December 12, 2018

New planets, a God for the cosmos and exotheology

   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 ” target=”_blank”>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 ” target=”_blank”>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 ” target=”_blank”>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, “” target=”_blank”>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, ” target=”_blank”>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 ” target=”_blank”>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, ” target=”_blank”>