Galileo Galilei (1564-1642): Science and Religion – Part Ib: Why the Jews?

Pope Alexander VI offered sanctuary to Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, from Portugal in 1497 and from Provence in 1498. Jews were given protection by King Ferdinand I of Naples. They were also offered protection in Tuscany. Except for the Jews in Sicily, then under the thumb of the Spanish monarchy, the Jews otherwise thrived until two Jewish apostates denounced the Talmud in the sixteenth century and on Yom Kippur of 1553, all copies of the Talmud in the Italian Papal States were burned. Pius IV and Paul IV persecuted the Jews of the Papal States from which they were eventually expelled. However, under Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), the position of the Jews in Italy improved greatly. They were permitted to live in any part of the Papal States and to offer medical treatment to gentiles.

The situation of the Jews in the Papal States was soon reversed. Gregory XIV succeeded Pope Sixtus in 1592, but died almost immediately. He was replaced by Clement VIII who renewed the anti-Jewish bulls of Pius IV and Paul IV. Jews fled and were received and welcomed by Duke Ferdinand del Medici of Tuscany.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, there were then many Jews in Tuscany and Vienna with whom Galileo could have had interchanges rather than a Jewish doctor far away in Hamburg. However, though many Jews were physicians and some were scientists and mathematicians, Jews in general in the seventeenth century were not particularly notable for their scientific achievements, in stark contrast with the twentieth and twenty-first centuries where they form a very disproportionate role in those activities and an even greater disproportion of winners of Nobel prizes.

Jews then had the same genes, perhaps even a greater drive, than contemporary Jews in North America, but their religious beliefs at the time, no less than that of Roman Catholics, meant they were more wedded to the Aristotelian beliefs of Maimonides just as the RCs were to Saint Thomas Aquinas. Further, even in comparison to the Medieval Period, Jewish intellectual life was “relatively isolated and inner-directed” (Ruderman, ch. 2), largely disconnected from the then current thinking and literary tastes of the outside world in the seventeenth century – with the exception of the intellectual, professional and mercantilist elite.

On the other hand, discord with Jews was least in the universities in the city-states of Italy. The University of Padua was a case in point. It was critical to developing the medical and, to some degree, scientific and mathematical communities of Italy. Galileo claimed that his time in Padua, with its fellowship and tolerance, was the happiest period of his life. After a short stint at the University of Pisa, Galileo celebrated his academic appointment in 1592 to Padua, the institution where he had first enrolled as a student in 1581. Soon after his appointment, he invented the thermometer.

Nathan, the son of the famous Solomon of Udine who had achieved great status as the Turkish ambassador to Venice, was one of the first Jewish students at the University of Padua in the latter part of the sixteenth century. The University of Padua subsequently became the mecca for Jews with the means and fortitude to travel from the other side of the Alps to attend this centre of higher learning renowned for its amazing intellectual stimulation – it was the Princeton of its time. There was no quota limiting Jews and they flocked there, particularly to the Faculty of Medicine.

The Padua synagogue with its majestic bimah and Torah Ark on the opposite wall was built in 1584 in the historic ghetto. It survived the fascists because they destroyed the modern synagogue that replaced this restored one that had been abandoned. Today, there are still 45,000 Jews living in Padua. A few families hidden by Italians trace their roots in Italy back two millennia.

In Padua, Galileo hobnobbed with the elite and with the creative, religious and intellectual leaders of his time. But Padua lacked an elite wealthy Jewish mercantilist class. Galileo served the Christian elite, initially as a consultant on navigation and ship-building based on his knowledge of mathematics and physics. It was at Padua that he won the patent for his irrigation device based on his own theories of gravitation. He also happened to be an electrifying lecturer. But it was also in Padua that he, along with two friends who died, contracted probably what we now call legionnaire’s disease; Galileo suffered for the rest of his life from the after-effects. It was also in Padua that his mistress gave birth to his first “illegitimate” daughter in 1600, the very same year that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake.

I have no knowledge of Galileo meeting Rabbi Judah Assael del Bene who was also a renowned scientist in Padua, but who was very much younger than Galileo. Nor even earlier of any meeting with Joseph Hamiz, who had graduated in medicine from the University of Padua in 1624. Like Bruno, Hamiz became fascinated with Kabbalah and eventually endorsed Shabbatai Zevi as the messiah. Undoubtedly, both del Bene and Hamiz knew of Galileo. Yet as eminent as all these Jews were, they did not fully embrace the new science. While also rebelling against the rationalism of Aristotle, they did so often by reverting to older religious-philosophical beliefs rooted in Plato and Jewish mysticism that would give birth to Hasidism.

This was my main reason for beginning with Galileo. For as a, if not the, leading figure of the new science, there was no indication that he dealt with Jews as anything other than equal humans. As his brilliant and sensitive daughter, Maria Celeste (as I wrote above, born in 1600, the same year that Gordano Bruno was burned at the stake) echoed his views in a 1623 letter: “we are all of us here on Earth like strangers and wayfarers, who soon will be bound for our new homeland in Heaven, where there is perfect happiness.” But while in graduate school, I had been taught that there was a reason for why Galileo could be tried by the inquisition and renounce his beliefs; those beliefs would stand as the truth in spite of such a renunciation. In contrast, Bruno had to die for his truth and could not renounce his beliefs, for his truth was ultimately subjective and depended on his commitment to it to establish the validity of his convictions.

However, this is a false story. Galileo never retracted his beliefs. (This is a controversial statement which I will defend in much greater detail in my concluding blog.) Given his significant improvements of the telescope that had just been invented and the proofs he offered, both mathematical, experimental and visual, Galileo continued to support the Copernican sun-centred system of the world. However, he edited what he claimed about them and agreed to define them as hypotheses rather than ultimate truth after his first 1616 trial by the Inquisitional Court, but he never withdrew his claims for the veracity of the theory. The contrast between Bruno and Galileo that I was taught as a student was offered to radically differentiate science and religion, to define science as concerned with objectivity while religion was concerned with faith and subjective conviction. The problem is that Galileo did not share this dichotomous division.

Galileo was a religious Roman Catholic. He commented on biblical texts and tried to show the text was compatible with the new science. He clashed with those in power who claimed one, and only one, divinely authorized interpretation, namely the one prescribed by institutionalized power. Religious belief and belief in the nature of the cosmos were both subject to objective analysis. Therefore, I chose Galileo to begin with, not so much, in fact, not at all, because he had an opinion of Jews per se. He had none. They were simply other humans with different practices. Galileo was not only a pioneer in the new science, but a pioneer in the new approach to religion as well. This and his scientific and mathematical achievements provided a model for Jews who wanted to retain their Judaism but also live in the modern world.

One final note. Lest readers be left with the impression that all Jews at that time were caught up in a romanticized throwback version of science, many Jews, many illustrious Jews, were not. But they tended to follow the illustrious non-Jewish mathematicians of the first half of the seventeenth century. For example, the renowned Venetian mathematician and scientist, Simone Luzzatto (1583-1663), was himself a famous rabbi in the Venetian ghetto. He believed in human reason. He concurred with Galileo’s conclusions. But he also believed that reason could not attain its ultimate goal without divine assistance. (Socrat) Reason in the study of nature and religion served complementary rather than disjunctive functions.

In another area, he was ahead of Galileo. In 1638, four years before Galileo died, Luzzatto wrote a Discourse addressed to the leaders of the Venetian Republic as a radical break from the traditional fawning petitioning, that Galileo himself always used. In Luzzatto’s petition, he presumed equal rights as a citizen to other non-Jewish residents of Venice. It had important consequences on the development of the idea of separation of religion from politics so that a century-and-a-half later, in the founding of the American republic, religious liberty, and not just tolerance, became a founding ideal. (See the Letters between Moses Seixas and President George Washington.)  

To be continued.


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