Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 3, 2021 / 29 Kislev 5782
Ishmael Khaldi is Israel’s first Bedouin MK, or member of the Knesset (Parliament). I had the opportunity to speak with this large-hearted humanist a month or two ago and am grateful that Israel360 is bringing him to our community for a Zoom conversation this Sunday, December 5th, at 10 am. His story is fascinating, and I hope you will register to attend it. Think of it as a Chanukah gift from Israel360. Here is the registration link.
Summary: Space travel has been back in the news recently, with William Shatner being the highest-profile traveler. But other things are happening on this front. Today’s Oasis Songs explores what Judaism has to say about this.
Reading Time: Five minutes
Those of us who grew up when the Muppets were the rage probably remember a segment called “Pigs in Space.” Miss Piggy is right up there as one of my favorite astronauts of all time. Sorry Neil Armstrong. I hadn’t thought of her in ages, but she came to mind this week when a student reached out to me. This congregant has a theology paper assignment for school, examining from a Jewish perspective if it is ethical to fund space projects/travel/exploration. This question really fascinated me and forced me to think. After all, we like to say that the Torah provides an answer to every question, past and present. Simultaneously, we also have to acknowledge that apart from Ezekiel’s chariot, which storms the heavens, the Torah doesn’t have anything explicit to say about space travel. What our tradition does provide us with, however, is a rich approach to ethical problems of the past that get applied to contemporary issues. This continuous process expands how the Torah can guide us, which is why in the 1700s it became normative for Judaism to require vaccinations. The earlier layers of the tradition deal with the preservation of life, the necessity of medical care, and the prohibition against putting ourselves at risk. While the technology of vaccines may only be a few hundred years old, the ethical mandate stretches back through the ages.
That approach is typical of the Jewish halakhic process, so if we want to explore the morality of space travel, we need to ask what would forbid space travel and exploration because that then provides the concerns that Judaism would need to address.
Here is what I shared with our congregant. While my thoughts on this issue are young and relatively underdeveloped, I thought the topic was timely given the current DART project to deflect an asteroid (more on that later).
Is it ethical to fund space projects/travel/exploration?
As far as I can see, there could only be a few rational objections to space travel and exploration:
- Human hubris–maybe people aren’t meant to go into space, just as God didn’t want us to build the Tower of Babel in the middle of Parshat Noach.
- It might be that spending money on space travel is frivolous, wasteful, or immoral since people are suffering or in need here. Wouldn’t it be more ethical to address their needs?
- Perhaps space exploration gives us permission to destroy the planet because we might just be able to resettle somewhere else.
While the Tower of Babel is a cautionary tale about human arrogance, it is not a condemnation about technology but more about the importance of restricting authoritarianism while encouraging diversity of language and culture. Judaism and Jews have almost always welcomed new frontiers, technologies, endeavors, and social movements. It’s why we can find Jews in almost any field of human endeavor, even though we are such a tiny minority. Just as the Torah commands us to heal the sick (not something all religions do), we understand that God gave us brains to use to solve problems. The development of science has never posed a threat to Jewish theology, nor do we believe that it goes against God’s will. If anything, not applying our God-given sechel (common sense) to advance human understanding would be a grave moral failing.
In Deuteronomy 15:4, God says there will be no poor among you, but then in 15:11, the Torah says that “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land.” This contradiction is instructive. On a simple level, we understand that we must help eliminate poverty and suffering even though the task will never end. What that tangentially informs us is that not all our resources need to go to addressing poverty because there are many worthy endeavors, and our resources are always limited. Culture and music matter. Curiosity for its own sake matters and often leads to new insights that help others. Thus, our responsibility to help those in need does not override all other expenditures.
If that were the case, we would be forbidden to invest in hundreds of areas of human endeavor. To single out space travel for unique treatment is thus unfair. Based on this, there is nothing immoral or unethical about funding space travel. In fact, the requirement to use our minds and to explore God’s universe both show that Judaism would want us to invest funds in space exploration but to do so in a manner that balances out many other competing needs.
In recent times, scientists have begun to discuss terraforming (making other planets habitable for us) in a serious way. Efforts are underway to settle Mars (by which I mean, plans on how to do so have been created). Some environmentalists worry that this will reduce the incentive to care for this planet or address climate change. I find that a risible claim, in part because our spending on NASA and space has been minimal for many decades now, even as climate change has worsened. The two are therefore not mutually exclusive, nor does one cause the other.
In fact, we currently are working to intercept a distant asteroid to change its direction (you can look up DART–Double Asteroid Redirection Test online to learn more about this experiment). The goal of this mission is to develop the ability to protect the planet from a life-destroying asteroid collision, so this research has an environmental aim that may save the lives of millions while preventing the sort of climate change that may have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.
In a similar vein, some people feel that the carbon footprint of rockets is too large; therefore, launches are unethical. Again, Judaism looks at the big picture: there are areas where we have alternative technologies to reduce carbon (nuclear power, higher efficiency appliances, factories, electrified vehicles, etc.), but as we don’t have other ways to get into space, it is permissible to do so. The more we go to space, the greater the incentive to develop new propulsion systems that will have a lower carbon footprint.
When Judaism looks at ethical issues such as the permissibility of space exploration, it tends to take an approach similar to what I have outlined here. For all the above reasons and more, I believe that not only is it ethical to fund space projects, but that Judaism would consider it unethical NOT to do so.
Shabbat shalom and Chanukah sameach,
Shabbat Table Talk
- Do you believe it is ethical to engage in space exploration? Why or why not?
- If Jeff Bezos offered you a free trip to space, would you take him up on it?
- How important is curiosity in your life? Do you believe that studying apparently irrelevant subjects is a good use of time? Why or why not?
If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.