Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Judaism & Astrology

posted by David Klinghoffer

There seem to be two kinds of religious people (along with countless other distinctions you could make). One kind finds the outré aspects of his faith uncomfortable to contemplate and seeks strategies for explaining them away, or disregarding them altogether. He respects the authority of secular thought, perhaps too much. The other delights in those same aspects, finding in them one of the great charms of trying to adhere in the modern world to an ancient system of belief. He suspects that secular wisdom may not exhaust the body of possible knowledge about this mysterious world, and finds the esoteric and imponderable to be something like a finger pointing to the existence of realms beyond our mundane reality.

Take the idea that somehow the stars play a role in governing the world — the basis of astrology — a role given to them by God and fully capable of being overriden by Him. Over Shabbat, I noticed a passage in the first blessing before the Shema that I had never thought about before. It was right there, concealed in plain sight in a pretty prominent place in the Siddur, the Jewish prayer book (in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s translation):

Good are the radiant stars our God created,
He formed them with knowledge,
understanding and deliberation.
He gave them strength and might
to rule throughout the world.

There’s much else in classical Jewish texts that echoes and expands on this idea, which delights me. For example, in a basic and classic work such as Moshe Chaim Luzzatto‘s The Way of God, you’ll find a chapter devoted to explaining “The Influence of the Stars.” Anyway, that would indicate what category of religious person I fall into. What about you? 

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posted August 24, 2009 at 1:47 pm

I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy here, really. If, as St. Thomas Aquinas argued, truth is one, then the “esoteric and imponderable” in some way fit together with “secular thought”. Both fideists (the type of believers who put faith above all other considerations including consistency and logic–i.e. “I believe it no matter what”) and skeptical rationalists have trouble with this balance. However, I think such a balance bets fits reality. John Henry Newman said that faith and reason/science can’t conflict–thus any seeming conflicts result from a misunderstanding of the rational or scientific evidence; or a misinterpretation of Scripture or Tradition. Though you seem to dispute this, my reading of Maimonides is that he held the same view. Thus, no one who is not a young Earth creationist thinks that the six days of creation in Genesis are to be understood literally, since that would obviously conflict with the well-established findings of many different fields of science.
Contra some, I’d argue that science and “secular thought” don’t explain everything in the cosmos or in human life. It seems to me that the very existence of the universe and its hospitability to life are indicative of something beyond. Moreover, I have no problem with the idea of mystic experiences in some cases being genuine. Such experiences do indeed point to “realms beyond our mundane reality”. I certainly feel no need to kiss up to secularism, as you seem to imply that those accepting theistic evolution do. I go to Mass, wear a scapular, light candles by the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, etc. etc. Some would classify me as a superstitious cretin for doing all this, but that’s their problem, not mine.
On the other hand, God gave us minds and intelligence and the ability to use them. He could, I suppose, have revealed the Theory or Relativity or integral calculus or such to the ancient Israelites, or to any other ancient worthies. Heck, he could have made us born with the innate knowledge of these things. Then Scripture would have been much different, and we wouldn’t have debates about faith and reason. However, God, for His own reasons, chose to speak to ancients in metaphor and poetry, in symbol, allegory, and allusion, intending that as human understanding of the world grew, their ability to understand Scripture as not just a literal, textbookish account of the world would grow, as well. It seems to me that just as rejecting the transcendent aspect of reality would be tossing out God’s gift of revelation in Scripture to us, likewise insisting on a too-literal reading or too-naive acceptance of Scripture and Tradition would be tossing out God’s gift of intelligence and reason to us.
So what does this look like in practice? If someone I know is sick, for example, I might have a Mass said for them or pray a rosary for them. If they get better, that’s great, and I might even attribute the recovery partially to the prayer. I would never imagine that this would be something I could empirically prove, however, nor would I expect a non-believer to accept my take on this. Likewise, I have experienced things that I am certain were God’s interactions with me; but as they occurred through secondary causes, I wouldn’t claim to be able to “prove” these to an outside observer. Subjective perception may in some cases be “tuned in” to the supra-rational, supernatural, to God, if you will, and I think it is; but I don’t think these can be demonstrated empirically, nor that God intended that they should be. That’s why I don’t speak much about personal religious experience here. Only those who already believed in such would accept it, and others wouldn’t change their minds; nor would I expect anything else.
So, while I may pray for someone who’s sick, and may in part attribute to that prayer any healing that occurs, I think the studies trying to document the effectiveness or lack thereof of intercessory prayer are doomed to failure. Results have been contradictory, and why shouldn’t they be? Why expect God to work in such easily comprehensible ways, anyway, as if he is a trained poodle who performs on command?
Analagously, if someone got some kind of spiritual meaning from the time of their birth and the configuration of the stars at that time, I guess that’s fine for them if it makes them a better person. However, to contend that this is something that can be empirically verified (which it cannot be) is another thing again. Studies in which horoscopes were switched (i.e. the Cancer horoscope relabeled as, say, Sagittarius, etc.) and given to people showed that they were just as firm in their belief in the wrong horoscope as in the “right” one. Also, no studies have been able to show consistent personality types that can be correlated with astronomical configurations.
One final example, going back to my lighting candles before Our Lady of Guadalupe. As a Catholic, I believe that Mary and the saints intercede for us, and that sacramentals such as statues and candles can help our prayer, if we maintain the right focus. Non-Catholics and non-believers are, of course, free to call me loony now. However, when the science shows no really good evidence of a miraculous origin of the tilma on which the original image of Our Lady of Guadalupe appeares, and when the evidence for the very existence of Juan Diego is disputed by the priest who was the former director of the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I don’t feel the need to attack those findings out of misplaced loyalty to my faith. Whether the apparition actually occurred or not, the image is a way of focusing faith for a Catholic, and as long as one doesn’t try to deny the science involved, there’s no necessary conflict. If it is at some point conclusively demonstrated that Juan Diego did not exist (contra his canonization) and that the image was painted in the ordinary way, that’s fine; if the existence of Juan Diego is conclusively proved and the miracle vindicated, also OK; if there is never a clear answer, that’s fine, too. Commitment to faith is not commitment to falsehood, but commitment to reason and science is not to deny the possibility of the miraculous or of faith.
In any case, I’d end with two points. One, I’m inclined to think that the acceptance of astrology in Orthodox Judaism is perhaps more divided than you imply. Moreover, I’m sure it wouldn’t wash at all with your conservative Christian associates at the DI or in general. They sure think astrology is demonic! Second, I think your attempts to portray followers of theistic evolution as trying to kiss up to secular thought is really offensive, as well as being untrue. You say you don’t take the six days of Genesis literally, since it is obviously in conflict with science. Well, then, do you “respect the authority of secular thought, perhaps too much”? YECers would say so! Those of us who hold to theistic evolution are not doing anything different from what you’re doing in admitting a multi-billion year old cosmos; we’re just being more consistent.
By the way, regarding outré aspects of faith which are “uncomfortable to contemplate”, I’d consider among such things the calls for genocide throughout the Old Testament, Elisha’s ordering of bears to maul mocking children, and eternal damnation for people who didn’t even know about the Scriptures. Some of us who don’t think such things accurately to represent the God we worship wouldn’t say we’re “explaining them away” or “disregarding” them, but that God gave us intelligence and the grace to grow past the primitive societies of our ancient forbears so that we could see that there was some stuff that got into Scripture and Tradition which is, well, barbaric and wrong. Some might see it otherwise, but that’s how I see it.

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posted August 24, 2009 at 2:09 pm

I have to agree with Moshe on this one. I went over to the other Sindey Zion thread and was startled to find about three or four posts by bradley that had been removed, while posts by me and by Gabriel Hanna in response to the deleted posts were still there. Since the original dates were on the 19th, the Sabbath ban on electronics wouldn’t account for your having left up stuff unknowingly. Thus, I repeat what I just posted on that thread:
David, what’s up? I obviously didn’t and don’t agree with bradley and moshe here, but why did you delete bradley’s posts while leaving mine up? Without his posts being up for context, mine (and several of Gabriel’s) aren’t going to make much sense; more importantly, the posts have been up for almost a week. If a post appeared which were for some reason offensive, one would imagine it would be removed then. If it’s left up for days, one would assume it’s OK.
Anyway, while I took strong issue with bradley, there was nothing in his post that was defamatory, obscene, or otherwise contrary to open and honest discussion and debate, which you keep telling us you want. Open and honest discussion means you stick up for the other guy’s right to have his say, even if you don’t like it or disagree with it. If you’re going to allow a thread to go like this for several days with many comments, and then without warning delete one whole set of comments, at least you owe us an explanation.

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David Klinghoffer

posted August 24, 2009 at 2:26 pm

Turmarion: the answer is sock puppetry. I got tired of the same guy writing under different names and decided to wipe his comments clean. BTW, you know well that I tolerate a lot on this blog — e.g., Gabriel Hanna’s juvenile name-calling. But at least Gabriel uses one name, presumably a real one, and sticks with it.

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posted August 24, 2009 at 4:19 pm

One person I consider the epitome of one side of this spectrum is Rabbi Ariel Bar Tzadok of, who studied with various Sephardic kabbalists in Israel. He is probably the most outspoken and unapologetic about the truth of things like the evil eye, astrology, various kinds of angels and other beings, of all the English-speaking rabbis I know of. I enjoy his work, and appreciate his perspective, though I’ll admit to not necessarily believing *everything* he says. Interestingly, although he doesn’t draw much on secular wisdom (aside from occasional references to Chinese or other alternative healing arts), he often draws on Carl Jung.
Relatedly, I was really taken aback when Charles Johnson criticized you (without explanation) for arguing that Rambam would have approved of I.D. Sure, Rambam was a rationalist, but that’s a relative term. For example, he talks about how each star has its own angel, and how natural forces in the world are really controlled by G-d’s angels. This said, in his letter on astrology, he seems to consider it nonsense, and even suggests such superstitions are the reason for the exile. (His son Avraham ben Rambam was much more mystical, and even drew inspiration from the Muslim Sufi mystics.)

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posted August 24, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Yirmi: For example, he talks about how each star has its own angel, and how natural forces in the world are really controlled by G-d’s angels.
As I’ve pointed out before, Medievals, both Jewish and Christian, were influenced by Aristotle’s physics. Aristotle, of course, was unaware of gravity. Since he could see nothing obvious which could move the stars and planets, he assumed that bodiless intelligences (what we’d call “angels”) must move them. This was congenial to Christians, Jews, and Muslims, of course, but in light of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newtonian physics it is incorrect. Gravity sufficiently explains the motion of the stars about the galactic core and the planets about the sun.
This is really the perfect analogy to ID. Given the knowledge of the time, the notion that angels moved the planets made perfect sense to the ancients and Medievals; but in light of Newton’s Law of Gravitation, such a notion is untenable. Of course, the older view might be considered preferable as maintaining direct Divine action in the world; but the fact is that it cannot be maintained based on the evidence. In any case, one can conceive of God ordaining gravity as part of the initial creation of the cosmos, so there need be no problem.
Ditto ID and evolution. Like Aristotelian physics, ID assumes a direct action of the Divine in the world, but ID, like Aristotelian physics, is not borne out by the evidence. Thus, just as theists would say that God ordains gravity, theistic evolution says that God ordains the processes that drive biological evolution. Once more, there need be no problem.
Certainly, if Rambam were alive today and had the chance to study physics, he’d revise his view of the angels controlling natural forces. I think it equally likely that he might have been sympathetic to theistic evolution, on the same grounds. Of course, no one can tell what a man dead nearly a millennium would think about anything in a modern context, especially given the vast differences in worldview, etc. That’s why I think it’s inappropriate to argue for or against ID or evolution based on what Maimonides said–you’re trying to apply something from an alien context to modern issues. It’s like arguing US politics based on what one thinks Julius Caesar would have done!

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posted August 24, 2009 at 5:20 pm

I misspoke; David was not saying Rambam would be I.D. today, but that he was in his own time. It’s pointless to say what he would have been like today (though I disagree with your speculation along these lines that he would have revised hiss view). In case this is interesting to anyone, here’s the quote from Rambam:
“All parts of the Universe, even the limbs of animals in their actual form, are produced through angels: for natural forces and angels are identical.” (Guide to the Perplexed).
This view may have been influenced by Aristotle, but it was definitely influenced by the Jewish doctrine that whatever God does in the world, he tends to it not directly (though there are exceptions) but through angels. The Talmud’s statement that each blade of grass has an angel above it saying “Grow!” was not meant to be a scientific explanation for why grass grows. Rather, it was part of Jewish doctrine about how God continuously participates in the world.

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posted August 24, 2009 at 10:16 pm

@Turmarion: “Second, I think your attempts to portray followers of theistic evolution as trying to kiss up to secular thought is really offensive, as well as being untrue.”
I’ve read only a few of your posts, and I’m glad you pointed this out. I will make sure not to think of you as kissing up to secular thought, or evolutionists, or whatever. You’ve proven yourself. I must say, however, that in my /personal/ experience, most people I know who believe in both God and evolution haven’t read up on one or the other topic (God’s a topic? (smirk)) to make an informed decision, and are merely riding the fence for one reason or another. Maybe it’s to make sure they fit in socially everywhere, who knows?

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posted August 24, 2009 at 10:46 pm

Hmm, haven’t we seen this before?
David, in his post on Francis Collins: “On the other hand, that life has an evolutionary history including billions of years of change — that is unassailable as science and unobjectionable to me as a Jew.” Please explain to me how this is one whit different from theistic evolution. David, you said on that same post that you’d like to see someone debate Collins or ask him some pointed questions; yet you resolutely avoid all such questions and attempts at debate here. This one, which seems to me a statement of what almost anyone would refer to as theistic evolution, is especially egregious.
In that regard, your statement on the last thread that theistic evolution cannot be compatible with both science and religion is a mere assertion without explanation, as I addressed there. That is not an answer.
Finally, you still have never given a real response to what we’ve been asking you about Maimonides (at your request, I recapped and expanded on this a few threads ago, remember?). We’re still waiting. Also, I’m still waiting to hear you speak to the issues of randomness [I’ll modify this since you suggested the West articles, but you haven’t answered my critique of them yet] and alien intelligence vis-à-vis the “image of god”.
I know this is getting repetitive, but I think anyone reading this will agree that I’m not using nasty language and that I’m being perfectly polite. Don’t you think the civil thing is at least to acknowledge the questions, even if for some reason you don’t want to answer them? And if you don’t want to answer them, you might at least give us an idea why not.
I might also point out that in the this article which you linked to awhile back, you’re on record as saying, “Normally, I think it’s best for friends of ID to avoid a defensive posture and generally let critics say what they want without our always feeling obliged to respond.” (emphasis added) You obviously hew closely to that ethos, but is that anything like the real debate, discussion, or dialogue you claim to want? Is this how you view what you’re doing–assert and assert and assert, ignoring all calls for answers, responses, or dialogue? If this is how you view things, why have a blog with responses at all?

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posted August 24, 2009 at 11:07 pm

Yirmi: It’s pointless to say what [Maimonides] would have been like today
Totally agreed!
though I disagree with your speculation along these lines that he would have revised hiss view.
We agree to disagree, which is fine. In the World to Come, please God, we will be able to consult the sage himself and find out!
“All parts of the Universe, even the limbs of animals in their actual form, are produced through angels: for natural forces and angels are identical.” (Guide to the Perplexed).
I’m not an expert on Maimonides in particular or Medieval Jewish philosophy in general, so I’m not sure whether he’s using highly allegorical language or if he means this literally. I know that many of the Church Fathers of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition tend to use extremely metaphorical language in the Hellenistic tradition of the various meanings of a text, and that one thus has to be very careful in interpreting them. As to what Rambam means here, I must plead ignorance. However, it would seem to me difficult for moderns, even those of faith, to take a statement like this literally.
The Talmud’s statement that each blade of grass has an angel above it saying “Grow!” was not meant to be a scientific explanation for why grass grows. Rather, it was part of Jewish doctrine about how God continuously participates in the world.
Fair enough. Those of us who accept theistic evolution don’t think it diminishes God’s continuous participation in the world. From the Thomistic view, even the continuance of the cosmos in existence results from God’s constant participation.
Mark: [M]ost people I know who believe in both God and evolution haven’t read up on one or the other topic (God’s a topic? (smirk)) to make an informed decision, and are merely riding the fence for one reason or another. Maybe it’s to make sure they fit in socially everywhere, who knows?
Most people aren’t really very conversant with science (I’ve taught it for years–trust me on this), and most people aren’t really very conversant with the theology of whatever religion they happen to profess (I’ve taught adult religious education for years and studied various religions for most of my adult life–trust me on this, too). Thus, by sheer odds, the number of people who will have carefully thought through scientific and theological issues is–well, not very large. There probably are fewer of them than of the fence-riders of whom you speak.
Some of those who have paid their dues on both sides of the issue are John Polkinghorne, Stanley Jaki, Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, and going back a few decades, Georges-Henri Lemaître. These are the type of thinkers whom I (albeit on a much lower level!) try to emulate.

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posted June 30, 2013 at 1:04 am

I had a very similar thought a couple of days ago about the religious types, one being extremely rational and feeling unconmfortable and impatient with what sounds as superstition (though actually there is plenty of it in the Bible)(and I must admit I’ve been partaking it until recently) and the other more prone to the invisible presence of supernatural. The fact is
this has to to with our a priori vision of the world, and very little to do with objectiveness. So I think, at least.
This happens in any religion (by the way, I’m Christian).
As you, I realized only recently there is at least one psalm having the stars, and all the nature, bless the Lord. So I thought: how can they unless they partake some kind on intelligence?

Amos Luzzato’s The Way of God I have and read with interest. Its structure resembles greatly that of Origene’s Principia.

What other jewish references may you suggest regarding guardian angels and astrology?


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