Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Is Rav Kanievsky now a heliocentrist?

Update: See comment thread, and the update at the bottom, for a clarification, and why I am wrong.

As I noted in an earlier post, Rav Kanievsky was on the record as stating that it was forbidden to agree with Copernicus' heliocentric model of the universe. Thus, to cite the Seforim blog on this:

Even more recently Y. Bloch put out a booklet called Kuntres Hashemesh Begevorso, 56 pages long demonstrating that Copernicus besides for being against the Torah is false scientifically. In Bircat Hachamah Betekufoseah, R. Genot brings (p.131) from R. Chaim Kanievseky who says:

כי הנוקט כך הריהו כמכחיש מסורת וכופר באמונתנו.

But other reports, from this year, have Rabbi Genot (same author) citing Rabbi Kanievsky that it is not forbidden to believe that the earth goes around the sun. Thus:
בלוח דבר בעתו התשס"ט עמ' 743 כותב ר' מרדכי גנוט בשם הגר"ח קניבסקי כי אין איסור להחזיק בתפיסה ההילוצנטרית. מאידך בסוף ספר התכונה למהרח"ו ב"ב תשנ"ח נדפס קונטרס בעילום שם מחברו התוקף בחריפות רבה את המחזקים בתפיסה זו המנוגדת לדעתו לאמונת ישראל מכל וכל.
רובו של הקונטרס מוקדש לראיות רבות על דעת היהדות בנידון אבל בתחילתו מציין שכבר בשעתו שהשמיע קופרניקוס [הרשע] את דעותיו התווכח עמו טיכו ולא זכינו שהתקבלו דעותיו.
סיפור נאה זה מקורו ככל הנראה בספר הברית המספר על מהות הוויכוח שעבר בין קופרניקוס לטיכו [ספר הברית ח"א מאמר ט חוג הארץ פי"א] אלא שכבר כתב העיר על כךפנ"ש בהצופה להמגיד כו ניסן תרל"ג [עמ' 7] שטיכו נולד כמה שנים אחרי מות קופרניקוס
"In the calendar {/almanac} Davar BeItto {J: link goes to one for 2 years ago} for the year 5769, page 743, Rabbi Mordechai Genot in the name of the Gaon, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, writes that there is no prohibition in maintaining the heliocentric belief."
This is the same Rabbi Genot who wrote the opposite in the name of Rav Kanievsky. It is possible that one, or the other, is simply a mistake. As Rav Kanievsky (purportedly) said, "everything they say in my name is false."

This is the claim presented in Wikipedia:
Some have claimed that Rabbi Kanievsky considers heliocentrism a heretical view.[1] However, this is a misquote, as he is clearly on record in other instances to the contrary.[2]
Is it clearly a misquote, when it was the same author in two separate books who presents these contrary views? And if so, how do you know that the misquote is the one which makes Rav Kanievsky seem ignorant?

More information might be gleaned from the history page in Wikipedia. There, we have:
Some controversy surrounded Rabbi Kanievsky about a statment that those who believe in [[heliocentricism]] are apikorsim. This has been proven to be untrue. In response to a letter written in April 2009, the Rabbi cites two opposing opinions and does not rule.
In fact, a more likely scenario is that these are the recorded positions of Rabbi Kanievsky at different periods of time.

Indeed, a source I consider reliable informed me that Rav Kanievsky originally held it to be a heretical view. Then, someone presented him with Rav Gedaliah Nadel's view that the Torah and Chazal were merely speaking from man's perspective, rather than describing the physical reality. Putting this view forth, one can maintain a heliocentric model without saying that Chazal erred in a matter of science. In response to this, Rav Kanievsky changed his position.

But saying that something is not forbidden is not the same as believing it himself. Indeed, it seems quite possible, and perhaps even quite likely, that he still believes that Chazal were absolutely correct in their geocentric beliefs. This should not be a matter of dispute in the 21th century, for anyone who possesses a good education in science. This is unfortunately something sorely lacking in many.

Further than that, if this is true, then it would seem that he is only maintaining that those who hold like Rav Nadel, zatzal, are not heretics. But those who say that Chazal did intend it literally, but that Chazal were wrong because they relied on contemporary science, might still be considered heretics. It is difficult to take such a condemnation seriously though, when it is rooted in a profound ignorance of science, and a profoundly different approach to the world (the great rationalist / mystic divide) and what constitutes evidence. If he were to similarly declare a heretic anyone who disbelieves that gentiles have fewer teeth than Jews, I would similarly pay it no heed.

Update: wikijew, who edited the Wikipedia page with this information, clarifies. See his comment. Basically, he explains that the first quote by Rabbi Genot was misread as if it had a comma before the work כי but really the first quote meant the same as the second one from Rav Genot. And so Rav Kanievsky was originally rejecting the idea that heliocentrism was kefira. And aside from this, wikijew's friend wrote to Rav Kanievsky at length (mentioning Rav Nadel's position), and Rav Kanievsky responded by noting the position of the sefer habris that it is kefirah and that Rav Nadel says it is not so, because dibra Torah kilshon bnei adam. I would note that this *could* be read as accounting for the discrepency, that the first quote from Rav Kanievsky was based on the Sefer Habris, while the second was based on Rav Nadel. And he does not explain (in his presumably short response) that the first was a misquote. But it can also be read as a misquote, as wikijew explained it. And this explanation seems to be to be extremely plausible, and likely. (Perhaps best would be to contact Rabbi Genot and confirm with him that this was what he meant but that it was misparsed, but this seems quite likely, even without it.)

I'd love to have the images, though I believe wikijew's explanation without seeing them.

This does not mean that Rav Kanievsky is particularly a geocentrist, or a heliocentrist. It does not seem to be something addressed explicitly. And I don't know if only via Rav Nadel's explanation would he consider rejecting the sefer Habris' contention that such a view is kefirah. (Because it is not just a matter of what one maintains, but the attitude with which one maintains it, that could make one an apikores.)

Here is wikijew's comment:
As the one who edited that Wikipedia paragraph, please allow me to clarify what's going on here.

To my knowledge, the only source which has Rav Chaim saying that heliocentrism is kefirah is the Seforim blog's quote of Rav Genut's Bircas HaChamah Betekufasah (note correct spelling). However, this is apparently a misquote; what the sefer actually says is exactly the opposite! The actual wording is as follows (I don't have the sefer, but this is pretty close to the exact loshon):

ר' חיים קניבסקי שולל את הדעה כי המחזיק בשיטת קופרניקוס הוא כופר.‏

The original quoter (whoever that was) mistakenly read this sentence with a comma before the word כי, meaning that Rav Chaim negated the view of heliocentrism, because one who accepts this view is a kofer. However, from the wording of the actual statement as well as from its context there, it clearly means that R' Chaim negated the view of Sefer Habris etc. (cited earlier in the sefer) that heliocentrism is kefirah. So there never was any stirah to begin with! Both Rav Chaim and Rav Genut are completely consistent.

A friend of mine, who was not aware of this misreading, wrote a detailed question to Rav Chaim asking him to reconcile the seemingly conflicting quotes. Rav Chaim answered:
בספר הברית כתב שהוא כפירה, אבל ר' גדלי' ז"ל אמר שאין מוכרח שדברה תורה כלשון בנ"א וכפי הנראה

(I can email you images of this correspondence if you wish.)

Rav Chaim apparently didn't bother dealing with what was quoted in his name (maybe since "everything they say in my name is false" anyway...). He also doesn't mention his personal view. But one thing is for sure - he wouldn't answer this way if he held it was definitely kefirah.

Moral of the story: Always check your sources!
Update:

Here is the text of the question sent to Rav Kanievsky, in which the questioner asks for clarification.















and here is Rav Chaim Kanievsky's handwritten answer, first citing the Sefer Habris that it is heresy, and then citing Rav Gedaliah Nadel that this need not be so, because of reasons of dibra Torah kilshon benei adam and that it is written in terms of what it appears to be, rather than what it is.

He doesn't expliciltly decide between these two positions, nor does he say that it cannot be kefirah because geocentrism is in fact false. Rather, this is a kosher way in which to believe in geocentrism and not be an kofer.

8 comments:

Little Cart said...

One reason why I appreciate your blog is for the sophisticated deference that you show towards those whom you know are Giants.
I did not lose out by reading this specific post, as it reported what is, to me, new and interesting information. But I sensed here a lapse of effort in your desire for the truth. I point it out only to encourage you to dissect this a little bit more, in your thoughts.

Haphoch Ba Ve'Haphoch Ba, DeKulah Ba! While your allegiance to rationalism is necessary (and in common with me), your awareness of the depths latent in Torah should be a part of your rational process.
That is to say- let's slow down, and let's include in our analysis of Rav Kanievsky's ambiguous remarks, the fact that he is a genuinely esteemed Rav who spends his days and nights in untenured study. And most crucially- let's include the fact that the Torah which you so enjoy to continuously uncover (an enjoyment that you afford to others as well) might eventually lead you to the discovery that the world has yet to discover itself.

wikijew said...

As the one who edited that Wikipedia paragraph, please allow me to clarify what's going on here.

To my knowledge, the only source which has Rav Chaim saying that heliocentrism is kefirah is the Seforim blog's quote of Rav Genut's Bircas HaChamah Betekufasah (note correct spelling). However, this is apparently a misquote; what the sefer actually says is exactly the opposite! The actual wording is as follows (I don't have the sefer, but this is pretty close to the exact loshon):

ר' חיים קניבסקי שולל את הדעה כי המחזיק בשיטת קופרניקוס הוא כופר.‏

The original quoter (whoever that was) mistakenly read this sentence with a comma before the word כי, meaning that Rav Chaim negated the view of heliocentrism, because one who accepts this view is a kofer. However, from the wording of the actual statement as well as from its context there, it clearly means that R' Chaim negated the view of Sefer Habris etc. (cited earlier in the sefer) that heliocentrism is kefirah. So there never was any stirah to begin with! Both Rav Chaim and Rav Genut are completely consistent.

A friend of mine, who was not aware of this misreading, wrote a detailed question to Rav Chaim asking him to reconcile the seemingly conflicting quotes. Rav Chaim answered:
בספר הברית כתב שהוא כפירה, אבל ר' גדלי' ז"ל אמר שאין מוכרח שדברה תורה כלשון בנ"א וכפי הנראה

(I can email you images of this correspondence if you wish.)

Rav Chaim apparently didn't bother dealing with what was quoted in his name (maybe since "everything they say in my name is false" anyway...). He also doesn't mention his personal view. But one thing is for sure - he wouldn't answer this way if he held it was definitely kefirah.

Moral of the story: Always check your sources!

joshwaxman said...

little cart:
thanks! here this was what i thought i was doing.

wikijew:
thanks; that certainly qualifies matters. i have egg on my face. you should put this note in the discussion section, because as it stands, the simple opposition of quotes (without stating it was from the same source, and one was without the comma, etc.), it is easy to conclude that different quotes may have come from different times.

in terms of personal view, i agree (and agreed) that he doesn't hold it kefirah. but is this just when one maintains Rav Nadel's view, that it was just Chazal's way of talking?

(i'd love to have images of this correspondence. i don't require it, though; what you say makes sense and i already believe you. if you want to send me the images, my address is joshwaxman, and it is a yahoo address.)

kol tuv and thanks!
josh

Akiva said...

It's worth noting the Lubavitcher Rebbe specifically wrote about thsi as well. He brought an interesting scientific argument to support the geocentric position, namely that being science does not claim any location as the center of anything - rather astronomically everything is relative to each other, that scientifically a geocentric argument is just as valid as a heliocentric argument.

joshwaxman said...

yes, that is indeed an important position, though i have my suspicions that he only maintained that to win a bet. (records of the bet are well-known.)

i've heard this presented in three ways: that therefore geocentrism is the true description of the world, and there is no scientific evidence that copernicus was right; that therefore chazal / torah are justified in using the Ptolemaic model; and that one can therefore be a heliocentrist without being a kofer. these can be significant overlap between some of these three positions, but there does not need to be.

there are significant objections to this assertion, imho. i am no expert in the Rebbe's thought or in astronomy, and others can correct me, but perhaps i will present it in a later post. in shorthand: stellar parallax, the coriolus effect, the motion of pendulums, the fact that all *other* planets still would be rotating on their axis, so why not earth, and the need to resort to epicycles in the ptolmaic model to account for the apparent retrograde motion of the planets. of course you can describe motions from any vantage point using any coordinate system, but the heliocentric model explains it much more simply and accounts for all these phenomena.

kol tuv,
josh

משה רפאל said...

The Rebbe presented the Scientific facts incorrectly, claiming that in view of relativity theory the daily rotation of the Earth around its axis is a relative fact, and one can just as well say that the Earth is not rotating and the stars circle the Earth every day. The philosopher Mach first proposed the equivalence posed by the Rebbe. In physics, it is not true. Indeed, the Coriolis force is a case in point.

Anonymous said...

In a brief conversation with Rabbi Kanievski (about 4-5 years ago)regarding his sefer shekel hakodesh, and his ptolemaic diagram of the epi-cycle of the moon. I asked him that today people say that once can use the helocentic model and one would not need any epi-cycle.

He said that he knows that but he was going with the shitas harambam
[who follows the ptolemaic model]

I then asked him. so which is correct, the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa.?

he said that when moishiach comes, he will decide that.

this seems to be in accordance with what wikijew says.


dovid

Yehudah P. said...

About the Lubavitcher Rebbe's position: I think the second option that Rabbi Waxman presented, "that...chazal / torah are justified in using the Ptolemaic model" seems consonant with the Rebbe's approach elsewhere. For example, regarding the Rambam's statement in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, that the Sun's diameter is 170 times that of the Earth: This doesn't agree with the modern-day figure, but the Rebbe answered that by saying that the sun's diameter undergoes fluctuations.

In short, I think the Rebbe was very reluctant to ever label something in the Torah as blatantly "wrong".

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