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  • New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought by Jeremy Brown
  • David B. Levy
Jeremy Brown. New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp 416. Hardcover $78. ISBN 978-0-19-975479-3.

The book New Heavens and New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Though not only compares the biblical account of the motions of the heavens with the Copernican system but also gives the rabbinic reception of Copernican findings. Brown’s book makes a positive contribution to fields of intellectual history, Jewish studies, history of science, philosophy of science, social-cultural-economic history, and the relationship between Torah and science. It will be a benchmark study of the Jewish reception of the Copernican revolution across four centuries of Jewish writings. Brown documents the ways that rabbis ignored, rejected, or accepted Copernican findings, and the theological, cultural, political, and societal basis for their choice to accept, reject, or straddle the fence somewhere between full out embracing or rejecting the Copernican model. Brown highlights the impact of various rabbinic thinkers’ ideas on Copernican astronomy, including: David Gans, Abraham Yagel, Elijah Del Medigo, Isaac Cardoso, Tuvia Cohen, Nieto, Israel of Zamosc, Raphael Levy, Judah Hurwitz, Yonatan Eybeschutz, Jacob Emden, Hatam Sofer, David Frisenhausen, Isaac Reggio, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Hayyim Zelig Slonimski, Reuven Landau, Reb Zadok HaCohen, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Avraham Kook, and recent modern neo-geocentrics who use Einstein’s theory of relativity to argue that the earth does not actually revolve around the sun. Brown also provides insightful comparison of concurrent Jewish and Christian writings on Copernicus demonstrating that Judaism did not live in a vacuum, but cross-fertilization existed in the Jewish reception of Copernicus, largely dependent on local factors of symbiosis that played out as response and counter-response reaction.

Brown’s book, like those of David Ruderman in the history of Jewish science, fleshes out how the rabbinic establishment reacted to new discoveries in the sciences. This book also joins a growing literature in the history and philosophy of science that raises the question of the compatibility of science and [End Page 218] religion and the social and cultural dimension of epistemological truth. Others, such as Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1996), Steven Shapin in A Social History of Truth (1995), David Livingstone in Science in its Place (2003), and in Bernard Lightman’s edited volume Science in the Marketplace (2007), have also demonstrated that what is true in science today is not necessarily true tomorrow. Every idea—even in the hard-core sciences, and all the more so in the cultural phenomena of art, fiction, music, etc.—represents, as Hegel noted, the spirit of its time, showing that the relationship between science and religion is often conditioned by “prevailing cultural arrangements.”

Kuhn showed that science moves forward in paradigm shifts, and Brown traces the rabbinic reaction to the paradigm shift that constituted the Copernican revolution. The book further cautions against over simplifying contemporary Jewish sociological trends. For example, while we might expect a more unified outcome among the ultra-Orthodox Haredi community in Israel, where secular university education is often shunned, in fact the evidence suggests that within this small group, there are those who view the Copernican model as acceptable while others still see it as heresy. How does the Jewish reception of Copernicus also shed light on how the reforming maskilim of the modern Enlightenment endorsed Copernicanism, in support of their agenda to increase openness to the secular world, including science, as further illuminated by the work of Shmuel Feiner in The Jewish Enlightenment?

Some implications of this book are that, given the test case of the rabbinic reception of Copernicanism: how might future historians of science, religion, and intellectual history map out the reception of Darwinian evolution in rabbinic circles? What does rabbinic resistance to Nosson Slifkon’s trying to reconcile Torah with theories of evolution, especially in Darwinian biology at the molecular and genetic level based on studies such as the Torah perspective of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, suggest about the case of the reception of Copernicanism as a...


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