Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Chazal Knew the Number of Stars!

Here's an oldie but goodie. (I have a lot of 'em, but am slow in cleaning them up for the FH blog.)

Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 32b:
Resh Lakish said: The community of Israel said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Sovereign of the Universe, when a man takes a second wife after his first, he still remembers the deeds of the first. Thou hast both forsaken me and forgotten me! The Holy One, blessed be He, answered her: My daughter, twelve constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty divisions, and for each division I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of myriads of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for thy sake, and thou sayest, Thou hast forgotten me and forsaken me! Can a woman forsake her sucking child?
I find this piece of aggadah especially fascinating because of what some claim is an amazing correspondence between it and astrophysical reality. I first came across this idea in the Proceedings of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists (unfortunately I no longer have the article) in which S. Aranoff explains that if one multiplies to the point of "30 camps" one arrives at 2.9 x 108 galaxies in the universe. Multiply to "myriads" and one gets 3.65 x 109 stars per galaxy. Multiplying these numbers gives a value of about 1 x 1018 for the number of stars in the observable universe.

Let's now compare the Talmud numbers with current (2010) scientific estimates:

Galaxies in the known universe:
Talmud: 2.9 x 108
Science: minimum 8 x 10
Difference: 2 orders of magnitudes
Stars per galaxy:
Talmud: 3.65 x 109
Science: 4.5 x 1011
Difference: 2 orders of magnitudes
Stars in the known universe:
Talmud: 1 x 1018
Science: 3-7 x 1022
Difference: 4 orders of magnitudes
This is astounding! Resh Lakish is from the 3rd century CE, and he is passing on a tradition that is within a few orders of magnitudes from what science has estimated for the number of stars in the known universe. The fact that there was even a conception of such large numbers is absolutely amazing! This passage is used by many kiruv workers to prove that Chazal must have had a God-given mesorah. It is easy to find references on the 'net suggesting this. (When in doubt, check Aish. They claim that Chazal even knew about galactic clusters, estimating it at 30 galaxies per cluster (the Milky Way cluster contains more than 40 galaxies.) They also speculate what other groupings might mean, and suggest that another "30 grouping" might be "megasuperclusters".)

Once again, it is time to be a party-pooper. So let us now deconstruct this amazing "coincidence".

1) There is in this proof an assumption that the Talmudic passage has embedded within it a statement about physical reality. But there is no reason to suspect that this was the intention of Chazal; it is likely that they are just using hyperbole to emphasize how beloved Israel is to God, which - of course - is a major theme in the written and oral law. (As an aside, note that the actual terms used refer to Roman army units.)

2) The ancient Hebrews basically believed in the astronomy (and astrology) as developed by the surrounding cultures in which they lived, such as Assyria and Babylonia and - later - Greece. So perhaps - assuming a very old mesorah - we should give the Assyrians the credit for their understanding of the vastness of the universe??

3) Even if we were to grant the raw numbers (I don't), it works both ways: many more sources show an incorrect knowledge of astronomy. For example, regardless of the feeble attempts of "scientific" OrthoFundies to reconcile the creation story of Genesis with modern science, the much more compelling argument is that those who passed down and eventually wrote down the story believed, like other ancient peoples, that the sky was a solid dome with the Moon, Sun, and stars all embedded in it. And need we mention the myriad of old rabbinic sources (and, embarrassingly, even modern ones such as statements by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe) that insist on a geocentric universe (usually accompanied by some claptrap about relativity proving that geocentricity is "as valid" as heliocentricity.) Other examples in astronomy (and other knowledge disciplines) abound.

4) The twelve constellations are an arbitrary convenience for astronomical observations. The stars in a constellation have no relationship to one another besides an apparent proximity. 30 hosts per constellation is an implied relationship in the proof (but not necessarily the Talmud itself) and is actually a meaningless mathematical relationship. And what is the basis for "multiplying up to camps" to get the number of galaxies? What do hosts, legions, cohorts, and divisions represent, anyway? Some deep, mystical secret that our puny minds are not privy to?

5) Why is God off by even 1 order of magnitude?

6) I've saved the best for last.

From ancient India comes the Lalitavistara Sutra, a Buddhist text that recounts the miraculous deeds of Gautama Buddha. French scholar Georges Ifrah describes in an interview with Robert Krulwich how the Buddha was in a counting contest with a mathematician named Arjuna. One contest consisted of counting the "atoms" (that is, the smallest unit of matter) in a yojana (about 10 km). See the article for the specific formula which - according to mathematician Alex Bellos - shows that the Buddha determined quite accurately the size of a carbon atom! One notable difference from the Talmudic story is that the intention of the Buddhist text is to represent a very large number. (By the way, Indian culture - unlike that of Judaism and the ancient Near East - had actual words for VERY large numbers. They didn't just give up at "10,000"!)

Of course, a true fundie would probably claim that the Indian religions (and its later Buddhist offshoots) were ultimately derived from Judaism anyway and will point to the story of the children of Abraham being sent away to the East (see Rashi to Genesis 25:6). So don't expect that arming yourself with facts will win any arguments with missionaries kiruv maniacs.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Shafran and the Jewish Observer Promote Avodah Zarah in the Frum Community!

Avi is again getting a lot of blogging press after his recent interview with Baruch Pelta. This particular quote - which refers to an article that Shafran wrote on Moses Mendelssohn for the Jewish Observer - caught my eye:
So they accepted the article, they published it, and I think what made it stick in the craw of a lot of people was the fact that many [frum] people have a visceral, automatic reaction to the name Mendelssohn - for whatever reason. Rabbi Wolpin told me afterward was that he thinks it was a mistake for them to put in a photograph of him [Mendelssohn]. It was in fact a prominent photograph, I think maybe it was facing Rav Hirsch or something like that - there was some sort of a juxtaposition. And a photograph of him altogether - they don't generally put in photographs of people that are not intended to be put up on a wall in a frum house and, you know, venerated.
WOW - it's bad enough that the Jewish Observer would publish a photo of Mendelssohn, but it's simply outrageous that they are willing accomplices in promoting idol worship!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

This is Rationalist Judaism?

R. Natan Slifkin rhetorically asks:
What do the events of the Purim story, the lottery via which the Land of Israel was divided, the survival of the Jewish People over millenia of persecution, the weather in Israel, and the creation of the State of Israel, all have in common?
and then answers:
The answer is that they are all events which secular scientists/historians would attribute to the random, unplanned, circumstantial luck of history, but which religious Jews perceive as being orchestrated by God.
Rabbi Slifkin (whom I have the utmost of respect for), touts the "overwhelming convergence of evidence" when it comes to the theory of evolution. But there is likewise an overwhelming convergence of evidence against the historicity of the Purim story. Secular scientists and historians do not attribute the Purim story to the "luck of history", as they do not believe that it even occurred.

Monday, October 11, 2010

We Lack a Community

Three Jews' Bruce decries a lack of participation of the younger crowd at his Conservative synagogue.

He states "The result is problematic for several obvious reasons. We lack a community; the families do not regularly see each other at synagogue." Then he goes on to state several causes of the problem.

Seems to me that this causal chain is a bit bass ackwards. There is no participation because there is a lack of community, not the other way around. And the one overriding reason for this? Because more than 50 years ago Conservative Judaism permitted driving on Shabbat. Once that was allowed, there was no compelling reason to live within walking distance of a shul. Orthodox Jews have to live near one another. Voila - Jewish neighborhood. And Jewish community.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Name That Text!

Read the following sacred text quote and ponder for a brief moment as to what the source is. Don't take the easy way out with a Google search. The answer will be seen shortly.

And Omri was king over Israel for twelve years. And he built an altar to YHVH in Jericho saying "because He has delivered me from all kings, and because He has made me look down on all my enemies." Mesha was the king of Moab, and he oppressed Israel for many days, for YHVH was angry with His land. And his son reigned in his place; and he also said, "I will oppress Israel!" But YHVH has looked down on him and on his house, and Moab has been defeated; it has been defeated forever! And Mesha took possession of the whole land of Jerash, and he lived there in his days and half the days of his son: forty years. But YHVH restored it in Omri's days and he built an altar to YHVH, and a water reservoir next to it. And he built Beit El. And the men of Moab lived in the land of Dibon from ancient times; and the king of Moab built Atarot for himself, and he fought against the city and captured it. And Omri killed all the people of the city as a sacrifice for YHVH and for Israel.

If you don't have a background in the early monarchy period of the Bible, you might not have noticed that this account is totally out of whack. Otherwise you will recognize a clumsy attempt at making something read as if it were a section in Kings or Chronicles. But it isn't. It is the first half of the Mesha Stele (see here), written with the "good guys" and the "bad guys" (and place names) reversed.

Look at things through Moabite eyes. Israel under King Omri and his successors were oppressors of Moab. But why was Israel able to subjugate the mighty nation of Moab? Because Chemosh (Moab's God), was angry at His people. Eventually Chemosh relented and restored Moab's land. The divinely commanded massacres against Israel were carried out dutifully. King Mesha would build altars to Chemosh after these successful military campaigns where people could bring their thanksgiving offerings.

We aren't reading our sacred Moabite stories today because it is the Jewish nation that survived, not the Moabites.

I guess that shows that God really is on our side.

Or perhaps it's just because history belongs to the victor.