Jewish Law Logo Jewish Law - Commentary/Opinion

Space Odysseys
Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

Space Odysseys

Rabbi Nosson Slifkin

Space: the final frontier. One of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century was putting man on the moon. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the International Space Station (ISS) is beginning to take shape. American astronaut Bill Shepherd and two Russian cosmonauts rocketed into space a few days ago to become its first residents. NASA hopes that the six hundred ton construction will be in orbit for fifteen years.

What's it all about? NASA claims many benefits for the $37 billion dollar project. It promises significant opportunities for medical research and technological advances. It is an opportunity for sixteen countries to practice mutual cooperation. And it provides a testbed for developing future programs in space exploration and even colonization. Whether these really justify the massive expenditure, however, is not so clear.

There are also profound philosophical implications in boldly going where no man has gone before. NASA, of course, is fully aware of this, especially since these can help stimulate support and funding. Their publicity department waxes lyrical on "satisfying humanity's ancient need to explore and achieve."

Another ancient need that will perhaps be assisted by the ISS is the need to obey the instruction "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the land and conquer it" (Genesis 1:28). Man is supposed to break new frontiers and expand ever further in God's universe. After all, "He did not create it for nothing; He formed it to be inhabited" (Isaiah 45:18). Nor should voyaging into the heavens be seen as treading on God's turf. There are heavens and there are Heavens. God does not reside in outer space (at least, no more and no less than He resides here on earth).

Outer space is a wonderful place for man to explore. And who knows, we may even meet some interesting people there. Or other beings. Rabbi Yehudah ben Barzilei of Barcelona, a twelfth century authority on Jewish law and kabbalah, discussed the possibility of intelligent life on other planets in the universe. Encountering aliens would, of course, make for thrilling philosophical discussions.

However, amidst the marvel of the achievements of NASA and the ISS, a word of caution is in order. The episode of the Tower of Babel, when people said, "Come, let us build a city, and a tower, with its head in the heavens, and we shall make a name for ourselves" (Genesis 11:4) warns of the arrogance that can come together with rising into the heavens. The prophet Obadiah likewise warned of nations growing too arrogant. "Though you soar aloft like the eagle, and you set your nest among the stars, from there will I bring you down, says the Lord" (Obadiah 1:4).

On August 7, 1961, Major Gherman Titov became the second Soviet cosmonaut to orbit the Earth. Upon returning, he triumphantly announced that he hadn't seen God in the heavens. At the time, someone quipped, "Had he stepped out of his space-suit, he would have!" But pride comes before a fall, and Russia lost the space race.

The United States was simultaneously boasting of its own plans to beat the Russians and assert the pre-eminence of America. But in January 1967 it, too, was humbled, when Apollo 1 tragically caught fire on the launch pad, causing the death of three astronauts. Still, when the Apollo 8 spacecraft was sent for the first orbit of the moon, a different approach was presented. The astronauts, upon being the first people in history to see the earth from the heavens, did not mock that they could not see God. Instead, they delivered an altogether more humble message: "We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you: In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth." They continued to recite several verses from Genesis. Astronaut Gene Kranz related that he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the experience.

It is a remarkable example of poetic justice that the Russians, who scorned God, did not make it to the moon, while the Americans, who humbly recited the verses attesting to God's creation of heaven and earth, landed safely on the moon in 1969. Yet that extraordinary accomplishment became in itself a potentially dangerous cause for undue pride. "Though you soar aloft like the eagle, and you set your nest among the stars…" prophesies Obadiah; when the Eagle landing craft touched down upon the moon, many people felt that man had truly become the master of the stars. But even from there, God brought man's pride crashing down with the terrible Challenger disaster of 1986.

The International Space Station is a fabulous achievement of which we can justifiable feel proud. But that pride must always be accompanied by an appropriate sense of humility. "When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have established; What is man, that You are mindful of him?" (Psalms 8:4-5). The ISS is a giant leap for mankind, but only a small step in the greater scale of things.

Rabbi Nosson Slifkin lectures on Judaism and the natural sciences at Ohr Somayach Institutions, the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, and other zoos and natural history museums worldwide. His website is

Jewish Law Home Page

Commentary/Opinion Index