If There’s Life Out There, Do They Eat Pastrami?

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published May 04, 2007, issue of May 04, 2007.
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All right, folks; this could be very serious.

As you have likely read, astronomers have now discovered a planet some 120 trillion miles from Earth, off in another galaxy, which seems — from a distance, as it were — capable of supporting life. (The astronomers tell us that 120 trillion miles isn’t all that far away. At 39,000 miles an hour, the speed of the Voyager 1 spacecraft, the trip could be accomplished in 300,000 years.)

It may therefore be some time, though less than eons, before we know whether the possibility of life has translated into the reality of life on this newly discovered planet, which carries the fetching name “Gliese 581 c.” But even if it proves barren, the discovery comes to remind us that somewhere out there, there is almost surely life.

After all, there are billions of galaxies in the universe — our very own Milky Way is just one, one with about 100 billion stars — and galaxies can contain trillions of stars. Do the math.

The possibility of such extraterrestrial life gives rise to a series of fairly obvious questions, ones that astronomers are not equipped to answer. For example: What about God?

Let’s be very basic. God, as understood by the Jews, is God of the universe, not God merely of Earth nor even God of just the Milky Way. And the acceptance that our God, God of our fathers and mothers, is also God of (perhaps) many other planets provides a comforting explanation as to why God so often seems, from our very limited perspective, an absentee landlord.

So assume God. Now, if that’s so, if God has indeed created life elsewhere, does that mean that there are Jews there? To say “no” is to suggest that God’s election of the Jews on Earth was exceptional rather than routine. It is to raise the possibility that on 581 c, for example, God might have chosen the Chinese to be His (or Her, etc.) special people, and so forth, kind of leveling the intergalactic playing field: Here the Jews, there the Chinese, on 582 d or whatever the next newly discovered planet will be named, the Peruvians and so forth.

That’s a sweet thought, and it may even sound fair, but it lacks plausibility. The Torah and the oral law are immensely detailed and hugely complicated, and it humbles the mind to suppose that on all those other planets where there is life, there is also a unique Torah and a distinctive oral law.

The Torah, we are told, is perfect, and everything is in it. Does that mean relatively everything, or does it mean really everything? If it means really everything, then — this is the hard part — there must be Jews on other planets.

Hasidic Jews? Secular Jews? Jews with a Jewish identity crisis?

All right, assume that the Jews on those other planets have done a better job than we in figuring things out, that they get along with one another, that their children are all fluent in Hebrew, their women don’t have cellulite, their men can fix broken screens. But there is a limit. It is simply not possible to imagine that they are free of neurosis.

Plus: Is it really possible to imagine Jews without imagining antisemitism? It is harder to imagine Jews without antisemites — and harder still to imagine Jews who do not imagine antisemitism — than it is to estimate the number of hospitable planets in a world of billions of galaxies, each with lots and lots of stars.

Do those distant Jews have states of their own? Do their states have boundaries? Do they have an Anti-Defamation League? Do they have Abe Foxman? Have they always had Abe Foxman?

Do they have liberation stories? Do they vote for Democrats? Are they into wholesale? Is their week seven days long, and if not, what happens to the Sabbath? What about their rate of intermarriage? Do they break a glass at their marriage ceremonies? Signifying what? Has their Shimon Peres ever won an election?

Do they look Jewish? What about guilt? Most important, does God listen to their prayers? And, if so, why not to ours?

Once you realize how many truly puzzling questions are raised by the possibility of faraway Jews, you quickly realize that, at least for the time being, it’s easier to assume that we are the only Jews in the whole universe. Just us.

True, we’re already too few in number even to qualify as a statistical error here on Earth; in the grand scheme of universal things, we are no more than a speck. But that is not necessarily demoralizing or intimidating. Not only are we a cozy speck, but we are also a chosen speck.

Perhaps there are other speckish peoples scattered about. Perhaps once intergalactic travel gets under way, there may even be a universewide convocation of Chosen Specks. (With simultaneous translation, of course.) What a blast! “The State of World Jewry” takes on a whole new meaning.

Or maybe we will learn that being chosen is ephemeral — that every 10,000 or 10,000,000 years, others get a turn. Or maybe being chosen is contingent, renewable only upon a detailed performance review every eon or so.

Oh, dear. That last possibility is disquieting. Think of how much liturgical adaptation will be required should we lose our special status. Think how traumatic it would be to be judged undeserving. That is simply too ominous to contemplate.

So we’d best leave such speculation to the side, get back to beating our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks and clothing the naked and feeding the hungry and all the rest.

That said, I cannot help but wonder whether the others, the ones out there, have pastrami. And condos. And Shemini Atzeret.

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