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Extraterrestrial life

by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

  

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To Be Or Not To Be

One of the first to discuss the question of extraterrestrial life in general was Rabbi Chasdai Crescas1 (Or Hashem 4:2). After a lengthy discussion, he comes to the conclusion that there is nothing in Jewish theology to preclude the existence of life on other worlds. As possible evidence for extraterrestrial life, he quotes the Talmudic teaching (Avoda Zara 3b) that "God flies through 18,000 worlds." Since they require His providence, we may assume that they are inhabited.

Of course, this Talmudic quotation is by no means absolute proof, for it may be speaking of spiritual worlds, of which an infinite number were created.

One could also attempt to support this opinion from the verse (Psalms 145:13), "Your kingdom is a kingdom of all worlds." However, here, too, this may be speaking of spiritual universes.

The exact opposite opinion is that of Rabbi Yosef Albo,2 author of the "Ikkarim." He states that since the universe was created for the sake of man, no other creature can exist possessing free will. Since any extraterrestrial life would neither have free will nor be able to serve a creature having free will (as terrestrial animals and plants serve a terrestrial man), they would have no reason for existing and therefore be totally superfluous.

"Cursed is Meroz... cursed are its inhabitants" is clear proof from the words of our Sages for extraterrestrial life
One could bring some support to the second opinion from the Talmudic teaching that every land where it was not decreed for man to live was never subsequently inhabited. However, here again, it is not absolute proof, since this may only refer to our planet.

The Star of Meroz

Between these two extremes, we find the opinion of the Sefer Habris who states that extraterrestrial life does exist, but that it does not possess free will. The latter is the exclusive possession of man, to whom was given the Torah and its commandments. The 18,000 worlds mentioned earlier, in his opinion, are inhabited physical worlds. The proof that he brings for his thesis is most ingenious. In the song of Deborah, we find the verse, "Cursed is Meroz... cursed are its inhabitants" (Judges 5:23). In the Talmud, we find the opinion that Meroz is the name of a star. According to this opinion, the fact that Scripture states, "Cursed is Meroz... cursed are its inhabitants" is clear proof from the words of our Sages for extraterrestrial life.

Of course, even this proof is subject to refutation, for the Zohar also follows the opinion that Meroz is a star, yet states that "its inhabitants" refers to its "camp," that is, most probably, to the planets surrounding it. Nevertheless, the simple meaning of the verse seems to support the opinion of the Sefer Habris.

The Sefer Habris goes on to say that we should not expect the creatures of another world to resemble earthly life, any more than sea creatures resemble those of land.

Republished with permission from Torah.org, excerpted from "The Aryeh Kaplan Reader" Published by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Ltd..

Footnotes

  • 1. Medieval Jewish philosopher and Talmudist circa 1400.
  • 2. Jewish philosopher and Rabbi - fifteenth century Spain. He was a desciple of the above mentioned Rabbi Chasdai Crescas.

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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Zohar
The most basic work of Jewish mysticism. Authored by Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai in the 2nd century.
Hashem
"The Name." Out of respect, we do not explicitly mention G-d's name, unless in the course of prayer. Instead, "Hashem" is substituted.
Psalms
The Book of Psalms. One of the 24 books of the Bible. Compiled by King David; mostly comprised of poetic praise for G-d. A large part of our prayers are culled from this book.