Astrology is Futile

Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by a student

Thus said the Lord, “To the way of the nations do not learn, and from the signs (events) in the sky do not fear, for the nations fear them. For the laws of the nations are futile, for a tree in the forest they cut, craftsmen use their handiwork with an axe [to sculpt idols]. They adorn it with silver and gold, fastening it with nails and hammer so that it does not totter. Like a palm tree they [idols] are beaten. They cannot speak. They have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Be not afraid of them, for they can do no harm; nor is it in them to do any good” (Jer. 10:2-5).

Until the Hubble and James Webb telescopes, man saw only a few bright stars in each heavenly region (zodiac). By connecting the dots (stars), man drew 12 constellations that loosely formed an outline of man (Orion), animal (Leo), fish (Pisces) or a scale (Libra). But now, with modern telescopes, we see many more stars than in medieval times. Seeing thousands of stars filling a constellation, we don't see a mere dozen stars outlining an animal or Orion’s Belt, but we see “stars everywhere”—offering no image whatsoever.

Maimonides spoke about a “field” that must exist for a magnet to attract metal, as there is no action at a distance. For a magnet to attract metal, it must do so through a medium, and this magnetic field is that medium. Einstein spoke about gravity actually being the curvature of space, for how can a distant sun “pull” on Earth? Space is the curved medium that causes the Earth’s orbit.

Applied to astrology, distant stars do not determine human fate or personalities, as astrology claims. According to Ramban, Jeremiah should not have said that astrology and idolatry are “futile,” but he should have said that they are “prohibited.” For Ramban held astrology to be a reality, but that it is prohibited to the Jew. But the fact that Jeremiah says that signs in the heavens and idolatry are “futile” means both are inherently useless: not merely prohibited, but innately false. I once gave a shiur explaining the uselessness of idolatry where idolaters would cut down a tree, and with one half, they would warm themselves and cook food, and with the other half they would carve into an idol and bow to it and pray to it to save them:

Part of the hewn tree he burns in a fire: on that part he roasts meat, he eats the roast and is sated. He also warms himself and cries, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the heat!”  Of the rest he makes a god—his own carving! He bows down to it, worships it; he prays to it and cries, “Save me, for you are my god!”  They have no wit or judgment: their eyes are besmeared [sealed] and they see not; their minds [empty] and they cannot think. They do not give thought, they lack the wit and judgment to say, “Part of the tree I burned in a fire; I also baked bread on the coals, I roasted meat and ate it—should I make the rest an abhorrence? Should I bow to a block of wood?” 

(Isaiah 44:16-19)

 This Haftorah (Vayikra) contrasts wood as fuel, to wood as an idol, revealing the absurdity of attributing to one substance both mundane and divine properties. Man contradicts reality when attributing opposite properties to the identical object (the tree). This refutes man’s estimation trees as divine things. 

Trusting the science of their times, some rabbis believed there was a creature that was half animal and half earth. Ramban too could have accepted elements of astrology on this same trusting basis (see Rambam on Deut. 18:9).