By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
According to Judaism, does life exist in other places in the universe besides earth?
There are two separate questions and two separate searches being conducted concerning extraterrestrial life: Firstly, if primitive, non-intelligent life exists. Secondly, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a distinct endeavor. The theological implications would be much more significant if the latter were to be found.
Since the Pathfinder findings of 1997, the interest and curiosity in this question have risen throughout the scientific and theological worlds, and I would be fascinated to know if Judaism has a definitive viewpoint.
— Mark J., Ph.D.
Dear Dr. Mark,
There is not one authoritative viewpoint on this question in the Jewish sources. Because Judaism is mostly concerned with actions and matters that directly affect our lives and the question of whether there is extraterrestrial life did not affect us directly, this question was not dealt with extensively or definitively in early Torah sources.
The first authority who deals with this question is the 14th century sage Rabbi Chasdai Crescas (“Ohr Hashem” 4:2). After discussing this question at length, he concludes that there is nothing in Jewish theology to preclude the existence of intelligent life on other worlds. He brings proofs from certain rabbinic statements about life on other worlds, which are inconclusive sources as they are perhaps allegorical statements referring to spiritual beings in the upper spiritual worlds.
An opposing opinion is that of Rabbi Yosef Albo of Italy in his 15th century work “Sefer Ha’ikarim.” He presents the following argument: Since the Torah teaches that the universe was created for the sake of mankind, it follows that no other creature can possess free will. (To explain why this conclusion follows logically, we would need a separate column). 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. God doesn’t create redundant, superfluous beings.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in an article on this subject citing these opinions, quotes a third opinion between these two extremes. In the 19th century work “Sefer Habris,” the author claims that, according to his sources, intelligent life exists in other worlds, but does not possess free will.
A rabbinic statement that God “traverses 18,000 worlds” is referring to physical worlds. His proof is that the prophetess Deborah sang “Cursed is Meroz … cursed are its inhabitants” (Judges 5:23). In the Talmud we find that Meroz is the name of a star. Since the above scripture describes the “inhabitants of Meroz,” we see clearly there is extraterrestrial life.
Rabbi Kaplan points out that this opinion is also subject to refutation, as the Zohar also opines that Meroz is a star, but “its inhabitants” are its “camp,” or the stars and planets that surround it. The simple meaning of “inhabitants,” however, would refer to living beings.
The “Sefer Habris” says that one should not expect the creatures of another world to resemble earthly life any more than sea creatures resemble those of land. He further states that although extraterrestrial forms of life may possess intelligence, they certainly cannot have freedom of will. The latter is an exclusive attribute of man, to whom was given the Torah and its commandments. He proves the latter thesis on the basis of the Talmudic teaching that all the stars in the observable universe were created for the sake of mankind. This latter opinion was adopted and taught by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Rabbi Kaplan brings further evidence to extraterrestrial life from inferences in the “Book of the Zohar,” which indicates that in the World to Come, each tzaddik, or righteous individual, will be granted his or her own world filled with those who will serve them.
The understanding that free will depends upon Torah is predicated on the Jewish concept that free will is not part of the basic fiber of man; rather a gift endowed to mankind to provide the opportunity to choose to perform, or not perform, God’s will.
The fact that terrestrial man has “Torah” means that God revealed His will to mankind; whether through the 613 mitzvos commanded to the Jews at Sinai or by the seven Noahide laws incumbent upon the gentile world, as revealed to Noah upon leaving the ark.
All of mankind was entrusted with the gift of free will, which carries with it the responsibility to choose good, thereby becoming a partner to God. It is for this that we were created in God’s image, to make the correct choices and help effect tikkun olam. This would not be possible for a world of beings where God’s will was never revealed, as the choices would not affect any sort of tikkun olam. Theologically, however, there still is room to accept that life in other worlds could potentially exist.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel, Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.