue is based on the science of optics. There is no scientific reason why humans should have value.

Joseph said...

If we remember that God is outside the space--time continuum, it should be obvious that, just the first day was when God decided that light would exist in the universe, the second day was when God decided that liquids would have boundaries kept by surface tension.

In other words, the firmament exists everywhere there's surface tension.

Rabbi-Ed said...

Shalom,

I'm a Conservative rabbi and a believer in a divine Creator, which means I'm not an atheist.

How one interprets "Rakiah" should not lead to atheism, even if you regard Torah as literal truth which you then discard. In my mind "rakiah" is best translated as "firmament," that is a firm but translucent substance that separated the visible waters above ("sham-mayim") from the waters below. Clearly the ancients did not know that the sky we see reflects the color of the oceans, which comprise most of the earth's surface. And reason was on their side when they assumed that water "stored" in the heavens above caused the sky to be blue. After all, rain fell on them in ancient times too, no less than today! In that sense their experience of reality was no different than ours, even if they ascribed the process of nature quite differently than those of us who have a grasp of a current science.

jewish philosopher said...

"Clearly the ancients did not know that the sky we see reflects the color of the oceans"

I'm sure that's correct.

http://science.howstuffworks.com/sky.htm

"rain fell on them in ancient times too"

But I think they knew it came from the clouds. It never rains if it's not cloudy.

GuestPoster said...

JP
As the author of the guest post on Shilton's blog (I only noticed now, a week later, that you wrote about it), I wanted to clarify one point. You say I "cited this as being the primary proof of atheism", but in fact, it is one of the many, many proofs that led me to atheism. I merely highlighted one example of where the Torah is much more sensible now that I take it to be ancient writings from ancient poeple, rather then divine wisdom. What I intended to say was that it was this general realization that really grabbed me, although I wouldn't discount the other aspects, e.g. the contradictions between Judaism and science and history, the Torah's incomprehensible moral compass, the existence of evil, and other factors, in my decision. It probably only hastened my conclusion.

jewish philosopher said...

"the contradictions between Judaism and science and history"

Solved.

http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/09/how-i-understand-genesis.html

http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/10/biblical-deluge.html

http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/02/torah-and-archaeology.html

"the Torah's incomprehensible moral compass"

In addition to commanding us not to harm others, like every legal system, the Torah went a step further and commanded kindness, a first in human history.

http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2008/01/genius-of-judaism-kindness.html

"the existence of evil"

Not a problem.

http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2009/08/kindness-of-suffering.html

yankel said...

Both science and Scripture imply that space is solid material that we cannot see or feel though quantum field theory suggests it is extremely dense. We move freely through it and it moves freely through us. Isa: 40:22 G-d stretches out the heavens like a curtain". This verse and others compare the material of space to a strechable fabric uuder tension. "And the heavens shall be rolled uo like a scroll" supports this as well. Therefore no contradiction between science and Torah.