The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the website, The Jewish Thinker, on 30 June, 2012.
Did the Bible ever envisage space travel? Moses going up to God (Ex. 19) and Elijah ascending to heaven (II Kings 2:11) were probably one-off miracles. The Talmud thinks the sky is a solid dome, impossible to penetrate (BB 25a-b); the prayer book asserts that it is impossible to reach the moon. When the Bible says that the heavens belong to God (Ps. 115:16), Nachmanides understands “heavens” as a spiritual realm: a state, not a place. Others had a more literalist interpretation, insisting that neither the people of Babel nor Nebuchadnezzar should have tried to ascend to heaven (Gen. II; Isa. 14:13-15; Pes. 94a, Sanh. 109a).
Today space travel is more than science fiction. Is it, however, a risk to human life, bearing in mind the halachic warning against entering a risky situation. Even with the best scientific backing, things can go wrong, as with Ilan Ramon and his fellow astronauts. But in an optimal situation the Psalmist’s words, “If I ascend to heaven, even there shall Thy hand guide me” (Ps. 139:8-10), become a prophecy, in that space travel will enhance our awe of the Creator (Ps. 19:2).
There is a doubt as to whether the mitzvot can or must be observed in space. Since they are for “all the days when you are alive on this earth” (Deut. 12:1), Rabbi Benzion Firrer says this applies in our terrestrial habitat, not beyond the earth. Rabbi Shlomo Goren says that in space, human life still depends on elements transported from earth, therefore we are governed by the normal rules. Rabbi Firrer says that when earthly materials come into contact with the moon, they gain the status of lunar matter. Thus a space craft landing on the moon becomes part of the moon. Rabbi Menahem Kasher rules that the mitzvot are obligatory on Jews wherever they are, even on the planets (J.D. Bleich, “Contemporary Halachic Problems”, vol.1).
Relevant issues include the following:
1. Shabbat (which is dependent upon time): do we accept earthly times? Do we observe Shabbat for the period of one orbit after every 6 orbits?
2. Festivals (dependent upon dates determined on earth): do we follow dates as in Jerusalem? Or suspend all such mitzvot?
3. Prayers, tallit, t’fillin, etc.: do we say with Rabbi Menahem Kasher, “The situation on the moon [or Mars] is equivalent to the north and south poles; therefore in a 24-hour day, we alternate periods of 12 hours day and 12 hours night regardless of the presence or absence of light from the sun”?
4. Kashrut – do foodstuffs retain their status when in space?
5. Ethical laws, e.g. “Love your neighbour”: what does “neighbour” mean in space, and how do I love him/her there?
Judaism accepts that there can be other worlds. The Talmud says, “What does God do by night? – Perhaps the kind of thing He does by day; or maybe He rides a light cherub, and floats in 18,000 worlds” (AZ 36).
“Rabbi Judah b. R. Simon said: ‘Let there be evening’ is not written here, but ‘and there was evening’: hence we know that a time-order existed before this. Rabbi Abbahu said: This proves that the Holy One, blessed by He, went on creating worlds and destroying them until He created this one and said, ‘Those did not please Me, this one did’” (Gen. Rabbah 3:9).
Is earthly man the summit of creation? Consider these sources:
a. “Though we see there are so many creatures, we need not be confused as to which is the goal of creation. There is a natural criterion by which we can determine which of all the creatures is the end… we find that the goal is man. If anyone imagines that there is another being outside of man that is endowed with such superior qualities, let him show us these qualities or even some of them in some other creature.” (Sa’adia Gaon).
b. “It should not be believed that all beings exist for the sake of man. On the contrary, all the other beings, too, have been intended for their own sakes and not for the sake of something else. Thus, even according to our view holding that the world has been produced in time, the quest for the final end of all the species of beings collapses. For we say that in virtue of His will He has brought into existence all the parts of the world, some of which have been intended for their own sakes, whereas others have been intended for the sake of some other thing that is intended for its own sake. Just as He willed that the human species should come to exist, He also willed that the spheres and their stars should come to exist; and He also willed that the angels should come to exist. In respect of everything being He intended that being itself” (Maimonides).
c. “What are we? What is our life, our goodness, our virtue, our help, our strength, our might? What can we say to You? Heroes are as nothing in Your sight, the famous as though they never existed, the learned as though they were ignorant, the wise as though they were unintelligent. Most of their actions are worthless in Thy sight, their entire life a fleeting breath. Man has no eminence over beast: all is vanity. Yet from the first You singled out mortal man and deemed him worthy to stand before You. Who can say to You, ‘What are You doing?’ Even if man is righteous, what does he give You? You, Lord our God, graciously granted us this Day of Atonement, that we may return to You and wholeheartedly observe the laws You have willed” (Yom Kippur prayers).
If there are intelligent beings outside the earth, must they observe the Torah? Look at these sources:
a. “It’s impressive for God to have Martians on Mars. I would be perturbed if He gave them a different Torah, one with different commandments. We see the Torah as ultimate. So it’s not a threat unless a divine value system were given that contradicts the fundamental values of our Torah, because we have a God who is omniscient and speaks in absolutes. Would Jewish law apply to them? If they are humans or humanoid, it would be a matter of identifying the species. If on Mars there are people who have a mind and free will, then the exact same values should apply. And if the aliens aren’t Jewish? Then they would have to be bound by the Seven Noahide Laws, by universal ethics” (Rabbi Moshe David Tendler).
b. “The difference between human beings and animals is free will. You cannot give a commandment to a creature that doesn’t have free will. If we assume there are human beings elsewhere in space, it would be a contradiction. If they are human, then they have to have free will. That means they would have received the Torah. Now, they could either have a different Torah than ours, or our Torah. But since our Torah is the truth, they cannot have a Torah different from ours. And they cannot have ours because it would be irrelevant to them since our Torah was given at a specific time, in a specific place and to a specific people” (Prof. Herman Branover, “Jerusalem Report”, 19 September, 1996).