Orthodox Jews believe the Sun goes around the Earth?


When one thinks of religious people objecting to scientific views of the world, fundamentalist Christians and Muslims immediately come to mind. Jews are less often pictured because they seem to be less committed to fixed ideas about how the world works. But there is a sector of Jews who are as bad as other religions when it comes to rejecting accepted scientific views.

I first became aware of this some years ago when I was asked to evaluate the scientific curricula and teaching of Jewish day schools in the Cleveland area and found that the Orthodox schools tried to shield their students from the teaching of evolution and human sexuality. When these topics became relevant to the curriculum, science teachers would hand over the class to a rabbi who would give students the theologically correct view.

This was brought home to me again recently in the story about a woman who wrote in to correct a mistake in a joke because its premise was based on something that violated her religious beliefs. The joke was “Living on Earth is expensive, but it does include a free trip around the sun.” But someone who called herself ‘A Yiddish Girl’ wrote to gently chide the author of the joke, saying “I’m sure you didn’t realize, but as Jews we believe that the sun travels around the Earth, not like non-Jews who think that the world goes around the sun!”

This has caused some amusement but actually there is no preferred reference frame for describing motion so you can choose any frame of reference you like. Some frames are more suitable for some work than others. For example, for most things there is no problem with assuming the Earth is at rest. There is even no problem with assuming that the Earth is not rotating and geophysicists sometimes do so and add centripetal and Coriolis forces to explain patterns of air movement.

But when describing planetary motion, the heliocentric system in which the Sun is at rest and the Earth orbits it is the most convenient, though strictly speaking even here we should remember that the Earth and Sun both orbit their center of mass. But since the Sun is so much more massive than the Earth, the center of mass and the Sun’s center are very close together.

When it comes to studying our local Milky Way galaxy, we think of our Solar system as orbiting the center of the galaxy and when dealing with the dynamics of the universe as a whole, we treat our solar system, and indeed our entire galaxy, as a system in motion just like all the other galaxies. In that situation we can treat the cosmic microwave background as being at rest and galaxies as moving with respect to them.

So the choice of what to treat as being at rest is a matter of convenience. But to assert that any single planet or star or galaxy is at rest in some absolute sense, as Yiddish Girl seems to think, is to make an error.

Comments

  1. Marshall says

    Hi Mano, it’s been a while for me, but how does one account for forces of acceleration if one views oneself at rest? In other words–if I’m standing on the edge of a spinning plate and declare myself as the reference point, I’m going to feel a lot of forces. How does physics explain the centripetal forces that I feel?

  2. Mano Singham says

    Marshall,

    What one needs to do is to introduce so-called ‘fictitious’ forces into the dynamical equations from the get go. So instead of law of motion being F=ma where F consists of just the forces that we associate with the presence of other tangible bodies (strings, springs, gravity, electrical, magnetic, and other forces), we also add expressions for centripetal and Coriolis forces.

    Any effect due to being in non-inertial frame can be reproduced by including a corresponding fictitious force.

  3. Marshall says

    Thanks! I didn’t see how this couldn’t be the case. How does one realize when a force necessary to describe the universe if “fictitious?” Aren’t you begging the question by calling it fictitious in the first place? I’d imagine that one could continue searching for a non-inertial reference frame and eventually say, “this must be it, because it requires the fewest number of fictitious forces to describe everything.”

    I was just a bit confused, because in your post you said, “there is no preferred reference frame for describing motion.” Wouldn’t it be preferred to use a reference frame in which the number of fictitious forces (i.e. those which are actually due to acceleration of the observer) is zero?

  4. Mano Singham says

    Marshall,

    The words ‘fictitious’ is a loaded term that makes them seem unnecessary from the get-go. If we just said that Coriolis and centripetal forces are ‘natural’ forces and should always be included in the laws of motion, that problem goes away.

    The issue you are raising, about how can we tell if we are moving, is a very deep one that I have treated somewhat shallowly. Ernst Mach struggled with this a lot and led to the formulation of what we call Mach’s Principle that I would urge you to read if you want to get deeper into this.

  5. anat says

    Mano, there are plenty of Orthodox Jews who have no problem with science, some of them in fact are scientists (and manage conflicts between science and sacred texts the usual ways – ‘don’t take it literally’). I don’t know what the demographic split is between science-averse and science-embracing Orthodox Jews, though I suppose identifying as a Yiddish-speaker these days would increase probability of being among the former.

    That said, I did know one person who had a PhD in chemistry and was a creationist (probably young earth). He was OK with discussing similarity between proteins of organisms from different species, as long as nobody claimed out loud that the reason for the similarity was common descent.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    I wonder how ‘Yiddish Girl’ reconciles the fact that we have found over a thousand planets so far that definitely do orbit their own stars? Does she think that the entire universe is just a pretty light show built for our amusement? And yet, I bet she thinks it is the atheists who are the arrogant ones.

  7. doublereed says

    I think it’s kind of funny and sad that she seems to think that all Jews reject heliocentrism, as opposed to just the crazy fundies.

  8. Mano Singham says

    anat,

    I totally agree. One of my colleagues is a first-rate scientist and an Orthodox Jew. He debated intelligent design advocate Michael Behe at an event at our university and did an excellent job. I have not asked him exactly how he reconciles his religion and science, though.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    I have not asked him exactly how he reconciles his religion and science, though.

    Possibly in a way similar to Abdus Salam;

    The Holy Quran enjoins us to reflect on the verities of Allah’s created laws of nature; however, that our generation has been privileged to glimpse a part of His design is a bounty and a grace for which I render thanks with a humble heart.

  10. says

    I think there are multiple reasons why we don’t hear these Creationist and Geocentric Jews so much:

    1. Jews don’t proselytize. It’s not a “saved” religion.
    2. Jews place an importance on education that you won’t find in other religions.
    3. Judaism is probably the only Abrahamic religion in existence that lends itself to the idea of “Jewish Atheism” or “Atheist Judaism”.
    4. Most Jews are not very accommodating of fanaticism, at least in the United States (for example: despite what the news would have you believe, it’s pretty amazing how many pro-Palestine Jews I’ve encountered in the various synagogues I’ve attended over the years).

    Creationism and Geocentrism and bullshit like this just isn’t as tolerated in Judaism as it is elsewhere. That’s not to say it’s not there… oh it is. And they can get quite annoying at times. I know that from personal experience. But Jews are rather quick to speak out against their own, and that often means moderate Jews shutting down fanatic Jews before anyone else can.

    At least, that’s been my experience…

  11. doublereed says

    @10 NateHevens

    The idea of Jewish Atheism, as far as I can see, comes from the Jewish experience after the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, a large percentage of Jews lost faith, and did not see the point in the religious aspect of things. However, it also reinforced the feeling of Jewish Solidarity, so what ended up happening is that Jews became far more welcoming of non-belief than other groups.

  12. anat says

    I think the way for Jewish Atheism was paved by Jewish enlightenment (Haskala) as well as the rise of the various non-Orthodox denominations int he 19th century. Prior to that, if a Jew lost faith they had little chance of living openly secularly while being part of a Jewish community.

  13. nrdo says

    As a Jewish atheist, some of the Orthodox Jews I’ve encountered “accept” non-belief in a curious way, by assuring (deluding) themselves that information that contradicts a belief is just a “fad” and that they will be proven correct in the long run, so they can ignore it in the meantime. Without a strong, literal belief in heaven and hell, there is less urgent desire to impose a particular belief than in Christianity. Unfortunately though, I think this approach also makes the ignore problems like corruption and abuse until they become major crises in their communities.

  14. anat says

    nrdo, Jews are in any case more concerned about praxis than beliefs. That’s why when Jews speak of secular Jews they mean ethnic Jews who don’t observe Shabbat and kashrut rather than ethnic Jews who don’t believe Yahweh handed down written and oral Torah laws to Moses on Sinai.

    The ‘out’ I have most commonly seen for secular Jews is that we are too ignorant to be held responsible for our lack of observance. We aren’t real apikorsim (heretics) because we supposedly don’t know enough Judaism to make an informed choice to reject it. The courtier’s response, IOW.

  15. says

    They have photographic evidence to prove that the Earth is the center of the Universe — but they edited the Earth Goddess out of the photo, which is why no one believes them.

  16. says

    This has caused some amusement but actually there is no preferred reference frame for describing motion so you can choose any frame of reference you like.

    No, you choose the reference frame that WORKS and is RELEVANT. The motion of the Earth is a question of astronomy and physics, both of which prove that a geocentric view simply doesn’t work and is not at all valid. Geocentrism only works, in fact, in areas where it’s not even relevant.

  17. says

    doublereed, anat, and nrdo…

    You both are not wrong, but even that idea is falling out of favor in Jewish communities. Even ultra-Orthodox Rabbis are coming to terms with the idea of atheists still identifying as Jews and practicing Jewish rituals. I spoke to one ultra-Orthodox Rabbi once who told me that, for him, if Jews must lose their faith, as long as the traditions were still being passed on, that was good enough.

    One thing that is gaining greater and greater import in Judaism is that it is works, and not faith, that gets you in good with God.

    When Christians talk about the importance of faith, this is my rebuttal:
    ——————————–
    You have two people. One is a doctor and a philanthropist. She is a wife and a mother. Her life may not be perfect, but she strives to be the absolute best person she can be. While circumstances allow her, she will not charge a patient if the patient truly cannot afford it, and this extends to the homeless. She strives to see a better, healthier world.

    The other person is a killer, a rapist, and a fanatic. He spends his day committing the most heinous of crimes, and does not care about age.

    The first person goes to her death bed a proud and vocal atheist. The second goes through his life, and then goes to the electric chair, professing his belief in Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.

    Who goes to Heaven?
    ——————————–
    It was an Orthodox Rabbi who gave me that rebuttal.

    It was from Judaism that I learned that works is more important.

    For Jews, at least as I grew up in the religion, God may want us to believe in him, but that is not his condition for salvation. His condition is that we all, regardless of our beliefs or lack thereof, strive to be the best, most moral humans we can be. And if we do die as atheists, as long as our lives were good, God will not care that we didn’t believe.

    Now, of course, this gets in to what does it mean to be moral. For me, I do not believe it is moral to separate men and women, to cover women up, and to silence them. I do not believe Kashrut is a moral issue either way, and neither is keeping the Sabbath or studying the Torah. And I do not believe the Torah is a moral work.

    And you could argue that this does not follow what is written in the Torah, and you’d be absolutely right.

    Happily, the religious segregation of women is becoming less and less tolerated amongst Jews (at least in the US), Kashrut, keeping the Sabbath, and studying the Torah is becoming less important, and more Jews, at least in my admittedly limited experience, are open to critical examinations of the Torah.

    In short, these and other more “traditional” ideas are being seen as the realm of fanatics and extremists by more and more Jews, who believe the integrity of Judaism lies not in the traditions, but in the shared history.

    So… you know… ideas like the one you encountered, nrdo, are becoming less and less tolerated. It’s a very slow process, but it is happening.

  18. anat says

    NateHevens, I grew up in Israel and am living in the Pacific Northwest. I don’t run into the flavor of Haredim you described. In Israel Haredi Judaism of various flavors is a significant political power, and here I can easily ignore the existence of Jews altogether (though I know they are around).

    Israeli Haredim are becoming more extremist. Their term for secular Jews is ‘Hebrew-speaking goyim’. Yes, like other branches of Judaism, they emphasize actions over beliefs, but the actions they care about are observing Shabbat rather than being a good person.

    The Lubavitchers in particular work on getting secular Jews to observe the occasional commandments, because they expect them to get all sentimental about it: ‘I put on tefilin for the first time since my bar-mitzva and it was such an emotional moment I want to do that regularly now’ or something along those lines. They also believe that such actions are hastening the arrival of messiah. (They hold a specific belief that if any Shabbat is properly observed by all Jews messiah will arrive promptly; So here I am, typing away on Shabbat – the world is messiah-safe for at least one more week 😉 )

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