Copernicus holds a lily of the valley, an early Renaissance symbol of a medical doctor, in this woodblock portrait by Tobias Stimmer.
The great atheist and critic Christopher Hitchens suggested that all attempts to reconcile faith with science were “consigned to failure and ridicule.” With the increasing visibility of fundamentalism in some religions, the casual observer might conclude that Hitchens was correct. But my own study of the way in which Judaism responded to one of the most religiously challenging scientific theories of all time reaches a quite different conclusion. That theory was proposed by a Polish church official and astronomer named Nicholas Copernicus in 1543 and it suggested that the Earth was not the center of the universe, but rather only one of several planets that orbited the sun.
The Copernican model was a threat to both Jewish and church teachings of the time, because they held that the Earth was the fixed and unmoving center of the universe. This theological position was based partly on a literal understanding of some biblical verses, but mostly on the fact that Greeks had taught the geocentric model and it had been accepted for well over fifteen centuries.
The church’s reaction has been documented in dozens of books, but the Jewish response has been less examined. The very first Jewish reaction was cautiously warm. David Gans, a rabbi and astronomer who died in Prague in 1613, wrote that Copernicus was “unanimously admired for his sharp understanding.” But Gans respectfully disagreed with the Copernican model on the basis of scientific doubts about what was, at that time, an unproven mathematical model.
The first Jewish Copernican was a physician, astronomer and rabbi named Joseph Delmedigo. He had studied at the University of Padua with lecturer by the name of Galileo, and it was Galileo who had shared his telescope with the young Delmedigo. Delmedigo’s work, published in the open city of Amsterdam in 1629, was unequivocal in accepting the radical model of Copernicus, and it did so at a time when not a single fully fledged Copernican held a chair at a Dutch University.
Despite some early support, there was also Jewish condemnation of the Copernican model. Another physician-rabbi who studied at Padua was named Tobias Cohen, and his illustrated encyclopedia published in 1707 in Venice contained a sound rejection of the heliocentric model. Cohen didn’t mince his words: Copernicus was the “Firstborn Son of Satan.” A Jew was forbidden to accept his theory, since it was at odds with the plain meaning of biblical verses, like the one in which Joshua commanded the Sun to stand still. If the Bible was the immaculate word of God, it could contain no untruths, and if it records that Joshua ordered the Sun to stop, then that must be what actually occurred. To believe otherwise was heresy, which while not punishable by death, could result in expulsion from the Jewish community, as the Jewish philosopher Spinoza, found out.
Some Jews in the 18th century found a way to accept both that the Bible was the true word of God and the Copernican model. They did this by suggesting that the Bible “spoke in everyday language” so that its text need not be taken literally. While this does not appear to be a big step to the outside observer, within the traditional world of Jewish scholarship it was a radical move that changed the field of traditional scholarship.
It was not until 1835 that the Catholic Church lifted the ban on Copernicus’s book and in that century at least eighteen pro-Copernican Hebrew books were published, but opposition from a minority still remained. In 1898 for example, one rabbi in Jerusalem wrote that the earth was most certainly stationary, and that those who thought otherwise were motivated by “a desire to destroy religion.” A tiny minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews share this belief even today, but such views are fringe indeed, and are not shared by their rabbinic leadership.
Judaism, like Christianity and Islam, is not static, however deep its foundations lie. In 2010 the primate of Poland led a service for Copernicus at a cathedral in northern Poland. The same church that had once banned the works of Copernicus reburied him with honor, and marked on his new tombstone an etching of the solar system with the sun at its center. Hitchens was a sharp and vocal critic of religion, but on this point he was simply wrong. Judaism and modern science are quite capable of co-existing. It just sometimes takes a little time.
Jeremy Brown is a Clinical Professor of Emergency Medicine at the George Washington University and works in Bethesda, Maryland. He is the author of New Heavens and a New Earth; The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought published recently by Oxford University Press. He will be speaking on the Jewish encounter with science at the Rosenwald Room in the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress on Tuesday September 17th from noon-1pm.