Dear Jew in the City-
In the new movie Guardians of the Galaxy, aliens from all over the universe team up to save the day. What does Judaism say about life on other planets?
It may not surprise you that people think a lot about the afterlife. Is there Heaven? Hell? Reincarnation? Eternal nothingness? I once heard a rabbi say, “Everyone wants to know where they’re going next; how come nobody wonders about where they were before they got here?”
Similarly, people think a lot about the creation of the universe. Some people are obsessed with reconciling the literal Biblical accounts with the current scientific theories of the Big Bang and evolution.
All this makes for an interesting diversion but, ultimately, it’s unimportant. None of it affects our obligations in the here and now.
The topic of life on other planets is in the same category. Does Judaism have what to say on the subject? Certainly. Does it matter? Not a whole lot, no. So a caveat before we begin: whatever Judaism has to say on the subject, however I present it, and whether you agree or disagree, it makes no difference. It’s an interesting thought experiment, nothing more.
That having been said, it should come as no shock to us that there may be forms of intelligence aside from humanity. There’s certainly precedent for it. First of all, there are angels, referenced throughout the Bible. Angels may not have free will (or, more specifically, they have limited free will) but they are intelligent and self-aware. Not only that, Maimonides attributes intelligence to the spheres in which the various heavenly bodies were once believed to be set. This does not appear to an allegory; it would seem that Maimonides considers the spheres to be a form of spiritual intelligence comparable to angels. Such an approach explains literally verses that describe the universe as praising God, such Psalms 19:2 (“The heavens declare the glory of God…”).
If we can consider the possibility that the skies themselves may be intelligent in a way we do not fully understand, it is certainly a much smaller leap to the idea that there may be life recognizable as such on other planets. There are a number of allusions in both the Jewish Bible and the Talmud that support the idea.
A personal favorite, which I’ve had occasion to cite in the past, is from the famous song of the prophetess Deborah (Judges chapter 5). The key verse for our purposes is 5:23, which states, “’Cursed be Meroz,’ said the angel of God. ‘Curse bitterly the inhabitants thereof because they did not come to the aid of God, to help God against the mighty!’” Rashi on this verse cites the Talmudic opinion that Meroz is the name of a distant star. That Meroz is a star makes sense in context as verse 20 states that “They fought from Heaven; the stars in their orbits fought against Sisera.” Nevertheless, Meroz is said to have inhabitants. Even if the intention of the verse is like the other Talmudic opinion (that Meroz is the name of a city), we see that Rashi and the Talmudic sources he cites are not opposed to the idea of life on other worlds.
Other verses also suggest this possibility. Among these are Psalms 145:13, “Your Kingdom is a Kingdom of all worlds…,” and Song of Songs 6:8, which refers to “worlds without number.” (The former verse is familiar from Ashrei, recited in prayer thrice daily, as the verse malchuscha malchus kol olamim….) Similarly, the Talmud refers to God supervising “18,000 worlds” (Avodah Zarah 3b). Arguably, if God’s Kingdom encompasses so many worlds and He goes to the effort of supervising them, there very well could be something there to rule and supervise!
Of course, if there is life on other worlds, we have no idea what it would be like. On this, the primary sources are silent. Are they humanoid? Are they sentient? Do they possess free will? Did God give them a Book of Law as He did us? We have no way of knowing for sure. There are different opinions based as much on logic and conjecture as on text. The Sefer HaBris by Rav Pinchas Horowitz (Poland, 18th-19th century) suggests quite convincingly that, just as sea life differs significantly from land-based life, we should expect any life found on other worlds to be very different from what we know on Earth.
In researching this topic, one name kept coming up: Rav Chasdai Crescas (Spain, 14th-15th century), author of a work called Ohr Hashem, which supports the possibility of life on other planets for reasons similar to those we have discussed. On the other hand, his contemporary, Rav Yosef Albo, author of Sefer Ha’Ikkarim, discounts the possibility on the basis that the universe was created for the sake of humanity. In his opinion, extraterrestrials that would never interact with mankind would have no purpose.
So who’s right, Rav Crescas or Rav Albo? We have no way of knowing. But as we’ve said, at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter. It’s an interesting question to consider but whether or not there’s life on Krypton, Ork or Melmac, we have our responsibilities down here on Earth.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, JITC Educational Correspondent