Rabbis and the Moon

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When epic events happen, such as the 1969 moon landing, keepers of tradition react differently. Some attempt to intellectually digest the new era by integrating the new facts into tradition while others respond by defending tradition at all cost.

We have, in the past, discussed how some rabbis of the time reacted to the moon landing (link). R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik responded negatively to a query whether this disproved the verse stating that the heavens are only for the Lord. R. Ya’akov Kamenetsky stated that this refuted the Maimonidean (Aristotelian) view that the moon is a living being. R. Menachem Kasher, on the other hand, argued (unconvincingly) to the contrary in a monograph devoted to the meaning of the moon landing.

I came across another rabbinic response to the moon landing that takes a somewhat different approach than those discussed above. R. Shlomo Wolbe, in a talk on Shabbos Parashas Ki Seitzei in 1969, used the moon landing as a parable (Da’as Shlomo, Ma’amarei Yemei Ratzon p. 81). Unapologetically and unselfconsciously, he told how the astronauts were quarantined for 21 days after returning to Earth to ensure that no alien bacteria or viruses came back with them. Similarly, he suggested, if there were spiritual beings on the moon they would have quarantined the astronauts for upon landing to ensure they were not bringing any “bacteria” of lack-of-God-fearing, any contamination of irreligiosity. If the Chafetz Chaim, R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, had been the first to land on the moon, he would have seen a pure landscape entirely untainted by irreligiosity, perhaps even attaining the level of prophecy.

I find this reaction entirely characteristic of a Mussar personality — using contemporary events to illustrate a spiritual point. I also find it noteworthy that R. Wolbe saw no religious challenge in this monumental event, referring to it without skeptical disclaimers or intellectual alarm. Instead, he found a Mussar aspect which could further the goal of deepening fear of God.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief 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 of New Jersey, 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 serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and 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.

36 comments

  1. There was already about a decade of manned space exploration by the time of the moon landing-the issue of hashamayim shamayim lashem vaharetz..was in my recollection almost universally explained as shamayim where man isn’t-there was already routine airplane travel before then, It was an exciting time period the =then Prez Nixon made a holiday because of the moon landing-that of course was explained by barchi nafshi-asa yareach lemoadim.
    In 1969-I don’t think most realized that manned exploration of the moon would be a short event-not repeated in the past few decades,

  2. The rabbi in a shiur I heard related the story about how he was once discussing a sefer (I forget which one) with a colleague in which the author of the sefer stated that there was a debate in the Jewish sources whether or not the moon was solid, and when the author saw the moon landing on TV he knew that the sources that said the moon was solid were correct. The colleague challenged the rabbi that he (the colleague) had that exact sefer at home and this passage about the moon landing was not in the sefer. Both of them brought their seforim from home the next day. The colleague’s version indeed had no mention of the moon landing, but the rabbi’s version did have the passage. Apparently the colleague’s (later) version was edited to delete any reference to the author having watched TV.

  3. That concept sounds like it was lifted out of C.S. Lewis’ “Out of the Silent Planet,” in which Mars and its inhabitants, unlike Earth, are devoid of sin. It’s a somewhat Christian concept.

    I definitely recall reading a source- on the tip of my tongue where- where someone recounted out he was told that the moon landing was faked, because the Rambam says the Moon is a spiritual being and thus can’t be stepped on. (The author pointed out that this is a faulty reading of the Rambam.) “So if two kosher witnesses swore to you they stepped on the Moon, what would you say?” “I’d have a real crisis of emunah.” The author, of course, decried this stance.

  4. IIRC from Emes L’Yaakov, R. Yaakov said that the moon landing showed that kabbala defeated philosophy. Of course, this is not strictly true – the Rambam’s statement about the moon being a living being is straight from Aristotle, and hardly an indispensable part of the rationalist approach.

    Nachum, it surprises me that the religious conservative felt constrained to maintain that the Rambam was correct on this point. Many religious conservatives have opposed many of the opinions expressed in the Moreh. I don’t why this one should be different.

  5. Probably because it fits well with the “goyim are always wrong” narrative they like so much.

    I’m pretty sure it was in Tradition, but I can’t remember at the moment.

  6. This whole topic is pretty embarrassing.

  7. R.Gil,
    I’m trying to figure out whether you are viewing any of the Rabbinic comments here including R.Wolbe’s positively or not?

    With the benefit of 41 years of hindsight,not our finest commentary!

  8. I don’t understand how this whole issue arises. The Rambam does not say that the moon is a non-physical body upon which a man could not walk. On the contrary, he contrasts the moon and all the heavenly bodies to angels in the aspect that—unlike angels—they do possess physical form, just as humans do. His only point is that they are not dead and inanimate physical bodies—they are life-forms, with instinctive drives. I fail to grasp Rav Kaminetzky’s kushya on the Rambam.

    MN 2:5
    אמנם שהגלגלים חיים משכילים, ר״ל משיגים, זה אמת נבון ג״כ מצד התורה ,ושאינם
    גשמים מתים כאש וכארץ כמו שחשבו הסכלים , אבל הם כמו שאמרו הפילוסופים בעלי חיים עובדים את אדוניהם ישבחוהו ויהללוהו שבח גדול וםהלליס עצומים ,

    That the spheres are living, understanding things—i.e., perceiving things—this is correct from the Torah’s viewpoint as well; and they are not, as the fools thought, dead bodies as is fire and the Earth. They are, as the philosophers said, living beings serving their Master, whom they mightily praise and glorify….

    רמב”ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ב הלכה ×’

    כל מה שברא הקב”×” בעולמו נחלק לשלשה חלקים. מהן ברואים שהן מחוברים מגולם וצורה, והם הווים ונפסדים תמיד–כמו גופות האדם והבהמה והצמחים והמתכות. ומהן ברואים שהן מחוברין מגולם וצורה, אבל אינן משתנין מגוף לגוף ומצורה לצורה כמו הראשונים, אלא צורתן קבועה לעולם בגולמם ואינן משתנין כמו אלו–והם הגלגלים והכוכבים שבהן. ואין גולמם כשאר גולמים ולא צורתם כשאר צורות. ומהן ברואים צורה בלא גולם כלל והם המלאכים שהמלאכים אינם גוף וגויה אלא צורות נפרדות זו מזו:

    Everything HaKadosh Baruch Hu created in His world can be divided into three categories. Some are things created composed of material and form, constantly decaying—such as the bodies of man and beast and agricultural produce and metals. And some things are created composed of material and form, but do not change the way those do—and these are the heavenly spheres and the stars within them. But the material they are made of is not like the material of the other material things. And some of the things created are form without material at all—and those are the angels. For the angles are not [composed of] body and bulk, but [non-material] forms independent of each other.

    Furthermore, what meforesh ever says that “The Heavens are HaShem’s and the Earth is Man’s” means that man is forever incapable of visiting the heavenly bodies—particularly the physical ones?

    Zvi Lampel

  9. “Furthermore, what meforesh ever says that “The Heavens are HaShem’s and the Earth is Man’s” means that man is forever incapable of visiting the heavenly bodies—particularly the physical ones?”

    Rav Pinchas Hurwitz in Sefer HaBris, for one.

  10. The gemara in Sukkah 5a declares that based on “Hashamayin shamayim…”, no human being can ascend to Heaven. However, the gemara continues that when there is a partition of ten handbreadths, it is possible, and such is indeed the manner in which Mosheh Rabbeinu ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah, as well as the manner in which Eliyahu Hanavi rode the fiery chariot. Accordingly, my interpretation is that both R. Lampel and R. Slifkin are correct. It is impossible for human beings to ascend to outer space, but if they are protected by a proper partition (i.e. a space shuttle or a space suit) then it is possible.

  11. And why exactly are we pretending that before 1969 there was no conclusive evidence that the moon is solid?

    Even if we ignore Galileo’s pretty exact observations and measurements, we can hardly ignore the landing of Luna II in 1959.

  12. It seems to me that the Aristotelian view of mechanics and space that was accepted and promoted by the Rambam was shown to be incorrect by the space explorations. The classical Aristotelian view was that the heavenly bodies were carried by various concentric, transparent solid spheres that rotated about the earth with the lunar sphere being the closest. The space rockets sent by the Soviets and the US into orbit around the moon, and to a manned landing by the US, must have passed through that supposed solid sphere without impact or being slowed by an encounter. Furthermore, the Aristotelian idea that the heavenly bodies or spheres were intelligent beings stems from their rotary motion which was considered unnatural. However, Newton, in the 17th century, showed that the planetary orbits could be calculated precisely by assuming a universal force of gravity which, in the case of the planets, was centered on that most massive solar body, the sun. On the earth, it was the earth’s gravity attracting bodies to its center. The entire rationale for the supposed intelligence of the spheres was thereby eliminated.

  13. “Furthermore, what meforesh ever says that “The Heavens are HaShem’s and the Earth is Man’s” means that man is forever incapable of visiting the heavenly bodies—particularly the physical ones?”

    Rav Pinchas Hurwitz in Sefer HaBris, for one.

    Based upon what meforesh–I mean in a Midrash, a Gemora, or a rishon?

    Zvi Lampel

  14. R. Spira, I think it’s quite clear that the Gemora Sukka is referring to the spiritual Shamayim of Hashem, His Heavenly throne, and the angels; not the shamayim of space exploration.

    Zvi Lampel

  15. Heavens aren’t the sky.

  16. Y. Aharon, the issue under discussion is not the Rambam’s claim about the spheres’ life or lack thereof. It is the claim that the Rambam held the moon is not a material substance, which a man walking on the moon would disprove.

    I submitted that the premise is false.

    But by the way, the Rambam does not say the bodies of the spheres are bodies so solid that they would perceptively slow down rockets or would make an impact on them or vice versa. What he says indicates otherwise:

    רמב”ם הלכות יסודי התורה פרק ×’ הלכה ×’

    כל הגלגלים אינן לא קלים ולא כבדים ואין להם לא עין אדום ולא עין שחור ולא שאר עינות וזה שאנו רואין אותם כעין התכלת למראית העין בלבד הוא לפי גובה האויר וכן אין להם לא טעם ולא ריח לפי שאין אלו המאורעין מצויין אלא בגופות שלמטה מהן:

    They are colorless and tasteless, neither lightweight nor heavy. One might descibe them as living forcefields with intuitive motivation.

    Zvi Lampel

  17. Nachum, I’m not sure what you mean.

    Zvi Lampel

  18. I don’t have Sefer HaBris handy right now, but as I recall, he says it is “obvious to all” that the heavens, where the sun and moon are, are Hashem’s domain. Maybe he was basing himself on a passuk: “A Song of Ascents, I raise my eyes to You, Who dwells in the Heavens” (Tehillim 123:1) which indicates that Shamayim is “up there.” He uses this to argue that the earth could not possibly be revolving around the sun, as it would mean that the earth is in the Heavenly domain, which is impossible.

  19. Zvi, Hashem isn’t up somewhere past the edge of the Milky Way.

    Of course, we know that. It’s unclear if the ancients did.

  20. Nachum, please stay focused on the subject. We’re talking about the claim that the Rambam held the moon is not a material substance, which a man walking on the moon would disprove.

    I submitted that the premise is false, and the Gemora Sukka is irrelevant.

    Zvi Lampel

  21. Natan, I’ll wait until you produce your quote from the Sefer HaBris. As you present it, it begs the question: Does any source say that something being “in Hashem’s domain” mean that man is incapable of reaching it? Anyway, the Sefer HaBris is not a Midrash, Gemora or rishon. As far as I can find, this intepretation is not given by any such source, there is no indication that this was how the posuk was taken in the Rambam’s time, and the Rambam was not meshubad to how the Sefer HaBris was to interpret a posuk in the 18th century (even if he did take it to mean that the sun and moon are unreachable. So what’s the kushya on the Rambam from moonwalkers?

    And I ask you, too, to please stay focused on the topic, and not interject a discussion about the motions of the earth, moon, sun, planets and stars.

    Zvi Lampel

  22. Zvi: The assumption is that an inanimate object does not have a soul. Once it was proven that the moon is an inanimate object, the problem rose for the Rambam.

    See also here: http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=944&st=&pgnum=47&hilite=

  23. Rav Yaakov, z”l was actually pleased with the moon landing as he said it countered (What I think he said was Christian) dogma that the moon was part of Shamayim and therefore not in our domain.

    And he (Though I was only 12 at the time,) explained that the lavana is part of Haaretz nassan livnei adam and we have an absolute right to explore it.

    He also made the bold statement that the first perakim of yesodei HaTorah in Rambam have a status like Moreh N’vuchim and thus they can be questioned and analyzed with a different attitude than that of the “Yad”

  24. “Natan, I’ll wait until you produce your quote from the Sefer HaBris. As you present it, it begs the question: Does any source say that something being “in Hashem’s domain” mean that man is incapable of reaching it? Anyway, the Sefer HaBris is not a Midrash, Gemora or rishon. As far as I can find, this intepretation is not given by any such source”

    Hey, you were the one who asked “what meforesh ever says that “The Heavens are HaShem’s and the Earth is Man’s” means that man is forever incapable of visiting the heavenly bodies—particularly the physical ones?”!!! I was just answering your question!

    “And I ask you, too, to please stay focused on the topic, and not interject a discussion about the motions of the earth, moon, sun, planets and stars.”

    I was not interjecting anything, just explaining the context in which he says it (he wasn’t discussing moon landings).

    “We’re talking about the claim that the Rambam held the moon is not a material substance, which a man walking on the moon would disprove. I submitted that the premise is false.”

    You are mistaken. Rambam clearly subscribed to the Aristotelian view that the moon is made out of a fifth element, which is of an ethereal nature unlike anything on our earth. And that’s not just a matter of the molecules it is made of; it’s a description of how the whole domain is something else entirely, which material bodies cannot exist in. This quite aside from the question of how we would penetrate the solid crystalline sphere in order to get there! He discusses his view of the cosmos in several places in the Guide, but to understand it, you have to understand the Aristotelian view of the universe.

    Besides, I don’t understand where you’re coming from. Once we recognize that Rambam’s view of the universe — in which the earth is at the center, surrounded by crystalline spheres, which are inhabited by intelligent, conscious stars and planets — is completely obsolete, why is it important to reconcile this with the moon landing?

  25. Hirhurim on September 6, 2010 at 6:20 pm
    Zvi: The assumption is that an inanimate object does not have a soul. Once it was proven that the moon is an inanimate object, the problem rose for the Rambam.

    The animate feature of the moon, caused by its ability to perceive and its desire to move that the Rambam is referring to, is its circular motion, nothing more. The moonwalk did not disprove that the moon moves.

  26. Natan, the question I asked was in the context of this post, which is the alleged contradiction to the Rambam’s description of the moon from the moonwalk. Two issues were raised: (1) The Rambam’s alleged shitta gleaned from the Moreh and Yad that the moon is a spiritual substance not at all of a material that can be walked upon, and (2) The alleged shitta that the posuk that says “HaShamayyim LaShem” means that man is unable to reach the moon. Since I did not repeat the context in which I was asking my question–which questions that the Rambam, or some source on which he would have relied, held that interpretation of the posuk–I can see why there was a gap in understanding between us.

    Regarding your claim that the Rambam held that the spheres are made of solid, impenetrable material, as far as I have seen, this is another phantom shittah of the Rambam, as I noted in a previous remark on this thread.

    If it can be proven, as you claim, that the Rambam held that the moon is made out of a material that cannot be walked upon, and that material bodies cannot exist in its domain, then you would have indeed defended Rav Kaminetsky’s kushya.

    The context of my questions is that of the original post: Rav Kaminetzki’s claim that the Rambam’s thesis was disproven by the moonwalk. You may not think analyzing Rav Kamenetky’s kushya is important, but it is to me, and it is the subject of the post.

  27. What do you think the spheres are made of? They are certainly solid, as the stars and planets are embedded within them!
    And where do you think that Rambam got the idea of spheres from? It was standard Ptolemaic cosmology. Learn up about it, and you will understand what they thought the spheres are.

  28. A field of force—say, magnetic, or gravitational—need not be impenetrably solid to carry within it some objects while allowing others to pass without an impression being made on either. It is true that the Rambam followed the opinion that both the moon and the spheres are made of a fifth, ethereal element whose nature is unlike anything on our earth. But please point out where the Almagest or other such work writes that whereas the “ethereal” spheres are so solid as to be impenetrable, the moon is so ethereal that it would be impossible for man to walk upon it. Then we can mull over how a solid impenetrable substance in which the gigantic stars are imbedded can be weightless; and then we can try to explain how man’s walking on the moon disproves that it is a living, thinking thing. (People step all over me, and I still live, think and move.)

  29. If I recall correctly, there is a discussion in Nefesh HaRav by R. Hershel Schachter regarding the propriety of reciting “Kishem she’ani roked…” during Kiddush Levanah, in light of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing. [Admittedly, I do not have the book in my possession, and would appreciate if one of my distinguished interlocutors could post what R. Schachter writes. See also the “Rav Lichtenstein on Academic Trends” discussion, where I have requested that one of my distinguished interlocutors could post what the same book writes in the context of “Sefer Ha’azarah”.]
    My answer to this problem is simply to posit that at the time a person is reciting in Kiddush Levanah, he is on planet earth and is not touching the moon. Moreover, even if one recited Kiddush Levanah on the moon, one cannot exactly touch the moon, since the space suit interposes.
    This last point of mine, of course, raises the further question: Is Kiddush Levanah actually recited on the moon? In his Contemporary Halakhic Problems V, ch. 3, R. Bleich surveys the question of performing time-dependent mitzvot in outer space. His conclusion is that there are “tzvei dinnim” of outer space. When an astronaut orbits the earth, he follows halakhic time based on the ground immediately beneath the space shuttle. But when an astronaut breaks free of earth’s orbit, he is “lima’alah min hazeman” and he is exempt from all mitzvot related to time. Someone asked me to convey to R. Bleich the question: what about the moon. The moon is a natural satellite of planet earth, being controlled by the earth’s gravity. Thus, should a lunar resident be obligated in mitzvot related to time, based on the spot on planet earth over which the moon is immediately suspended? R. Bleich responded: “This is a difficult question. My feeling is yes. I am more certain about the side of the moon that faces the earth than the side of the moon that faces away from the earth.” On a later occasion, I asked R. Bleich why he is in doubt about the side of the moon that faces away from the earth. Shouldn’t the entire earth be considered one large space shuttle. R. Bleich responded: “You can stop a space shuttle in mid-flight and turn it around. You can’t do the same with the moon”. Although R. Bleich did not explain why the ability to control the velocity of a space shuttle should matter, I think the difference emerges on the basis of his discussion of Kohanim boarding airplanes that fly over cemeteries (later in the same volume of CHP).

  30. Sorry for my typo… that should read “shouldn’t the entire moon be considered one large space shuttle”. Thank you.

  31. the propriety of reciting “Kishem she’ani roked…” during Kiddush Levanah, in light of Neil Armstrong’s moon landing

    I don’t see the problem. Armstrong did not get to the moon by jumping. The wording of the request remains valid: Just as I do not have the ability to reach the moon by simply jumping, so may my enemies never harm me despite all their efforts, through any means. Even before the moon landing, the wish was always that our enemies would not harm us, whether through their innate physical prowess or through any tools they may design.

  32. MiMedinat HaYam

    interesting juxtaposition — the type of walk armstrong did was a type of jumping (due to low gravity situation) or “dancing”.

    otherwise, i would say what does this have to do with the moon?

  33. Lawrence Kaplan

    The Rambam’s Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian physics, that maintains a sharp distinction between the matter (the four elements) of the earth and the matter of the sun, moon, and planets (the fifth element) were disproved long long before the moon landing. What is truly embarrassing is that Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky evidently believed that only the moon landing posed a kashya to the Rambam.

  34. Lawrence Kaplan

    Y. Aharon summed it up nicely. The issue as to whether according to the Rambam you could step on the moon or not is a distraction.

  35. Some may be interested in what the Rav had to say on the matter in his personal conversations with David Holzer (p.90-92 of Holzer’s “The Rav Thinking Aloud”):

    DH: The Rambam says that the כוכבים וגלגלים (stars and planets, or spheres) are “בעלי נפש ודעה ושכל”. What does this mean?

    The Rav: [Frisch?] also thought this way, as did Spinoza and many of the Renaissance philosophers based on Aristotlean philosophy. It is interesting that the Rambam limited it only to those bodies above the moon (i.e., כוכבים וגלגלים), and did not include the Earth as well. I myself am inclined to the concept that planets and stars are thinking beings. It is rediculous to think that thought is limited to moving beings. Even if a person is immobile and has no brainwaves (EEG), we don’t really know that there is no thought process going on.

  36. Prof. Kaplan, thanks for the compliment. The comments by AAK taken ostensibly from Holzer’s book make no sense. If the fault lies with David Holzer, then other citations from RYBS may be questioned, as well.

    In any case, have a gemar chatimah tovah.

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