On this blog, R. Slifkin is well-known for making grandiose claims with a conviction that the evidence rarely warrants.
(*) Examples include his belief that evolution’s blind watchmaker thesis is compatible with Judaism (see here), his belief that there are detailed naturalistic pathways from dead chemicals to the machinery of the cell, and his claim that his approach to Genesis is based on the Rambam.
Recently, R. Slifkin published a monograph on the path of the sun at night that has already elicited some comment (here, here, and here). It is, he writes, “probably one of the most important things that I have ever written. It is a comprehensive study of a very short section of Gemara, just five lines in Pesachim 94b, a passage which is so obscure that most people just skim through it with little comprehension”.
Leaping from the particular to the general, R. Slifkin is then led to the conclusion that Chazal must also be in error whenever and wherever they are contradicted by current scientific dogma (“brain death” being the latest instance of this phenomenon).
Imputing large scale error to Chazal provides R. Slifkin with the cover he needs to reject Chazal’s meta-natural understanding of the Creation Week – allowing him to substitute naturalistic interpretations (such as Darwin’s theory of evolution). So we understand why he is so enthusiastic about his monograph, as he writes:
“If you ever find yourself confronting someone who insists that there was never a traditional view that Chazal’s statements about the natural world were human and fallible, then this brief section of the Gemara, with all the sources in this monograph, is all that you need to demonstrate their error.” (R. Slifkin)
A few lines in Pesachim 94b can, apparently, go so very very far! Now what is R. Slifkin’s claim?
Based on his reading of Pesachim 94b we have the Slifkin-Solid-Dome thesis which claims that the Talmudic consensus on the rakiya (“firmament” or “expanse”) is that it is literally a solid dome. Furthermore, the Slifkin thesis also claims that all the Rishonim testify that this is the Talmudic consensus, i.e. the consensus of Chazal.
Now I have asked R. Slifkin if he has explicit prooftexts from the Rishonim. Despite having made this request repeatedly, R. Slifkin has not answered this seemingly simple question. R. Slifkin has replied with a variety of statements including: "stop with your silly diversions which make you sound like an obfuscating fundamentalist idiot.” (see comments here).
It is possible that R. Slifkin was upset at my mentioning that his only post-Talmudic prooftexts appear to be from the 6th century monk Cosmas. But, I prefer to take his words as meaning that he does not have the requested prooftexts.
But, for the sake of clarity, I ask once again if he can kindly answer my simple request for explicit prooftexts from the Rishonim for his solid dome thesis. We can then move on (one way or another) and carefully examine the rest of his evidence. Of course, one can often make a good case without explicit prooftexts by analyzing and drawing appropriate inferences.
Now I do have some sources of interest that I did not see in R. Slifkin’s monograph. Today, I would like to take a few of them (ones close to R. Slifkin’s rationalist mind, or is it his heart?) and see if we can use them to help make an indirect case for his thesis.
On his “rationalist” blog, R. Slifkin writes that “This website is an exploration into the rationalist approach to Judaism that was most famously presented by Maimonides.” So I am hoping that we will be able to infer from the Rambam some indirect support for the Slifkin solid dome thesis.
In the MR 4:2-3 we have (very informal translation):
(a) R. Shmuel b. Nachman: When Hashem said let there be a rakiya in the midst of the waters, the middle drop solidified (גלדה) and became the lower and higher heavens.
(b) Rav said [Hashem’s] handiwork [the heavens] was in fluid form and on the second day it congealed (קרשו) …
(c) … R. Tanchum said [about the rakiya] … the upper waters are are suspended by the word [of Hashem].
We can certainly see why these words (taken literally) might indicate that the rakiya is a solid dome.
But the Rishonim also inform us that while Agada can be taken literally, it is not always so. Sometimes it is not meant literally, but solely for a deeper message. For example, what are the “higher” heavens and how did they solidify?
So let us start with the Rambam to MN II:30 as understood by the commentaries (Ralbag, Rabbenu Crescas, Shem Tov, Efodi).
Concerning the rakiya, the Rambam quotes the Midrash of Chazal (a), following which he writes that there was a certain proto-water (a kind of common matter) that was divided into three different forms (all presumably relating to water in one way or another).
One part turned into the form of seas, one part turned into the form of a rakiya that we see today, and one part turned into a form that is above the rakiya.
Now “above the rakiya” sounds like a very familiar phrase to those whose ears are attuned to Pesachim 94b.
The substance above the rakiya, says the Rambam, is “water” in name only. This has been made known to us by R. Akiva (Chagiga 14b) who told his colleagues entering on metaphysical speculation that when they come up above to the stones of pure marble they should not say “Water, Water”. It would seem according to the commentaries that this means that they should not get confused – and call the esoteric water on high “water” as if it is just like our physical water. That would be false – a category error. The Rambam also suggests that we should reflect about cloud/rain formation discussed in Meteorologica.
The big question I am left with is what happened to the middle division – the rakiya (i.e. the solid dome on R. Slifkin’s reading)? This would be a perfect opportunity for the Rambam (who is quoting Chazal) to say that they erred in thinking that the rakiya is a solid dome?
However, there is no such statement in the Rambam! On the contrary, the commentaries say that the opinion of the Rav Hamoreh (Rambam) is that the rakiya is the place of cloud/rain formation (המקום אשר יתהוה בו הענן, Ralbag, Gen. 1:6).
This seems to be quite close to the explanation of the Malbim who (basing himself on Chazal) also takes the rakiya to be the layer of the atmosphere involved in cloud/rain formation (although he rejects the idea of the Ptolemaic spheres in the sky).
It would seem, based on Chazal, that the proto-water transformed (“congealed/solidified”) into seas down below, amorphous esoteric water on high, and the regular rakiya that we see, i.e. the place or layer of cloud/rain formation in the sky.
This is really not a very promising scenario for R. Slifkin’s solid dome thesis, if I am understanding the Rambam correctly.
The Ralbag himself disagrees with the Rav Hamoreh. He quotes the MR 4:2-3 of Chazal in full and he says that the rakiya is the גרם השמימי, i.e. the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars, etc.) orbiting in the celestial sphere.
Like the Rambam, the “solidification” of the hyle into the “water” above the rakiya (see R. Tanchum) refers to esoteric water on high that has neither form or weight (at any rate, it is not solid).
Likewise, in one peshat, the Ramban (also quoting the MR) says that “let there be a firmament” involves the ethereal substance created on day one (the amorphous hyle) taking on the form or shape of the rakiya that we see today. The liquid state is the amorphous hyle which coagulated/solidifies into actual substance.
Here we have Rambam, Ralbag, Ramban quoting the famous MR 4:2-3 – apparently using the Midrashic terminology “congealed/solidified” to describe the rakiya, yet they conspicuously explain it not to mean "making it into a solid," but transforming prime matter/hyle into actual matter.
I am, of course, open to different ways of interpreting these texts. But, given my understanding, I do wonder if R. Slifkin can provide us with explicit prooftexts from the Rishonim for his literal solid dome thesis? This is because our Rishonim discussed in this post, do not seem to me to be in support of his thesis.
(For more reading on this topic, please see R. Dovid Kornreich (here) as well as as some of R. Zvi Lampel’s prior blog entries.)
Footnotes: (*) This phrase was originally “Examples include his belief in evolution’s blind watchmaker thesis (which he considers compatible with Torah)”. The change in this post has been made in accordance with discussion with R. Slifikin in the comments to this post.