Aliens in the Torah
Tell me, is this the only world that there is? If the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, which is currently exploring Mars, would find intelligent life there, would this shake us up? Would this be a problem for us as Jews?
I was discussing this with a few people at our Simchat Torah celebration and they asked if I might discuss it today. And so to begin let me read to you an amazing passage from today’s Torah portion that’s often overlooked—probably because it’s not easy to explain (Gen. 6:1-4):
And it came to pass when man began to increase upon the earth and daughters were born to them. The B’ney Elohim saw that the daughters of man were good and they took themselves wives from whomever they chose…The Nefilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward when the B’ney Elohim would consort with the daughters of man, who would bear to them children. They were the mightywho, from old, were men of renown.
The question is, who were the B’ney Elohim and the Nefilim? B’ney Elohim literally means, “the children of the gods,” or the godlike—perhaps ones with special powers man did not yet have. The literal meaning of Nefilim is, “the fallen ones,” but fallen from where?
This question is the subject of a great deal of religious writing, especially in the non-Jewish world. In A Jewish Theology, author Louis Jacobs quotes a Christian theologian, Jerome Eckstein (p.100). Let me read it to you:
Let our imagination roam and let us speculate about the possible conflicts between future discoveries of space exploration and our old religious beliefs, if these religious beliefs are understood as offering knowledge of the kind given by science. Suppose a strangely figured race of creatures with the approximate intelligence of humans and a culture and ethics dramatically different from ours was discovered on some distant star, would this not pose serious problems to the dogmatic and authoritarian interpretations of the Judaeo-Christian religions? Would these creatures, who obviously were not descended from Adam and Eve, be tainted with original sin? [This is the 1st thing that this Christian thinks of.] Would they too have souls? Would they be in need of grace and salvation? Did Jesus absorb their sins? Would they be in need of a Messiah?
Christian thought is concerned with original sin and Jesus in regard to extra-terrestrials. What does Judaism have to say? How does the Torah begin? B’reyshit bara Elokim et hashamayim, v’et haaretz, “In the beginning Gd created the heavens and the earth.” The word for heavens, Shamayim, can mean 2 things: the atmosphere or beyond the atmosphere to, and including, the stars. The sages tell us that the word Shamayim is a contraction of 2 words: sham mayim, or, “there is water.” We know there is water in the atmosphere and we also know there also is water beyond. And we also know that where there is water there is a good chance there is life.
Listen to this passage in the Talmud (Avoda Zara 3b): “Gd roams over 18,000 worlds.” Wow, 18,000 worlds! Some commentators speculate that Gd roams over these worlds because there is life out there. But are there Jews out there? Can I find a minyan out there? The Sefer Habrit, in its commentary, says that we should not expect the creatures of another world to resemble earthly life, any more than sea creatures resemble those of land.
The basic premise of the existence of extraterrestrial life is strongly supported by the Zohar—our mystical Biblical commentary. The Midrash teaches us that there are 7 earths. Although the Ibn Ezra, in his commentary, tries to argue that these refer to the 7 continents, the Zohar clearly states that the 7 are separated by a firmament and are inhabited. Although they are not inhabited by man, they are the domain of intelligent creatures. Am I scaring you yet?
The Shlaw, Rav Pinchas Eliyahu ben Maimar Horowitz of Vilna (d. 1821), wrote a book where he showed from various sources that we believe that there is life elsewhere. On the basis of this verse in Isaiah (45:18) he showed that there are creatures on planets other than earth: “For thus said Hashem, Creator of the heavens: He is the Gd, the One Who fashioned the earth and He is its Maker; He established it; He did not create it for emptiness; He fashioned it to be inhabited.” Gd fashioned the world to be inhabited and, therefore, the sages teach that it is our job—a mitzvah—to have children so we can contribute to the inhabitation of the world. The inference in this is that if there are other inhabitable planets, they too were created to be inhabited.
The Shlaw refers to the passage in the Talmud (Mo-ed Katan 16a) which according to one opinion, the word meyroz in the Song of Deborah (Judges 5:23), is a star or a planet. Oru meyroz, says the passage, “cursed be meyroz,” indicates that it was inhabited since it could only be cursed because of something its inhabitants did. Now whether meyroz refers to Mars or not, is a question—especially now when the latest space probes have shown there is no life there. However they do show that there might have been.
Let’s go even further. Is it possible that at one time there was communication between this world and other worlds? Can we find support for this in the Torah? Yes, in that passage I began with: “The B’ney Elohim saw that the daughters of man were good and they took themselves wives from whomever they chose.” Who were these B’ney Elohim and how were they able to take “wives from whomever they chose”? Elohim is one of the names of Gd. But it literally means, “powers.” That’s why it’s a plural name for Gd, because Gd is the sum of all the powers of the Universe. Is it possible that these B’ney Elohim could take whomever they wanted for a wife because they had special otherworldly powers and no one could stop them?
The next verse is (Gen. 6:4): Han’filim hayu va-aretz bayamim haheym, “The Nefilim were on the earth in those days.” Whatever the Nefilim were—various versions include giants, princes or fallen angels—they were, as the meaning of the name indicates, “people who fell,” because nafal means, “to fall”—i.e. who fell here on earth from somewhere else. While there is quite a debate as to who they were, there are many who believe they came from someplace beyond the earth.
So according to this view, these B’ney Elohim and Nefilim were the 1st extraterrestrials who came here in their UFO’s. Perhaps this is too dangerous to dwell on. Just hear it and be aware that there is such a belief.
The Midrash had no hesitation in teaching right at the beginning, before it starts an analysis of the text of the Torah, that ours is not the 1st world Gd created: Borey olamot umachliban, “Gd created worlds and He destroyed them.” How many worlds came before this? This is not for us to know. Just know that there were worlds before this one.
Hasdai Crescas, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, evoked the words of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of Gd.” Perhaps this verse indicates that there are praises to the glory of Gd from other worlds in the heavens. Crescas’ classic work, Ohr Hashem, contains an entire chapter where he maintains that the possibility of life on other planets is not in conflict with the Torah.
Is this definitive proof that the Torah maintains there is life on other planets? Not really. But it does give us reason to pause and contemplate the awesome universe Gd created. Amen!