I will begin this morning with a phrase from the Rosh Hashana musaf service.
היום יעמיד במשפט כל יצורי עולמים.
This day, all the creatures of the universe stand in judgment before You, O God.
This core statement of traditional High Holy Day theology is one which may not reflect our conception of God during the rest of the year; but we are drawn to it when the High Holidays arrive.
The Mishna teaches that we pass before God on these days as b’nai maron, which is explained by many, including the author of U’ntaneh Tokef, as passing before God as sheep before the shepherd. But, in the Talmud, Resh Lakish has a different explanation of these words. He teaches that the residents of a mountainous village called Maron, b’nai Maron, reached their village by climbing up a path so narrow that they had to walk single file. So, we pass before God as individuals, walking alone, singled out. The rest of the world fades away in the background as God focuses on each of us individually and we have God’s undivided attention as each of us stands in judgment.
On the High Holy Days, we should find at least one moment when we truly feel that we are standing on a narrow path alone in the presence of God, as the mortal, fallible and yet grand individual that each of us is.
This concept is, I believe, the essence of the High Holy Days.
As we think about this concept, we should quickly dismiss the question: how God could possibly attend to each of almost 8 billion human beings as individuals at the same time. Of course, time and space in that sense mean nothing to God so there is no reason God couldn’t focus on 8 billion people individually. We shouldn’t ruin this beautiful idea by being rational.
So, it wouldn’t matter if there were twice or hundreds of times or thousands of times as many souls to confront individually, God could handle it.
And perhaps there are.
Maybe there are more souls to judge than those 8 billion.
Right here, some of you might be thinking that I am going to talk about animals again. While I do believe that animals have souls in one sense or the other, that’s not my subject today.
I’m thinking in another direction.
You might say that I’m thinking vertically, not horizontally.
This morning, I would like to share some thoughts on a book published this year that I just read for the third time- It’s great to be retired. It is a fascinating book which I would love to discuss with those of you interested at some point after the holidays. I can’t do the book or the subject justice within this time frame. I’ll try to whet your appetite though.
The book was written by Avi Loeb, professor of Science and former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University.
The title of the book is simple enough, but it is the subtitle which will grab your attention. The book is entitled: Extraterrestrial and the subtitle is: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.
Professor Loeb believes that we may very well have witnessed that sign.
Let me assure you that he has not seen little green people. He hasn’t taught musical scales on top of Devil’s Tower or come across that tall man carrying a book entitled To Serve Man. He hasn’t climbed into a machine to go through a wormhole in the time space continuum. The sign he refers to is more subtle: an object hurtling through our solar system which was sighted by astronomers in a Hawaiian observatory in 2017 and given the name ‘Oumuamua, Hawaiian for “scout”.
Professor Loeb explains that ‘Oumuamua wavered from the path of an object influenced only by gravity of the sun and that it showed no evidence of gas or debris following it which would affect its movement. He writes that the most reasonable explanation given the evidence is that it is an artificial object with its own system of propulsion, the product of intelligent beings somewhere out there.
Of course, not everyone agrees with him. That is an understatement.
But the science behind his hypothesis, and he is careful to call it a hypothesis, is fascinating. The book solidified my belief that such extraterrestrial intelligence does exist and that we should continue to search for it to the extent possible.
Professor Loeb brings up many critical ideas. I will discuss three of those ideas that I believe are particularly meaningful during these Days of Awe.
First, while Loeb says: “I put my faith and hope in science” and certainly I absolutely agree that trust in science is crucial especially in this era of COVID, he is highly critical of the way in which the scientific establishment, by and large, refuses to take his hypothesis seriously. He says it is evidence of the arrogance of scientists who will not consider ideas which don’t fit into their prior assumptions or haven’t been proven conclusively. Loeb writes that the failure of scientists to consider theories that are not immediately verifiable is preventing many from considering this possibility and he sees this as a missed opportunity. I will quickly add that I feel the same way when scientists dismiss some experiences which are referred to as “paranormal”. I think many deserve strong scientific consideration and investigation.
We must acknowledge that there is mystery in creation that we have yet to completely understand.
Professor Loeb is passionate about this perspective and writes with language which takes on a spiritual character, even as he states that he is “secular”. His personal musings about his youth in Israel and his reflections on seashells and galaxies clearly display an awe with which he sees the universe and a desire to understand our place in it.
He expresses ideas which could be found in any number of rabbis’ High Holy Day sermons, including certainly my own. For example, he writes: “We are here for a short time and consequently we had better not fake our actions. Let us stay honest, authentic, and ambitious. Let our limitations, very much including the limited time we are each given, encourage humility.” Humility can lead us to acknowledging that this world is full of mysteries and possibilities which enhance our respect for creation.
Secondly, a thought about our present and our future, certainly on our minds on the High Holy Days.
Loeb refers to the theologian Blaise Pascal who famously stated that human beings wager with their lives on whether God exists or not. Pascal argued that it is better to live our lives as though God existed. If we are wrong, all it cost us was a few pleasures. If we are right, we are saved from eternal punishment.
Similarly, Loeb says, we should bet our future on the idea that ‘Oumuamua is extraterrestrial technology.
Professor Loeb stresses how critical it is that we recognize “the promise of betting right, of exploring out among the stars for the life we expect to find there: betting wrong and planning too little and too late could hasten our extinction.”
But, why now? With all the dangers and challenges we face in the world, why even consider this possibility now? In this context, Loeb refers to economist Robin Hanson who coined the term “filter” to refer the age when a civilization advances technologically to the point where it can achieve great things but can also self-destruct.
The lessons we would learn and the discoveries we could make would justify investment both with resources and with our creative energy. We might discover something which would enable us to surmount this “filter” in one way or another and help the prospects for our survival. That is quite an argument and one which, again, you need to read in more detail to completely appreciate.
Finally, he addresses the questions which are often raised in connection with the issue of extraterrestrial intelligence. How would religion deal with this discovery? What would it mean to those of us who believe in God of creation and of human beings created in God’s image? As we might say: Is it good for the Jews?
Professor Loeb reminds us that at different times, both religion and science have bolstered arrogance of humility. Frequently, both encourage their practitioners to put on blinders restricting their thoughts, teaching that we have all the answers we need in front of us.
But he notes that occasionally both disciplines have encouraged people to shed their blinders and open themselves up to the new, the controversial, the unexpected.
He is correct. But, I can say with respect to religion, it needs to happen more often.
So, how do I see this from my perspective as a rabbi?
I believe that there is nothing in traditional Jewish faith that would in any way be threatened by assuming or even proving the presence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Perhaps some of our texts even pre-suppose this reality. After all, the word for universe in the Machzor text I quoted before, is olamim, plural of the word olam, world. Think about that.
If we believe that God is limitless in creative power, then the presence of other beings who believe in whatever way they might that they are created in the image something greater than they themselves, who stand on narrow paths looking up to the heavens in awe in no way invalidates our uniqueness, as individuals of as a species, in God’s eyes.
This entire question is not a threat to our faith. And I will take this one step further. I think this search is vital and can be extraordinarily meaningful on a spiritual level.
Taking the leap of faith that those other beings exist and, in fact, searching for them, would keep us appropriately humble, believing that there might be others created in God’s image. It would also widen our vision to more deeply acknowledge the wonders of the universe.
Two of my favorite movies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Contact are about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and I often use them as metaphors for the searches we are all on in our spiritual lives. But these are science fiction and while I find them fascinating and thought provoking, I do not expect human beings to experience extraterrestrial intelligence in the way these movies propose.
However, I can readily accept the idea that an object hurtling through our solar system came from another type of intelligent life. I can readily accept it especially if accepting it could bring human beings together to contemplate and better understand who we are and how we connect with the universe and our creator.
After all, isn’t that the message of the High Holy Days?
It is a fantastic, courageous book.
If you’re interested in continuing the discussion, I’m ready any time.