Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, DHL, LCSW-R
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph quotes a verse in Yeshaiyahu 24:23 describing the cosmic changes of the Messianic era:
וְחָֽפְרָה֙ הַלְּבָנָ֔ה וּבוֹשָׁ֖ה הַחַמָּ֑ה כִּֽי־מָלַ֞ךְ ה׳ צבקות בְּהַ֤ר צִיּוֹן֙ וּבִיר֣וּשָׁלַ֔͏ִם וְנֶ֥גֶד זְקֵנָ֖יו כָּבֽוֹד
Then the moon shall be ashamed, And the sun shall be abashed. For the LORD of Hosts will reign On Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, And the Presence will be revealed to His elders.
The simple reading is that the previously worshiped Sun and Moon will now be embarrassed in comparison to the world’s embrace of the one true God. This verse also is an allusion to the astral phenomenon of solar and lunar eclipses. The Maharal (Be’er Hagolah 6) discusses theological and scientific perspectives on these phenomena:
The Gemara (Succah 29a) tells us:
תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: בִּשְׁבִיל אַרְבָּעָה דְּבָרִים חַמָּה לוֹקָה: עַל אָב בֵּית דִּין שֶׁמֵּת וְאֵינוֹ נִסְפָּד כַּהֲלָכָה, וְעַל נַעֲרָה הַמְאוֹרָסָה שֶׁצָּעֲקָה בָּעִיר וְאֵין מוֹשִׁיעַ לָהּ, וְעַל מִשְׁכַּב זְכוּר, וְעַל שְׁנֵי אַחִין שֶׁנִּשְׁפַּךְ דָּמָן כְּאֶחָד.
The Sages taught that on account of four matters the sun is eclipsed: On account of a chief of the court who dies and is not eulogized appropriately, and the eclipse is a type of eulogy by Heaven; on account of a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and there was no one to rescue her; on account of male homosexuality; and on account of two brothers whose blood was spilled as one.
וּבִשְׁבִיל אַרְבָּעָה דְּבָרִים מְאוֹרוֹת לוֹקִין: עַל כּוֹתְבֵי פְלַסְתֵּר, וְעַל מְעִידֵי עֵדוּת שֶׁקֶר, וְעַל מְגַדְּלֵי בְּהֵמָה דַּקָּה בְּאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְעַל קוֹצְצֵי אִילָנוֹת טוֹבוֹת.
And on account of four matters the heavenly lights are eclipsed: On account of forgers of a fraudulent document [pelaster] that is intended to discredit others; on account of testifiers of false testimony; on account of raisers of small domesticated animals in Eretz Yisrael in a settled area; and on account of choppers of good, fruit-producing trees.
Maharal raises the obvious question: These phenomena are natural and based on the orbital dynamics. Since they are based on orbital calculations, aren’t they completely predictable and then cannot be a punishment or reaction to planetary immorality? The Maharal develops a beautifully intricate discussion about the ideal world versus a world with sin. It is not that the sins caused the eclipses, but rather the existence of eclipses are a result of sin. Meaning, eclipses are a result of a world that operates on a naturalistic level, less connected to direct providence. The waxing and waning of celestial bodies is God's billboard in the sky, reminding man that the physical world is subject to entropy. When Man sins, he becomes disconnected from God and more under the sway of natural phenomena such as the cycle of decay and death, (but also renewal, as the Sun and Moon eventually reappear.) Maharal explains how each of the sins enumerated in the gemara represent a particularly egregious and symbolic usurpation of the divine flow and disruption of the natural order, which you can look up and study.
William Shakespeare intuited this as well (Sonnet 35), perhaps from reading these same Biblical verses.
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud,
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authórizing thy trespass with compare,
The beauty of the Maharal’s explanation is that he illustrates how Chazal use aggadah to speak on multiple levels. To the uneducated simpleton who knows little about astronomy or theology, it is sufficient and true enough to consider the eclipse to be a sign of sin and God’s wrath. Chazal were fine with that take away, as it is true in a sense. The more sophisticated reader can understand that in contemplation of natural phenomena, God left His fingerprints and message to understand the imperfect state of Man and God in this world as a result of physicality and sin.
It makes me sad to reflect upon various rebbeim from my childhood, who would have reacted to such a common sense question with defensiveness, fear and hostility. The response more or less would take the tone that it is heretical to question Chazal. A reasonably intelligent child’s curiosity would be squashed and brow beaten. Sadly, not because the child is a heretic, but the rebbe fears his own doubts and must therefore clamp down and suppress any frightening thoughts of possible contradictions between Torah and science. We might allow for this, shrug, and consider this to be old school mentality. Those rebbes of yore were merely behaving as they were taught by tradition, to be conservative, meek and respectful of the authoritative statements of our great sages. The problem is that this is not even representative of deep, authentic Torah values at any time in history.
It is worth noting that contradictions between science and faith are as old as the Middle Ages, at least. One of the myths about Jewish philosophy is that only the Rishonim from the rationalist schools of thought, such as the Rambam and the like, dealt with these questions and the mysticism-oriented Rishonim such as the Ramban relied on faith. This is simply untrue, as we shall demonstrate. While indeed, Rishonim such as the Ramban rejected Greek philosophy and science as an informant of Jewish values in contradiction to the Rambam, they never, ever denied science and realities that they verified as true with their own two eyes, or basic common sense. I am unaware of any Rishon (unlike some acharonim) who ever resorted to faith alone as a response to a perceived contradiction between religion and science. When a Rishon is faced with a scientific fact that was demonstrated to be true and undeniable, unlike how fundamentalist religious people respond today, they never resorted to denying reality. Instead, they would re-evaluate the religious belief and reinterpret it in light of the emerging facts.
Let us examine a compelling example from the Ramban, an authoritative Rishon and mekubal who, unlike the Rambam, expressed little regard for, or belief in the primacy and value of Greek philosophy, nor did he consider it as an asset to spiritual development and truths. Yet, when he encounters the clearly demonstrable scientific fact, that a rainbow comes from the light spectrum and can be created at will via refracting light through a glass of water, he does not deny it. Even though he observes that the simple reading of the Biblical text indicates that God created the rainbow only after the Flood, the Ramban accepts the scientific fact as an actual fact (imagine that!), and reinterprets the verses accordingly. He does not stick his head in the sand and deny what he has been able to demonstrate as true. Here is what he states in his commentary (Bereishis 9:12): “We are forced to accept the Greek science that demonstrates that it is the rays of the sun as refracted via the moisture of the air that makes a rainbow. ” How the Ramban reinterprets the verse is less relevant for this discussion. The point is, he conceded the reality of a demonstrated scientific fact and was not defensive. The Ramban was well-versed in the science of his day, and knew that the light spectrum could not have been just created after the flood; it was way too intricately tied into other laws of nature to allow for any adjustments after the original activities of creation.
Defensiveness is one of the most destructive traits in relationships. According to the research of John Gottman, Ph.D. if one spouse is observed as behaving defensively toward the other spouse’s concerns there is strong correlation with marital disharmony and ultimately, divorce. Defensiveness can be defined as a pattern of deflecting criticism or complaints of the spouse instead of considering, validating and reflecting upon the complaint of the other. The reason why this trait is problematic is that it obstructs the ability for meaningful connection, rational problem solving and finding common ground.
Defensiveness is not only destructive in marital relationships, but also in chinuch, and this is often overlooked. From a pedagogical perspective, it is a poor way to educate children and help them internalize a sense of values and identity. In particular, with our newest generation of young adults, who have unprecedented access to information that has not been available in prior generations, parents who are defensive and fearful about discussing any kind of topic with their children are dangerously naive. By the time our children are young adults, we can assume that there is no social, religious, environmental, psychological or political issue that our children are curious about that they would have been unable to get information on, be it properly or improperly, balanced or biased.
I am not sure what happened, but near as I can guess, somewhere post enlightenment, as Jews gained access to secular studies and universities, the rabbinic community became alarmed at the rapid exposure, assimilation, and feared inability to adapt to the torrent of information and social changes. You cannot blame these rabbonim for the actions at the time. In the past, change was slow, and most threats to the spiritual or physical integrity of the Jewish people would fade away over time. Just double down, denounce the threat from the pulpit, encourage repentance, and it will all go away. As the Gemara (Kesuvos 3b) asserts:
שְׁמָדָא עֲבִידָא דְּבָטְלָא, וְתַקַּנְתָּא דְרַבָּנַן מִקַּמֵּי שְׁמָדָא לָא עָקְרִינַן.
A decree of religious persecution [shemada] is likely to be abrogated, and we do not abolish a rabbinic ordinance in the face of a decree of religious persecution.
These great leaders did not realize that rapid change and social disruption of traditional communities from burgeoning technological and sociological dynamics were to become a permanent feature of life, and are ongoing to this day. Advances in technology are happening at a faster rate than ever before that will make the traditional community NOSTALGIC for the scare and threats of the internet toward religious life. Virtual reality, synthetic meat, AI and the scary possibility that a human mind could be uploaded or backed up onto a chip, as well as advances in longevity medicine will threaten many of the traditional psychological institutions that were stable for centuries. I am confident that the Torah will always be relevant, even more so to help Man find meaning in a future where all indulgences may be possible without noticeable physical consequences other than the erosion of humanity’s soul. (For those who are learned in Chazal, there are many surprising traditions that, taken in a new light, teach us about current issues. Just as one example, the Shalah (Torah Shebeksav, Vayigash) inadvertently presages virtual reality and robots used for illicit purposes, in that he explains that Yosef accused the Shevatim of having made a female golem to “stroll with”.)
However, to engage with these new challenges properly, we must not suppress the next generation's questions and need to grapple with new states of consciousness and awareness. It is not our job alone to have all the answers to the questions — it is enough to acknowledge that there are valid questions, express confidence in the Torah, and encourage open minded thought and study to discover the greatness in the Torah and its message for the next generation.
Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation
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