The Creation story forces us to come to some understanding of the relationship between Judaism and scientific discovery. Contrary to popular opinion, Judaism does not balk at modernity, especially if it furthers God’s honor. The challenge is not to censor modernity, but to sanctify it.
Commenting on the opening verse of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the Seforno demonstrates how to place Torah insights into the context of scientific developments. He points out that the word “shamayim” (usually translated as “heavens”) is the plural of sham, meaning “there” or “two theres,” and writes: “therefore the word ‘ha-shamayim’ indicates a distant object in relation to us, the distance being equal from each side, which cannot be unless it is situated in a wheel that is revolving in a completely circular fashion. Thus every point on the planet is equidistant from the heavens (ha-shamayim) and for this phenomenon to be true, the world must be moving in a spherical pattern. Two ‘far-aways’ that are the same distance can only exist if the planet is a revolving sphere.”
Interestingly, Seforno lived approximately at the same time as Copernicus (1473-1543), the famed astronomer who spent considerable time in Italy pursuing his studies before returning to his native Poland. Before Copernicus, the center of the universe was the earth; his new scientific theory, suggesting that the earth revolves around the sun, clearly demotes the earth from its formerly exalted position as the center of concern.
It stands to reason that a rabbi of Seforno’s stature, who was also a doctor by profession and a respected intellectual of his day, had heard of Copernicus’ theories and had apparently accepted his vision of an earth revolving around the sun. But especially noteworthy for us is how Seforno interprets the ramifications of a scientific theory rejected as blasphemous by most Christian theologians of the period. Not only does Seforno accept the Copernican position, which we now know to be scientifically accurate; he deduces a crucial moral lesson from an earth constantly revolving on its own axis, as it revolves around the sun. The lesson is that the human being is placed squarely at the center of the earth, equidistant from the two “theres” or “far-aways” of the heavens, which can only happen if the earth is constantly revolving.
The medieval Sages speak of four levels of Creation: earth and rock; vegetation; animals and beasts; and humans who speak. Each level receives its sustenance from the previous level: vegetation depends on earth and water, animals receive sustenance from vegetation, and humans gather food and garments from the animals. If the human being communicates both horizontally and vertically with the world and with God, he has the capacity to uplift and ennoble the world. If he short-circuits his relationship to the Divine, if he poisons rather than perfects his physical environment, the entire earth will fall and fail with him.
A central biblical dictum proclaims that “human beings must walk in God’s ways.” Yet, how do we determine God’s ways? When Moses requested of God: “show me now Your ways, that I may know You” [Exodus 33:13], God’s answer is that Moses cannot hope to see Him completely, but can receive a partial glimpse into the Divine — His back, as it were: “And God passed by before him, and proclaimed… ‘God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth’” [Ex. 34:6].
Maimonides insists that God is not merely informing us of a description of His conceivable essence, but He is presenting us with a Divine injunction as to how we humans ought to live: “Just as He is gracious, so ought you to be gracious; just as He is compassionate, so ought you to be compassionate; just as He is called holy, so ought you to be called holy” [Laws of Knowledge 1:6].
After each act of Creation, there is a value judgment: “And God saw that it was good” [Genesis 1:31]. There is but one exception: the Creation of people, after which the Bible does not say, “And God saw that it was good.” Seforno explains the reason: Whether or not this is good depends on the human’s free choice.
This is the sense in which the human being stands smack at the center of the earth. Will we sanctify and redeem it, or plunder and destroy it? Will we realize our potential to act in God’s image, placing God’s attributes as the measure of all things and thereby perfect the world, or will we idealize his own frailty and ultimately drown in our weakness, bringing the entire world down with us? The jury has not yet come in with the final verdict.
Until that time, the human being remains at center stage, holding the world in his hands and in the grip of his free will.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone.
Shabbat Candles: 5:42 p.m.
Torah: Genesis 1:1-6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5-43:10
Havdalah: 6:42 p.m.