If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. (Lev 26:3-4)
Until the discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo most people believed that the sun circled a flat earth. There were, of course, some exceptions: around 560 B.C.E, the Greek philosopher Anaximander suggested that the earth was cylindrical, and Aristarchus of Samos (3rd century B.C.E) advanced this theory and claimed that the sun rested at the center of the sphere of fixed stars, whereas the earth and the five knows planets revolved around the sun. But by and large – and certainly in the Bible – people trusted their basic observation that the sun simply disappears from the sight at the night time and reappears on the other side in the morning. The sky was considered to be a dome (ra’ki’a) enclosing the earth, sun, moon and the stars. There was water above the dome, which leaked through openings in the dome and caused rain; sunny days occurred when the openings were closed.
In order to explain the nighttime movement of the sun, people imagined an opening in the dome on the west through which the sun slipped each evening. It then moved from west to east on the top of the dome, which blocked its nocturnal journey from out sight, until it slipped back into view through another opening in the dome to the east. Thus “gates of heaven” is not just a metaphor, that’s the way our ancestors actually conceived of the way the sun set and rose again.
They, of course, also believed that God is in charge of this entire process, controlling the weather, giving rains etc., as it is stated in the second paragraph of the Shma and many other places in the Bible.
The question then arises: how should we understand these verses today? Should we, for example, adjust our liturgy to the knowledge we have today and get rid of these problematic, “superstitious” verses?
In my opinion, there is no need to make changes due to modern cosmological discoveries. We can still understand those cosmological references metaphorically. Regardless of what the contemporary physics and astronomy teaches us, there is still a room to believe that the existence of planet Earth and life on it is in a way miraculous. Some may even argue that the contemporary knowledge about the universe and processes that take place in it (i.e. knowledge about cosmic catastrophes that happen here and there) may even strengthen our belief in the miraculous nature of the existence of the planet Earth. Thus, there is still a room for feeling that the ultimate ruler of the universe is God. This belief fills us with gratefulness for that fact, with a sense of unity with the universe as well as gratefulness for every minute of our existence in this world. This often gives us a wiser attitude towards the world, attitude that results in respect for nature, other creatures and for everything that has been given to us as a subject of our rulership. Only when we have a wise attitude towards nature, it will produce yields that will satisfy all of us.
By: Menachem Mirski