Sermon Yom Kippur Afternoon 2018-5779
David J. Cooper
It’s Yom Kippur afternoon. I figure it’s a good time to tell a story. Some of you might know that I’m a sort of sidewalk-astronomer. I lead the annual fall equinox gathering at the Cesar Chavez park Solar Calendar on the Berkeley Marina. [So—by way of a plug—that gathering is coming up this Saturday before sunset at the Berkeley Marina.]
So I love the history of astronomy and how it teaches us about how we come to perceive and pursue truth. The story of astronomy also has things to teach us about dogma, and about how dogmatism is essentially a form of idol worship.
To understand one of my favorite stories about astronomy, I need to start by reminding you that the universe has changed dramatically in the last 400 years. Okay the world itself hasn’t actually changed, but the way we understand the world is vastly different and we often forget how very different it is. For example, if I ask a seven-year-old in what way is the Earth the same as Mars or Saturn, she will likely answer that the earth is a planet, well DUH! But that young girl has no idea that that her “well, DUH” was such a controversy in the 16th century that she could have been excommunicated and thrown in a dungeon or worse for calling the earth a “planet.”
You see back then, what did people know of planets? When you looked up at the night sky for a few minutes you could clearly see that the sky was moving around the earth, and you could see that almost every star stayed exactly in the same place in relation to every other star in sky. For example, the Big Dipper always looked exactly the same. Its stars were fixed. Thing is that there were a few stars that were seen to wander about on the background of the night sky such as Venus, Jupiter, Mars, a few others. And they called these wandering stars “planets” which comes from the Greek and Latin words which mean “wanderer.” So a planet was a wandering star way up in the heavens. But everyone knew that the earth is not in the heavens and it isn’t wandering about up in the sky. It’s right down here on earth. Hey it is the earth! The skies are up there and we are not in the sky! Anyone can see that. We are on Terra Firma, the unmoving ground at the center of the rotating skies. It’s as plain as the nose on your face. And the Bible supports this. It says that Earth already existed on the first day of creation even before God created light—even before God created the moon and the stars and the sun. So how could God have created the earth orbiting a sun that had yet not been created?
Nevertheless, all this makes perfect makes sense IF you only see the world from inside your human self, standing only in the context of yourself on an immobile ground of all creation. From this place of astronomical narcissism, we are at the center—Make the Earth Great Again!—and we know that we have got to be right and anybody who thinks different is crazy, is stupid. Or as it says in the famous tweets: “Sad.”
So in the 1400’s along comes Nicolaus Copernicus and he tries to imagine the local universe from a point of view far away from the earth. First he tries to see the earth as if it were at the center of the skies. But it doesn’t really make sense to him. To see it that way, then the sun and stars are zooming in a wide orbit around the earth every 24 hours. The moon is too, but it’s even faster than the sun. The planets orbit the Earth but their path is weird, mostly they go forward, but some of them switch direction sometimes and go retrograde.
So he tries something different. What if we place the sun at the center with the earth orbiting the sun while it spins on its own axis? And all of a sudden he can see how much simpler this model is. But this means that the earth too is a planet – which means that earth itself is in the heavens, a wandering object just like all the other planets. And he writes all this up and of course he is regarded as a heretic and a kook. They demand that he prove it, and all he can say is that his model of the world is more simple and works better. But he has no proof. He cannot point to anything up there that does not orbit the earth. What a crackpot! Sad!
We jump ahead to 1609, and Galileo Galilei buys a toy with two lenses that make things look closer than they really are. He improves the toy into a telescope. Merchants start to use it to search the horizon for incoming cargo ships. But Galileo aims his own telescope not at the horizon, but up to the sky. And over a series of nights, he sees little white dots no one has seen before moving around near Jupiter. After observing how they change their positions each night he realizes that they are in orbit around Jupiter. And so there actually is something in the heavens that does not orbit the earth. He realizes that Copernicus must be right. He wants to write down his findings and tell everyone, but—and this is a big but—he can’t because the church has been clear that Copernicus was a heretic for suggesting this very thing. [Added after the sermon>] And Giordano Bruno was recently burned at the stake for advocating the geocentric view among other heresies.
So Galileo tries to get around this by writing a novel about a fictional debate between two characters. One thinks the earth is at the center, the other says the sun. Each tries to prove his claim, and the book ends without taking sides. But the Pope has Galileo arrested anyway. Why? Because the Vatican censors say that the fictional character arguing for Copernicus is a better debater in the story. So the Vatican moves to condemn and punish Galileo as a heretic. He is brought to trial and he is offered a plea deal. He can, on the one hand, recant his support for Copernicus and confess to everyone that the Earth does not move or, on the other hand, he can be placed under confinement for rest of his life deprived of any resources to continue his scientific work.
Ah, we all want Galileo to be the courageous martyr. We want him to stand up to the Pope and speak truth to power and say in no equivocal terms that whatever interpretation you want to give to the book of Genesis, the earth does indeed orbit the sun, that it actually is a planet that is sailing through the firmament with its fellow planets. That is how the movie should end with Jimmy Stewart or William Holden or even Charleton Heston telling the pope where he can stuff it. Instead, Galileo recants. He confesses that the earth is at the center and that it does not move.
Now there is a report that under his breath, Galileo whispered three words “Eppur si muove” “Nevertheless it moves.” That is, no matter what I say to the contrary, the earth is moving and it is carrying all of us along with her through the heavens.
The truth persists even if those in power cannot bear to hear it.
One thing I learn from this is that when we look out at the reality around us and lock ourselves into our limited perspective, the world that we think we see with our own eyes is a lie.
And there is another problem when we do that. We end up asking the wrong questions. Consider this one story about Sir Isaac Newton. A generation after Galileo, he looked up at the moon. Everyone else was asking how come it doesn’t fall down. But looking at it from a God’s-eye-view, Newton saw the moon circling the earth and he thought about a stone tied to a rope. If I hold the rope and then swing that stone around, it circles about me like the moon around the earth. But when I let go, it flies away. So Newton asks, “Where is the rope? Why doesn’t the moon fly away?” By asking the right question, he could begin his work on this invisible rope to which he gave a new name, “gravity,” a word that that any seven-year-old knows today.
Thus we can stay locked in our little selves, asking the wrong questions, and adamantly insisting that our false sense of reality is the only truth there is. We turn this lie into a fetish. Out of our fears we will have entered the world of idol-worship.
On Rosh Hashanah morning we read the story of the Golden Calf. Many people read the story as a warning against worshipping false gods. But there is a problem with that interpretation. The Israelites in the story are not worshipping the god Baal or the goddess Astarte. The name of the
Golden Calf is “YHVH, the God of Israel that rescued them from the land of
Egypt.” What do we learn from this? Just because you call it “God” doesn’t mean it isn’t an idol. Judith Plaskow and other theologians call this monolatry, the worship of a one and only idol named “God.”
The problem with God as an idol is that it is far far too small, far too limited. It is a God under our control whom we have made in our own image. When we try to see the world from this idol’s-eye-view, we are only looking out from within our own limited selves. It does not matter whether or not you call your belief a belief in God, the issue is that when you look out at the world, are you doing so from outside of your self-centeredness?
Now one consequence of having a small god is that we also have a small Bible, a small Torah that we also treat as an idol. If we think the Torah is only those words within the four corners of the scroll, and if we insist that we must take it literally, then the world was created in less than 150 hours and has been around for less than 6000 years. And thus the universe is small and time is short. This is the world of the biblical literalists and they have created a Golden Calf out of God and Torah.
For me there is nothing wrong with the Torah even with its misogyny, its heterosexism, its anthropocentrism, its triumphalism, its small-worldism, But it’s okay only as long as I don’t make an idol of it. What does that mean? It means that I allow myself to see it as the early attempt by our predecessors—a beautiful endeavor—to put into words their legacy of trying to understand their place in this universe and their responsibilities to the world and to each other during the short time they knew that each of us has to be alive. Their words challenge us to do the same. And that is the Torah that challenges us to continue in our own search for understanding and for truth. And it is that Torah that I am kissing.
And it is good to remind ourselves that the Torah is still open, that it is not closed and sealed. And it especially behooves us to remember that at this time toward the end of Yom Kippur when our rituals remind us of the gates that we keep open and of those gates that we close.
I have been talking in metaphors and analogies. I leave it to each of us to apply all this stuff about narcissism—spiritual or social—to our own lives, and also to the many issues that confront us: Israel/Palestine, global climate change, capitalism, white supremacy, xenophobia, ableism, sexism, homophobia among so many other issues.
When we do succeed in thinking outside the box of our limited self-centeredness, we too are then writing a Torah. We cannot repair the world and we cannot be healers for ourselves and for others if we are not willing to perceive it all from outside our limited selves.
In a few minutes we will be chanting Min HaMeytzar from Psalm 118. It means “From the narrow place I cry out to Yah, answer me with wide expansiveness.” May we cry out that we do not confine our vision to what we can see from inside our narrow box, but rather that we allow ourselves to see from the expansive space beyond our limitations.
May we cry out from the place of a narrow-mindedness, and call on the God’s-eye-view to expand our consciousness and our compassion.
And may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life. Shana Tova.