Jews in Space

By Edmon J. Rodman

Published May 27, 2009, issue of June 05, 2009.
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In space no one can hear you scream. But can they hear you kvetch?

I’m sitting in a movie theatre, watching the new Star Trek Movie. On screen, a group of Star Fleet recruits, including a Jewish actor or two, climb into a space shuttle and strap themselves in. My eyes wander from neck to neck, looking for anything dangling: Stars of David, St. Christopher medals, ankhs, anything tipping their religious leanings. Nothing.

MONTAGE: KURT HOFFMAN

As this new film turns our fantasies to a future time of warp speeds and alien co-workers, I have to ask: Where are the Jews in this future? Or, for that matter, religion?

Gene Roddenberry’s 1960s vision of a post-religious society challenges us to ask, as a people, whether we are space-worthy or Earthbound. Are there features of Judaism that make it adaptable to space and other planets?

Turns out we have been orbiting the space theme for quite some time. The future has long been contemplated by rabbis, Jewish writers and scientists, and so has the Jewish people’s ability to adapt to it.

Rabbis and academics — “exo-theologians” — already concern themselves with how Jews will live and thrive on other planets: how our concept of God might change, how we will celebrate Jewish holidays light years from home and when we should light the Shabbos candles on Mars.

As early as 1971, Rabbi Norman Lamm, now chancellor of Yeshiva University, began to grapple with Jewish exo-theology in his essay “The Religious Implications of Extraterrestrial Life.” If there is a “discovery of fellow intelligent creatures,” he concludes, it will “broaden our appreciation of the mysteries of the Creator and His creations.” We seem to be open to the idea of the cosmos: When we say in Hebrew, “Mazel tov,” literally we mean that an event is occurring under a “lucky star.” Science fiction, a genre with an abundance of Jewish writers and readers, has also dealt with the themes of Jewish life in space. Moreover, dispersion stories abound — humanity traveling far from home as a result of some cosmic calamity, as in the TV series “Battlestar Galactica.” With our history of expulsions and the Diaspora, it’s a story Jews know well.

The Talmud tells us that “God roams over 18,000 worlds,” and commentators speculate that He roams because there is life out there. But are there Jews? In “Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy,” the age-old question “Who is a Jew?” gets a new spin. William Tenn’s 1974 story “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi!” recounts the tumult at the First Interstellar Neozionist Conference, when a group of creatures with gray spots and short tentacles arrive from Rigel IV and want to be included as Jews in the conference. Turns out they are Jews by descent whose alien environment has altered them over time.

So should we suit up? For an Earth religion to thrive extraterrestrially, it would need to be highly portable. Judaism, since the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, has had to teach itself to adapt to new environments, becoming more time centered than place specific.

All this exilic experience has brought us to space: the final frontier.

At least a minyan has made the trek, and several Jewish astronauts even took Judaica with them. In 1996, astronaut Jeffrey A. Hoffman truly made aliyah, by taking a Torah with him on the Space Shuttle Columbia. The first Jew to live in the International Space Station, Garrett Reisman, affixed a mezuza to his bunk.

The jump into space has taken its toll on the tribe. Judith Resnik, who died in the 1986 destruction of the Challenger, was the first American Jew to die in space, and Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle tragedy, had even sought rabbinic guidance as to when to celebrate the Sabbath in orbit.

The answer: He would follow Cape Canaveral time — that is, the point of lift-off, based on a principle in Jewish law that while living in a remote place, such as Earth orbit, one should observe Shabbat according to the times of the nearest city that has a large Jewish population.

Will the space minyan grow to a shtibl, maybe even a synagogue? If it does, consider me a lifetime wannabe member.

I grew up in Anaheim, Calif., not much more than a monorail ride away from Disneyland and its promise of “a great big beautiful tomorrow.” Years later, as an adult, I witnessed a launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base near California’s Central Coast. At dawn on an overcast day, standing about a mile away, I watched as an intense orange-red plume shook the air with a muffled roar.

No, I didn’t see God, or the future of Jewish life written in the stars. But I did wonder when Jews would get up there as a people, and where we would go when we did. I dreamed of taking a trip to the moon and asking, amid those shining stars, “When is Havdalah?”

Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer.


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