The Jewish Chronicle
What the moon landing meant for religion
Iwas eight months old when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20 1969. Along with half the country, my mother sat me on her knee to watch the TV as American astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on its surface. President Nixon announced, “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since the Creation”. Although that was somewhat of an exaggeration, I think the moon landing did have a profound impact on religious belief.
For two thousand years the prevailing view was that the earth was at the centre of the universe and that all the stars in the sky, including the sun and the moon, revolved around it. This is known as “geocentricity”, from the Greek prefix geo, meaning earth. It was promoted by Aristotle in the fourth century BCE and then by Ptolemy. It chimed well with Jewish and, later on, Christian and Muslim beliefs. God had created the universe for humanity so it made perfect sense to believe that the Earth was at its centre. More than that, the planets were perfect. The great 12th- century rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides, taught that the physical nature of the stars was unique. Unlike rocks, plants, animals and humans, the planets were eternal and unchangeable. He also added, “All of the stars and heavenly spheres are beings endowed with a soul, intelligence and understanding… they are conscious of God” (Foundation
Laws of Torah 2:3, 3:9).
This is based on a prayer said every morning, “Praise God, sun and moon; praise God, all shining stars... Let them praise the name of God… God established them forever and all time, issuing a decree that will never change” (Psalms 148:3-6). Everything
We believed that our planet was the centre of everything ’
changed in 1543 when Nicolaus Copernicus published a treatise, based on scientific observations, arguing that the earth was not the immobile centre of the universe. In fact, it rotates on its own axis once per day and revolves around the sun once per year.
Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn also revolve around the Sun in various orbits. This is known as heliocentricity, from the Greek word for the sun, helios. Johannes Kepler’s laws of planetary motion in 1621 strengthened this model and Galileo Galilei defended it in 1633, based on his use of the newest telescopes.
The Catholic Church’s reaction to Galileo is well known. His writings were banned and he was forced to recant. But the evidence continued to mount, and once Sir Isaac Newton published his universal laws of motion in 1687, heliocentricity soon became the standard model taught in universities worldwide.
For a long time, most Jewish scholars rejected this model. Jeremy Brown tells this fascinating story in his excellent 2013 book, New Heavens and a New
Earth. The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi David Nieto in London, the Hatam Sofer in Pressburg, and many others all had difficulty with the idea that the earth is just the third rock from the sun.
Only in the mid-1800s did some rabbinic leaders, such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, begin to support heliocentricity. Torah was not a science textbook, Hirsch wrote. He employed the talmudic maxim, “Torah is written in a style that humanity can comprehend” (Berachot 31b), to argue that no biblical verses really demanded a geocentric view of the universe.
To my mind, the moon landing fifty years ago was the final demise of the geocentric view. How could it still be tenable once a spacecraft had left the earth’s orbit, been captured by the moon’s gravity, and then proceeded to land on it?
When photographs of the earth from the surface of the moon were published, there was a general public feeling of awe and humility. We earthlings are a small part of a big universe which does not revolve around us.
When I was discussing this with Dr Mannie Sher, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist at the Tavistock Institute who sits near me in shul, he pointed out that it’s the same with infants. In the initial stages of child development, the child is at the centre of their world and thinks that everything is about them.
It takes time to realise they are just one life among many. Similarly, he suggested, in the early stages of humankind’s development on earth, we believed that our planet was the centre of everything. As our knowledge has matured and deepened, we have learnt to find our true place in the universe.
I love the writings of Maimonides. He urged us to study the knowledge of our generation in order to further our understanding. I truly believe he would have been amazed by the moon landing and rethought his view of the planets. Indeed, it was he who taught that the way to fulfil the mitzvah of loving our Creator is to contemplate the wonders of the universe in order to learn to appreciate God’s infinite and unsurpassable wisdom. That’s what I think of when I look up at the night sky. Rabbi Zarum is dean of the London School for Jewish Studies