Pondering extraterrestrial life from a religious perspective

The brilliant tapestry of young stars flaring to life resembles a glittering fireworks display in this 25th anniversary NASA Hubble Space Telescope image. The Hubble was launched in 1990. Photo courtesy of NASA
The brilliant tapestry of young stars flaring to life resembles a glittering fireworks display in this 25th anniversary NASA Hubble Space Telescope image. The Hubble was launched in 1990.
Photo courtesy of NASA

What does it mean, outside of the realm of science fiction, if conditions for viable life are not unique to Earth?

If there are extraterrestrials, will that make us on Earth feel less significant?

And what does all this mean for Jewish theology?

Scientific and religious perspectives shared space in a forum titled, “The Search for Extraterrestrial Life: New Developments and the Implications for Jewish Theology,” held Sunday at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda.


The keynote speaker was Jennifer Wiseman, NASA’s senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope. With slide accompaniment, Wiseman summarized the space science that might presage the existence of other habitable planets.

“With the telescopes we have now, we can peer into protostars as they start to form,” Wiseman said. “We can now differentiate star from star, with no blurring effects of the atmosphere.”

Technology, she said, opens up “new realms” and changes our understanding of the universe, as active, rather than stagnant.  “We now know that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars.”

What intrigues most people, including those at the forum, is whether there are places other than Earth in our own galaxy and in other galaxies – there are billions of them in the observable universe – that are habitable for planets and life.

The International Astronomical Union defines a planet as an object that meets three criteria: it must orbit the sun; it must be big enough for gravity to squash it into a round ball; and it must have cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood.

“Even if one star in a billion has a planet, we would have quite a few,” said Wiseman, who holds a doctoral degree in astronomy from Harvard University.  “There are now more than 1,000 confirmed planets and more than 3,000 candidates in our galaxy.”

One of the major goals of the Hubble space exploration is to determine which telescopes are needed to search for habitable planets. “Most of those discovered are too hot or too cold to support life,” Wiseman said.

Fred Scherlinder Dobb, senior rabbi at Adat Shalom, then considered the religious implications of what the Hubble and other space exploration might find.

Using both traditional and contemporary sources, Scherlinder Dobb took the position that proof of exoplanetary life, or life on planets outside the solar system, is more cause for “wonder and appreciation than for alarm”— which he believes is reflective of much of Jewish thought.

In his book Faith and Doubt, Scherlinder Dobb pointed out, Rabbi Norman Lamm, a modern Orthodox leader and former chancellor of Yeshiva University, wrote: “No religious position is loyally served by refusing to consider annoying theories which may well turn out to be facts.”

But Scherlinder Dobb acknowledged there are contrary views as well as ambivalent ones in Judaism. Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a chasidic leader, used to carry two pieces of paper in his pocket.

“One read, ‘I am dust and ashes,’ and the other, ‘For my sake the world was created,’” Scherlinder Dobb said. “We have both infinite and infinitesimal significance.”

Scherlinder Dobb also related duality about possible extraterrestrial life to an often-quoted rabbinic statement: “Whoever saves a soul, it’s as if they saved a whole world.” In one version, this statement concerns a Jewish life, whereas in another, any life, the rabbi pointed out.

Spiritual values of religion and empirical values of religion need not be in conflict, Scherlinder Dobb continued. “Much of Jewish theology is open to what we are saying today. Abraham Joshua Heschel, for example, asked: If we believe in ‘universal’ ethics and a ‘universal’ God, what’s challenging about exoplanetary life?

The Institute for Science and Judaism, housed at Adat Shalom, sponsored the forum.
The mission of the institute is to provide for a creative, respectful dialogue between science and Judaism and to nurture an interface between them.
Space agency selects challenge based on Israeli scientist’s work

While Jewish thinkers are debating the meaning of possible extraterrestrial life, based on NASA research, the federal space agency for the first time, selected an app challenge based on the work of an Israeli scientist.

Alon Peled, a professor in the department of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, developed a challenge for NASA’s 4th Space Apps hackathon. It is based on his new book, Traversing Digital Babel—Information, E-Government, and Exchange, and on his research project in the field of “big  data.”

“The goal of this challenge was to find a way to transform NASA’s information assets so they are easier to discover on the web, so that citizens, entrepreneurs, and experts working in non-pace domains can discover and use them,” Peled explained.

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