The Torah Isnâ€™t Flat
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman
Why did the medieval Church insist for so long that the world was flat? They got the idea from Topographia Christiana, a treatise by a sixth-century monk named Cosmas, who pictured the world as a rectangular plane with Jerusalem at its center. But Aristotle himself, roughly a thousand years prior, already knew better. How hard is it to see that the evening sun does not abruptly disappear like a billiard ball falling off a table? Why did the Church choose Cosmas over Aristotle?
More to the point, why do we choose our own â€œCosmasesâ€ over our â€œAristotlesâ€? The quintessential Aristotle for us is Maimonides (Rambam), who combined Judaism with the latest scientific knowledge of his day to challenge standard Jewish views â€” even about God. The result was the â€œMaimonidean controversies,â€ a chapter in our history that pitted Rambamâ€™s supporters against Jewish minds as retrogressive as Cosmas.
Nachmanides (the Ramban) reminds us of this while discussing our sedraâ€™s warning against false prophets who lead us astray by signs or portents [Deut. 13:2-6]. Signs, says Ramban, are natural events to which a prophet points: a coming hurricane (for us), a sandstorm (for biblical people). Portents are miraculous phenomena beyond the realm of nature: the plagues in Egypt, or the splitting of the Red Sea. Beware of prophets who misuse both to delude their hearers.
This is more than a diatribe against false prophecy, however. We should be wary of prophets who are false, but welcome prophets who are true. Following Maimonides, Ramban explains real prophets on the grounds that their intellectual capacity has affinity with the intellect of God, allowing them to discover new truths.
Rambanâ€™s primary example is Kabbalah, which in his day was still not mainstream Jewish thought. With regularity, he introduces Kabbalistic insights with the phrase, al derech haâ€™emet, â€œTruthfully....â€ He also studied whatever scientific treatises he could find to keep abreast in the realm of medicine.
Rambam and Ramban were the Jewish versions of Aristotle: all three would have insisted that only a Cosmas holds fast to stale opinions without updating them with new discoveries.
Relevant here is the report a few weeks back that Rabbi Louis Jacobs had died, without ever achieving the British chief rabbinate (that he so rightly deserved) because he followed the Ramban/Rambam revolutionary path to truth. Rabbi Jacobs remained open to the idea that however God spoke to us â€” and he never doubted that God had â€” human beings alone had recorded what they thought revelation was, so that Torah is composed of successive literary strata. We call this the â€œdocumentary hypothesis,â€ akin to the â€œevolution hypothesisâ€ in the study of natural phenomena. There were many theories of evolution before Darwin and there are many possible ways to understand Torahâ€™s evidence of human authorship, but to deny human involvement in the way Torah comes down to us is like siding with creationists (in our day) or Cosmas (in his).
The anti-Cosmas approach to Torah is fundamental to Judaism, although I must confess its best expression comes not from a rabbi but from Galileo: As he studied the universe, he insisted he was becoming an expert in Godâ€™s second book, the Bible being the first one. He did not yet have the language of â€œevolution,â€ but he knew that the Bible and nature were both authored by God.
We can add to that insight: Torah and science are parallel revelations from the same Divine author. That means a scientific approach to Torah is no different than a geological investigation of Rocky Mountain topography, or of Mars, for that matter. The Rockies, Mars and Torah are products of evolutionary change â€“ God just always works that way.
That is why we find ever new meanings in Torah. It is what the Rabbis meant when they coined the concept of the Oral Law. Only their opponents insisted on reading Torah literally, and they are long gone, while we are still thriving.
The Midrash says God created a variety of things we would need some day, but hid them away until the right time â€“ like the ram that Abraham saw in the thicket as his stand-in for the near-sacrificed Isaac. One such thing is a scientific approach to nature, Godâ€™s key to that second divine book: the natural universe. Another example is a scientific view of Torah, vaguely grasped by our Rabbis of antiquity when they insisted on the Oral interpretation; intuited later by Rambam who thought we have direct access to Divine intelligence; furthered still by Ramban who knew the novelty called Kabbalah; and bravely championed by Rabbi Louis Jacobs, who knew that the modern science of divinely revealed texts was waiting in the divine wings for us to master.
professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College in New York, is an expert in the field of Jewish ritual and spirituality. He is the editor of â€œMy Peopleâ€™s Prayerbook: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,â€ and â€œThe Way Into Jewish Prayerâ€ (Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vt.).