We are blessed to live in an age of great discoveries. Prior to 1992, astronomers had not been able to identify with certainty any planet in orbit around a star outside of our solar system. But these planets, known as extra solar planets or exoplanets, have now been found. In fact, in the first decade or so from the discovery of the first exoplanet, hundreds of such planets were located in diverse areas of the known universe.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) launched the Kepler space mission in 2009 in order to find Earth sized planets within the habitable zone of a star. The mission focused on a relatively small star field in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra, perhaps the extent of the sky obscured by an average extended fist. The discoveries have been phenomenal, and the pace seems to be accelerating.
Most of the exoplanets first found by the Kepler mission were large, Jupiter sized planets. Thanks to advances in technology, however, in December 2011 Kepler astronomers announced the discovery of several Earth sized exoplanets. One, called Kepler-20e, is somewhat smaller than Earth and the other, called Kepler 20-f, is somewhat larger. Neither seemed suitable for life, however. The smaller of the two exoplanets orbits so close to its parent star that its surface temperature approaches 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. The other, by comparison, is relatively cooler, but still registers around 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
Last month NASA announced the discovery of 461 new planet candidates. This brings the total number of potential planets to 2,740, singly or in groups in orbit around 2,036 stars. Of the new planet candidates, four are found in the region where liquid water might exist, i.e., the habitable zone of their solar system. One of the four, designated KOI-172.02, is similar to Earth in at least two respects: its radius is about 1.5 the radius of Earth and its year is about 242 days. NASA has not yet confirmed that KOI-172.02 is in fact a planet, but as science writer Timothy Ferris has said, “We live in a changing universe, and few things are changing faster than our conception of it.” (Ferris, The Whole Shebang (Simon & Schuster 1997), at 11.)
For sure, it is much too soon to claim that we are close to discovering life on other planets, especially intelligent life with which (or whom) we could communicate. Primitive life forms emerged relatively soon after our own planet coalesced and water formed, but well over 4 billion years had to pass before our species evolved. And even if there is life, and intelligent life at that, communication with it is problematical. Our own language skills have been developed only recently, by the cosmic clock, and our ability to utilize electromagnetic waves for communication is barely more than a century old.
It is not too soon, though, to contemplate the implications of a discovery of life on other planets. People have speculated about other worlds for centuries, of course, even millennia. The Jewish commentary is rather sparse, but still provocative.
There are psalms, one of which, depending on the translation, has been read to refer to thousands of worlds (see Ps. 68:18) and another of which, again by some translations, speaks of a kingdom of God that encompasses “all worlds” (see Ps. 145:13). The Talmud includes a discussion about what God has done since the destruction of the Temple in which there is the suggestion that “he rides a light cherub and floats in 18,000 worlds.” (Avodah Zarah 3b.) The number 18,000 may be derived from a perceived allusion in Ezekiel (at 48:35) to a circumference of 18,000. In any event, the Tikunei Zohar (c. 13th Century C.E.?) continues the theme, contending that the 18,000 worlds are to be presided over by 18,000 Tzaddikim (righteous men). We do not know, though, whether these references are to physical worlds or spiritual worlds.
Subsequently, different rabbis considered the issue of extraterrestrial life and produced, don’t be shocked, different results. In the 14th Century C.E., the Spanish Rabbi Chadai Crescas wrote in Or HaAdonai (HaShem) that nothing in Torah precluded the existence of life on other worlds. (At 4:2.) His student, Rabbi Yosef Albo (d. 1444?), on the other hand, held a different view. He reasoned in Sefer HaIkarrim that such creatures would have no free will, and therefore there would be no reason for them to exist. For him, as a theological matter, they could not and did not exist.
Some four hundred years later, the Vilna kaballist Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz took a position between Crescas and Albo. In Sefer HaBris, he agreed that extraterrestrial beings would have no free will and no moral responsibility, but thought that they might still exist. Concluding his review of the literature, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan said: "We therefore have a most fascinating reason why the stars were created, and why they contain intelligent life. Since an overcrowded Earth will not give the Tzaddikim the breadth they require, each one will be given his own planet, with its entire population to enhance his spiritual growth.” (See The Aryeh Kaplan Reader, (Mesorah, 1983), at 173; see also, Aryeh Kaplan, “Extraterrestrial life.”)
Writing shortly after Neil Armstrong placed the first human foot on the Moon, Rabbi Norman Lamm, who was to become and still is Chancellor of Yeshiva University in New York, considered at length man’s place in the universe and the religious implications of extraterrestrial life. He feared neither technological advances nor mankind’s changing role in the universe. He saw “no need to exaggerate man’s importance” or “to exercise a kind of racial or global arrogance, in order to discover the sources of man’s significance and uniqueness.”(Lamm, Faith and Doubt (KTAV 1971), at 99.) Moreover, while recognizing the difference between conjecture and proof, Lamm acknowledged that “(n)o religious position is loyally served by refusing to consider annoying theories which may well turn out to be facts.” (Id. at 124.)
Judaism has seen mankind as the purpose of creation, and man as made in the image of God, but Lamm asserts that “there is nothing in . . . the Biblical doctrine per se . . . that insists upon man’s singularity.” (Id. at 128.) “Judaism . . . can very well accept a scientific finding that man is not the only intelligent and bio-spiritual resident in God’s world.” (Id. at 133.)
Forty years after Lamm wrote his comments, exoplanets are more than a theoretical possibility to be considered by philosophers. If the astrobiologists actually found life elsewhere, a second genesis event, if you will, the discovery would be stunning, maybe literally so. Whether everyone would be as sensitive and humble as Lamm is an open question.
No doubt there will be those who will welcome the development with open arms. For instance, Father Jose Funes, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, believes that there would be no conflict with his faith, because the creative freedom of God cannot be limited: “As there exist many creatures on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God.”
Others are not so sure. For Christians who hold that humanity was initially subjected to original sin and that a Savior, in the form of God incarnate, came to save it, what does extraterrestrial life say about sin, about saving and about the Savior? At the recent 100 Year Starship Symposium, sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Christian Weidemann, a philosophy professor, asked, presumably in all seriousness: “Did Jesus die for Klingons too?”
Jews don’t have to answer those questions. But they will have some of their own dilemmas to confront. That there really are – not just theoretically, but really are – actual planets out there that may serve as the hosts for extraterrestrial life is a fact that colors a question Christopher Hitchens asked some years ago in an essay for The Templeton Foundation. The essay was in response to a general question that Templeton posed to over a dozen scientists and non-scientists: Does science make belief in God obsolete? Hitchens answer was “No, but it should.” In his fuller response, he was, well, Hitchens, which is to say unsubtle, impolitic and acerbic. He asked what planner would design a doomed galaxy like our own, subject our species to near extinction, and then just 3,000 years ago disclose a saving revelation “to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?” (At 15-16.)
It is easy to dismiss Hitchens because his tone is so off-putting. But Rabbi Arthur Green, current rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College in Boston and a man who is as devoted to Judaism and the Jewish people as anyone, has asked essentially the same question. Using similar words, but in a different context and no doubt with a different purpose, Green has asked “Can we imagine a God so arbitrary as to choose one nation, one place, and one moment in human history in which the eternal divine will was to be manifest for all time? Why should the ongoing traditions, institutions, and prejudices of the Western Semitic tribes of that era be visited on humanity as the basis for fulfilling the will of God?” (Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name (Jason Aronson 1992), at 105.)
Of course, Hitchens and Green provide different responses to their independent recognition of the origin and nature of Biblical stories. One sees myth, the other Myth. One finds at best nothing special, while the other sees the basis for a morality applicable to all humanity. But, if the underlying question being raised by both Green and Hitchens, is a good one, why isn’t it a better one when raised to the cosmic level? Can the God which once spoke sparingly to selected individuals, and then became the God of a family, of a tribe and, ultimately, a people and a nation, now expand its reach not just around our globe and to everything that lives in this biosphere but beyond, to other star systems, even other galaxies? Can we on Earth accommodate such a God?
Even without the benefit of the discoveries of the Kepler mission, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky has addressed the issue. “Theology that cannot face brute facts about cosmology and evolutionary biology is hopeless,” he has written. “Contemporary Judaism needs a faith befitting a cosmos . . . .” (Kalmanofsky, “Cosmic Theology and Earthly Religion,” in Jewish Theology In Our Time (Jewish Lights 2010), at 24-25.)
Thinking about the existence of extraterrestrial life, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the prospect is staggering.” True enough. Now though, we have some good evidence that there are exoplanets in a position to host life forms. Shouldn’t we be engaged in developing a theology for the cosmos, an exotheology for this new reality? And won’t we need a new liturgy as well, one that is universal in the fullest sense of that word?
Another version of this post was published previously at www.judaismandscience.com.