Last week I was asked if I had a comment for a paper on a chapter from a book “Religions and Extraterrestrial Life” by David Weintraub. I don’t know what happened to the news piece – I suspect other more urgent news took priority. It’s a question I didn’t think I’d ever answer in all of my rabbinate! Someone asked to see my comment, so here it is – which is not meant as a review of the book itself (I have only seen the chapter on Judaism). For a scholarly analysis of the issue by a theologian rather than professor of Astronomy, Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs z’tzl dealt with the topic in his book ‘A Jewish Theology’. My response of course misses the most important Jewish articulation of the issue by Steven Spielberg with ‘E.T.’ (on which my friend and comic, Philip Simon commented, “Phone Home…or at least text your mother, she’s worried sick about you!”)
So, here’s my response:
For this thought experiment to work, I think we have to leave aside what seems to me the rather bonkers idea, albeit fashionable, that we would look to ancient wisdom in the form of sacred Jewish texts for a discussion of extra-terrestrial beings, with the exception of a Divine retinue. The non-scientific texts were written by people trying to figure out their own world and I doubt it even crossed their minds to imagine other non-earthly populations in the cosmos. Engaging in such textual trickery is like trying to prove the Big Bang was already conceptualised in the seven days of creation.
So, if we put that nonsense aside, we can ask ourselves how might a Liberal Jew respond to the discovery or encounter with extra-terrestrial life. Probably with anxious and surprised excitement. It would be the ultimate encounter with the alien other and test of how we really understand our relationship to the world. Jews after all have long internalised what it means to be regarded as ‘alien’. Not least of our problems would be the reimagining of things like human rights. If it turns out the alien life-forms are superior to humans in their technology at least it will finally put paid to the ‘Jews run the world’ theories.
Liberal theology is already accepting of scientific understandings of how the world came to be. And I’m not sure any Liberal Jew holds that humankind is the pinnacle of creation – which presupposes an odd view of the theory of evolution. Truth be told, I think it might be a good wake up call for all religions. The theists apparently have their answers already about the universality, uniqueness and one-ness of God, but perhaps we might have to imagine a new theology altogether beyond anything we can comprehend. Though I suspect initially the non-believing Jews (who I are at least a large minority if not the majority) may feel somewhat vindicated!
Judaism has never expected the world’s population to convert to Judaism. Why on earth would a sentient alien species want to convert to any religion which is essentially a human expression of our search for meaning? This is a particularly Liberal Jewish way of viewing religion – as human expression not Divine writ. It takes a certain arrogance to think ‘they’d’ be interested in us! Liberal Judaism has always emphasised that access to something like ‘The Truth’ is unobtainable to any one religion or people. The encounter with extra-terrestrials would only expand the possibilities of understanding the universe and might help us solve a few of problems along the way. Though the aliens may be in more trouble than us if they’ve found us in an intergalactic adventure – since necessity is the mother of all invention.
Could they be Jewish? Well it takes our converts at least a year of study, community engagement and Jewish practice to become Jewish – and they must be sincere and genuine. Liberal Judaism upholds the principles that Judaism is less genetics and more practiced in community and learnt. If we’re really doing this thought experiment we might first ask – could an extra-terrestrial marry a human? Let’s suppose our answer were to be yes, then we would be faced with a dilemma about commitment to Judaism too in whatever form it has evolved into when that finally happens!
Finally, the author certainly misses the most important Jewish cultural contribution to this debate. After all, it was Jews who created one of the most famous modern humanoid aliens in the form of the DC Comics character Superman and one of our most famous coreligionists spent years acting as one – Leonard Nimoy as Spock.
What I didn’t mention is my thoughts keep coming back to the haunting and brilliant novel ‘The Sparrow’ by Mary Doria Russell, which I recommend to all anyway (regardless of whether you’re a sci-fi fan).