Q: With evidence of water on Mars, would alien life alter our religion?
Rabbi Paul Freedman says..
Imagine knowing that there is life ‘out there’ – that extra-terrestrials are not sci-ence fiction but science fact. It would re-mind or teach us that we are not the centre of the universe, although we will always be at the centre of our universe. (Hubble proved that.) It’s all a matter of perspective.(Newton and Einstein proved that.) But would it change Jewish thinking? That depends on your particular Jewish thinking.
Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa taught that we should have two pockets with a reminder in each: in one pocket, “I am dust and ashes,” and in the other, “The universe was created for my sake.”
We are all stardust, an idea that is both humbling and exhilarating. The story of cre-ation in the Torah is told in human terms. It is the story of our creation. Presumably alien theologians would concede the God of the universe created us earthlings too.
As our prophet Malachi exclaims: “Have we not all one Maker? One God who cre-ated us all?!” That extends to aliens if God is melech ha-olam, sovereign of the uni-verse. It is unsettling to realise that our thinking about God is currently, inevitably, rather parochial and earth-/human-centred. Did we, in a reversal of the Genesis text, create God in our image? Isaiah says: “As you are My witnesses,” says the Eter-nal, “I am God.” To which rabbinic midrashim add, “When you are not My wit-nesses, I am, as it were, not God.”
Paul is a physicist and rabbi of Radlett Reform Synagogue
Ben Lewis says..
We have just read Parashat Bereishit and the very earth-centric creation story it contains. Reading it, you would think other planets alone would be a challenge to the backstory for our existence. But is finding life just a step too far? Isn’t life inherently godly? Well, not necessarily.
To the scientist, life is something that can grow, reproduce, use chemical reactions to harness energy and respond to what is around it. It’s built of carbon, nitrogen, hy-drogen, phosphorus, oxygen and sulphur.
It can be nanoscopic bacteria or a highly-intelligent human: the complexity changes, but the nature of ‘life’ is simple and the same for them all. In the terms traditionally read over Succot, both “human and the beast”, all life, is “of dust and returns to dust” (Kohelet 3:20). Our tradition reached this conclusion long before science did.
What about life outside our planet? Sim-ple doesn’t mean easy – to live, organisms need very specific conditions, including the water found on Mars, which aren’t found in many places in our universe. Given the rarity of life compared to the vastness of space, it remains something of a miracle where it ex-ists. Should finding it challenge our Judaism? ”Everything has its time” (Kohelet 3:1) and such a discovery would be hum-bling in how we see our place in creation.
What could be more Jewish than helping us to realise how we “have no superiority over the beasts”. (Kohelet 3:19)?
Ben is a natural sciences graduate and RSY-Netzer movement worker