Rabbis and Traveling to the Moon

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The 1969 landing on the moon was a monumental achievement for mankind, and the leading Torah scholars of the time were as impressed as everyone else in the world. Here are some interesting reactions to this event.

I. May Man Travel to the Moon?

R. Hershel Schachter writes in the name of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Beis Yitzhak Journal, no. 26 [5754] pp. 193-194):

“The heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) – [R. Soloveitchik] was asked about Judaism’s view of man’s traveling to the moon, with the questioner suspecting that it might be forbidden because it is written “The heavens are the Lord’s but the land He has given to mankind” (Ps. 115:16). [R. Soloveitchik] responded that one can distinguish in the definition of heavens and earth. The term “heavens” can be explained in two ways — as something high and/or distant, as it says “It is not in the heavens” (Deut. 30:12), according to which the moon is considered a part of the “heavens.” Alternatively, the term can be defined as including everything that is beyond human understanding, including the entire spiritual realm. According to this second understanding, the stars and most distant galaxies — and certainly the moon — are considered part of “earth.” Therefore, [according to this latter interpretation,] there is no contradiction between traveling in space or scientific studies of the cosmos and the verse “The heavens are for the Lord and the land for mankind.”

II. Is the Moon a Living Being?

R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky (Emes Le-Ya’akov al Ha-Torah,Gen. 1:1, 5761 revised edition pp. 15-16):

As an aside, we learn from these words of the Ramban [on Gen. 1:1], and in particular from what he concluded in the continuation of his words on verse 8, that everything that exists in the creation in the entire world, including the sun, the moon and all the heavenly hosts, are not called “heavens.” The “heavens” are only things that have no physical bodies, such as angels, hayos and the merkavah. However, anything that has a physical body is included in the name “earth” in verse 1…

These words of the Ramban are what carried me when we saw men descending from a space ship on a ladder onto the surface of the moon. I thought to myself: “What would the Rambam, who wrote that the moon has a spiritual form, answer now?” I thought that at that point Kabbalah defeated Philosophy, and comforted myself with the words of the Ramban…

We are forced to say that what the Rambam told us in these chapters [Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah, chs. 1-4] is neither ma’aseh merkavah nor ma’aseh bereishis. Rather, he wrote those four chapters from his deep mind and from his knowledge of secular wisdom, i.e. not from the wisdom of Torah but only from Philosophy… and the Rambam only wrote these as an introduction to the Mishneh Torah while the main part of the book begins with chapter 5…

R. Menahem Kasher tried to defend the Rambam in what I can only call a bizarre and forced way.

R. Menahem Kasher, Ha-Adam Al Ha-Yare’ah, ch. 4:

Question: Is it correct what many are currently saying — that when man reached the moon and dug from it dirt and stones, it was proven wrong what the Rambam wrote in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 3:9 and Moreh Nevukhim 2:5, and brings proof (to Aristotle’s position) from Biblical verses and sayings of the Sages, that the heavenly spheres have souls, knowledge and understanding, and live, stand and recognize He Who said and the world came into being?

Answer: I wrote… the early sages R. Sa’adia Gaon, R. Yehudah Ha-Levi, R. Hisdai Crescas, R. Yitzhak Ibn Latif, the author of Akedas Yitzhak (end of essay 1) and the Abrabanel strongly reject the position of Aristotle and the Rambam… R. Ya’akov Emden, in his book Migdal Oz writes about Aristotle’s position, “It is all nonsense and lies.” And so the Maharal wrote in the introduction to his book Gevuras Hashem, that the Rambam’s position is “nonsense”…

In the pamphlet Ge’ulas Yisrael of the Maggid of Koznitz, the author attempted to defend the Rambam. He explains [that the heavenly spheres] “are intellects without free will”… We can explain this idea based on what R. Hayim Vital wrote in his book Sha’arei Kedushah (3:1) based on the principles of Kabbalah, that just like there is a soul in a living creature, so too there is a “soul” in an inanimate object. This is the force that combines the four elements… The position of the Rambam is that just like there is knowledge and intellect among the angels, which does not refer to the intellect we have that is connected to our five senses but rather is a spiritual intellect according to their level, we can say the same for the Tohu. [This Tohu] was the first power created by the will of God and remains forever in various forms, at first in the Bohu, i.e. atom, and later in elements and bodies. This force is also called an angel because it is an agent of God to be made into matter. It is not impossible that this force has its own intellect and rules according to its level and recognizes its creator and master…

We can add that the “intellect” of an item is the rules by which it acts with God’s will and is the essence of its existence. The “soul” of an item is the force that preserves its existence, with God’s will, and is the energy inside it.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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