Last week NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) revealed that its Spitzer Space Telescope has discovered 7 Earth-size planets—technically, exoplanets because they are located outside of our solar system—circling the star Trappist-1, which lies just 39 light-years from Earth—that’s only 229 trillion miles. 3 of these planets are firmly located in what’s called the “habitable zone”—the area with the right conditions most likely to have liquid water, and therefore, life. Scientists have responded with absolute glee knowing that, as one put it: “Recent advancements in space technology have led to the discovery of one exoplanet after another, leading to the conclusion that life must exist outside of Earth.” Hello, anyone else out there? Are you listening?
Rabbi Joshua Flug asks an insightful question: Why do scientists invest so many resources into finding life on other planets? What are they looking for? They don’t expect to see the cute green aliens who look like humans. Rather, they are looking for signs of plant life or microorganisms. One of the reasons why they want to discover life on other planets is because they have extreme difficulty explaining how life on Earth could have originated. So much so that major scientists, including Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick and astronomer Fred Hoyle have suggested that life didn’t originate on Earth but rather on some alien planet and was carried over to Earth by aliens or a meteor. In fact Hoyle once commented that the likelihood of life originating on Earth is the same likelihood that “a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.”
Rabbi Flug calls this, “reverse emunah (faith).” They have so much faith that life could not have originated from Gd that they are willing to resort to us being descendants of aliens from another planet! The same people who look down with scorn and mock those who believe in UFO’s place all their trust in the existence of the aliens as our ancestors. Science doesn’t have a bit of evidence of even a single-celled organism beyond earth, but they still have faith that the day will come when those aliens are revealed.
In the meantime, we Jews can feel proud of our emunah, our faith. It’s a faith that was best expressed in the Torah. It’s a faith based upon plenty of evidence. We, as a people experienced 1st hand the 10 plagues in Egypt; we, as a people experienced 1st hand the crossing of the Red Sea; we, as a people experienced 1st hand the raining of mana from heaven and Moses’ drawing water from a rock. We stood as a people at Mt. Sinai and actually heard Gd give us the 10 Commandments and the Torah. And we declared our emunah, our faith as we said (Ex. 24:7): Kol asher dibeyr Hashem naaseh v’nishma (Everything that Gd has said, we will do and we will obey)! Our naaseh v’nishma faith is rooted in actually seeing open miracles and experiencing a direct relationship with Gd, while these scientists take a NASA v’nishma approach hoping that one day NASA will find alien life on another planet.
But what if a space ship landed on Mars found intelligent life there, would that challenge our faith as Jews? Did Jewish sages ever have this discussion? Yes they did. Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horovitz of Vilna wrote a book (Sefer HaBrit, 1797) where he showed from various sources that Jews believe that there is life elsewhere. On the basis of a verse in Isaiah (45:18), he showed that there are creatures on planets other than earth: “Gd did not create the earth for emptiness; He fashioned it to be inhabited.” In other words, if there are other inhabitable planets, they were created to be inhabited.
Rabbi Horovitz mentions a passage in the Talmud (Moed Katan 16a) which, according to one opinion, the word Meyroz in the book of Judges (5:23) is a star or a planet. Devorah had called upon Barak to lead the Jewish people in a battle against Sisera. In her victorious song she sings: Oru meyroz (cursed be Meyroz). This indicates that Meyroz was inhabited. 3 verses earlier it stated: “From the Heavens they fought, the stars from their orbits battled Sisera.” In other words, even the heavenly bodies came to help Israel in this great battle. Meyroz, however, which was a dominant star of Sisera, according to the Talmud, apparently didn’t come to their aid. And so Barak, the general of the Jews, cursed Meyroz and its inhabitants.
I’m not quite sure what this means, but whether Meyroz actually refers to Mars or not, is a question—especially now when the latest space probes have shown there is no life there. However they do show that there might have been.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menchem Mendel Schneerson z”l, taught that there is support in the Torah that life exists on other planets. Dr. Velvel Greene was an original participant in NASA’s Exobiology program searching for life on Mars (d. 2011). He sought and received an audience with the Lubavitcher Rebbe to ask him if this was the sort of work he should be doing. The Rebbe responded, “Dr. Greene, look for life on Mars and if you don’t find it there, look somewhere else in the Universe for it! Because for someone to say there is no life outside the planet earth is to put limitations upon the Creator.” The Rebbe then asked him for regular reports on his scientific research.
Let’s go even further. Is it possible that at one time there was communication between extraterrestrial life and this world? Can we find support for this in the Torah? Yes! In Genesis (6:4) we find the passage: Han’filim hayu vaaretz bayamim haheym (The N’filim were in the earth in those days). Whoever the N’filim were—various approaches include giants, princes or fallen angels—they were, as the meaning of the name indicates, “people who fell,” nafal means, “to fall”—i.e. who fell here on earth from somewhere else. While there is quite a discussion as to who they were, there are many Torah scholars who believe they came from someplace beyond the earth. So according to this view, the N’filim were the 1st extraterrestrials who came to earth.
The Midrash (Rabbah Breyshit 3:7) has no hesitation in teaching that ours is not the 1st world Gd created: Borey olamot umachliban (Gd created other worlds and He destroyed them). How many worlds came before this? This is not for us to know. Just know that there were worlds before this one.
As an aside, it’s interesting that Israel is getting into the space exploration race entering the international competition to send the 1st civilian mission to the moon and claim a $20 million prize. Yariv Bash is one of the 3 co-founders of SpaceIL, the Israeli company entering the race. During the Holocaust Bash’s grandfather was forced to build V2 rockets for the Nazis. Now Bash has his eyes on a different kind of rocket that will take the 1st Israeli spacecraft to the moon and who knows where beyond after that.
Are the passages cited by the Midrash, Rabbi Horovitz and the Lubavitcher Rebbe definitive proof that the Torah maintains there is life on other planets? Not necessarily. But it does give us reason to pause and contemplate the awesome universe Gd created. And that alone helps elevate our faith. But ultimately our faith as Jews is not rooted in the hope that one day NASA will find alien life on another planet…but it is rooted in the fact that we, as a people, actually saw Gd’s miracles and experienced a direct relationship Him. It happened to the ancient Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt; it has happened in our time with all the miracles of the modern State of Israel; and it has happened in each of our lives. To see it we only need to open our eyes. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis