Question: What does Judaism have to say about the possibility of life on other planets? Isn’t it a bit ridiculous to think that we are the only game in town?
From Steve S.
Aliens are in. And don’t think it is just a SciFi fad. The more we peer out to the far reaches of the universe, the more enticing the question becomes. Not accepting the possibility of life outside our pale blue dot—as cosmic Carl Sagan calls it—is becoming a bit like joining the flat earth society.
The hunt for exoplanets is on. In the last few years, scientists have gone from pure speculation to confirming the existence of hundreds of planets revolving around distant stars. Amazingly some of these may even have water on them and happen to be parked in the ‘sweet’ spot in terms of the distance from their stars required to sustain life according to our current definition of it. There was considerable astro-geek hoopla last year as the first evidence of a rocky, earth-sized planet was discovered in our relative back yard (in astronomical terms). The suspense is mounting….
In response to your question, the prospect of life on other planets is entirely acceptable within the framework of Torah opinions. (This does not mean ET will be attending your neighbor’s Bar Mitzvah any time soon if ever.) Being open to the possibility of life throughout the universe, and theologically mandating it, are two entirely different things. There have been a surprising number of rabbis who have weighed in on this issue throughout the ages extending all the way back to Talmudic times.
The Original Star Wars
There are two Talmudic references in Tractates Shavuot 36a and Mo’ed Katan 16a that cite an episode from the Book of Judges (Shoftim 5:23) that is quite extraordinary. The passage in the Book of Judges occurs in the context of the Song of Deborah and speaks of the one of the battles of Israel that occurred between Barak, the Jewish leader of Deborah’s army, and Sisera, the captain of the Canannite army of King Yavin. There (5:23) the verse states “Cursed is Maroz, said the angle of God, bitterly accursed are its inhabitants.”
The question the commentators want to address revolves around the identity of Maroz. There are those who say that it is the name of a prominent person or perhaps a city. Yet, according to another interpretation, Maroz is the name of a star. The word for a star (kokav) however, is often employed with reference to planets such as Mars, Mercury and the like, or even a constellation or star system.
A few lines earlier in the Song of Deborah another verse (5:20) reads: “From the heaven they fought, the very stars (planets) in their orbits did battle with Sisera.” Thus, even the stars (planets) helped the Jewish people during this war with the exception of Maroz which was Sisera’s star (planet). In terms of important background information, we should note that there was a perceived astrological influence from the celestial spheres. Not that Sisera was an alien from another planet.
A more modern understanding might reframe this as an assumption of an implied network effect, connecting in a non-local manner all matter and energy. Turned a different way, this interrelationship of the stellar objects would support the contention that human events on earth have cosmic significance that the universe is not indifferent to. In a network, even small, local fluctuations can lead to more complex macro-scale behavioral changes. Conflict here echos throughout the universe. Everything, it would seem, has some degree of quantum entanglement.
Consequent to Maroz’s failure to come and aid the Jews against Sisera, Barak made an oath whereby he curses Maroz and its inhabitants. Thus, according to the opinion that Maroz is a planet we find a clear assertion that this planet has inhabitants! There would appear to be life elsewhere in the universe! Now we don’t know anything more about these inhabitants—if they are humanoid or intelligent, simple or complex organisms or plants or animals. It should also be emphasized that the commentators are not necessarily subscribers to the ancient astronaut theory that postulates that ancient civilizations were visited and assisted by extraterrestrials. These other worldly inhabitants were not expected to visit, in the literal sense, in order to help, but only to provide some mysterious, positive spiritual influence that is not elaborated on.
Once when responding to a scientist who specialized in the search for extraterrestrial life, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, responded that he should continue his research in this area and that: “One who declares that there is no life besides on earth is limiting the Creator’s abilities.” This view is nothing new. Hasdai Crescas, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, evoked the words of Psalm 19:2: “The heaven [or skies] declare the glory of God….” The rich cosmic landscape with all of its created wonders, is a testament to the artistry of its Creator. Astonishingly for its time, Crescas’ classic work, Ohr Hashem, originally published in Ferrara, Italy in 1555, contains an entire chapter where he maintains that the possibility of life on other plants is not in conflict with Jewish belief and Torah sources.
Moreover, the Divine is identical with, but not limited to, the laws of nature. Those laws contain a drive towards life, and eventually life is intended to spread throughout the universe. The idea of exploring our world and then the universe at large in order to encounter every possible permutation of life and created thing, amounts to acquiring a greater love and awe for the Creator. So ‘to boldly go where no one has gone before’ to quote Star Trek, is not so far off.
But don’t get too excited for the arrival of Spock just yet. The idea of making first contact with the Vulcans or Klingons is a far cry from the idea that life exists throughout the universe. A tempered resistance to the notion of human-like intelligent life on other planets does exist in the rabbinic tradition. This is not to say that other creatures may not possess human-like qualities such as the use of tools, intellect and speech. Monkeys sometimes fashion tools, dolphins are extremely intelligent and parrots can learn to speak this sentence.
For anyone who has taken a zoology course, the biodiversity of planet earth already carries with it a sense of alien life. The exotic creatures living in human digestive tracts or in the flumes of volcanos, at the depths of the ocean, or beneath layers of ice, certainly qualify as the precursors to actual extraterrestrial encounters. We have sufficiently surprising encounters within our own earth environment, and maybe even in our own houses, with which to anticipate what a broad spectrum of organisms throughout the universe might look like.
Moreover, the Talmud favors what today is known as biomimicry. The world, and all of the creatures that it contains, are replete with naturally occurring technologies. Each created entity possesses something that others do not have. Thus, the idea that alien life might even be endowed with some unique abilities or characteristics that are in some respect superior to a human being is not out of the question.
What is more problematic is the issue of free will. True intelligence is bound up with free will. Further still, the Sages equate free will with the giving of the Torah. While this is an enormous topic in its own right, let us simply say that on a metaphysical level, Jewish mysticism identifies the giving of the Torah with the bestowal of the most authentic type of free will. This makes keeping the commandments of the Torah a real choice.
But then this drags up other issues….
The biggest rabbinical concern over intelligent, human-like alien life relates to the singularity of the giving of the Torah here on earth at Mount Sinai. Retracing the logic of parallel universes or multiverse theory in contemporary cosmology, one might imagine, by way of thought experiment, that if this kind of life exists elsewhere then perhaps a another Torah was given on other planets (otherwise these beings would not be afforded an equal opportunity to acquire the Torah). Moreover, since the plain meaning of the text of the Torah is couched in concrete historical events and descriptive detail that is particular to earth, the rabbinic opinions are inclined to adopt a human and earth based bio-centrism.
In sum, the rabbis were not so much concerned with an alien invasion as with whether or not aliens could have free will. The degree to which free will may be tied to higher orders of intelligence remains to be explicated. Overall, the comfort level with the prospects of alien life in Torah is high. We should continue to search. And if for some reason we don’t seem to be finding life out there, then perhaps it is part of our job to change that.
You can beam me up now.