Jews on Mars! And why curiosity matters

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 8, 2019 / 3 Adar Rishon 5779

Summary: Rabbi Kosak reflects on some scientific advances and space travel and ties those back to some interesting Jewish legal papers that address the ramifications of these new technologies and the possibility of humans living on other planets.

I recently had the opportunity to listen to journalist Stephen Petranek’s TED talk on why he believes that within a hundred years, one million humans will live on Mars. He holds that it is a moral necessity to work toward this goal so that humanity doesn’t leave all of its eggs in one evolutionary basket. Given the risk of catastrophic climate change or a devastating meteor strike, he argues that we must return to our origins as a species dedicated to exploration and resettlement.

In that talk, he explains how all the technology to live on Mars has already existed for forty or more years. He takes us through the process, arguing that robots will be the first to arrive to build initial structures for us. Initially, we will need to live underground, but within a hundred years, we will have terraformed the planet sufficiently to live on its surface without space suits. We will accomplish by doing the same thing we’ve done on earth—we will melt the polar caps of Mars, which are composed not of frozen water, but of CO2. As that melts, it will begin to form a thicker and warmer environment on Mars. As temperatures stabilize, plants that depend on carbon dioxide will be able to grown in the mineral rich soil, and give off oxygen. Within a short period of time, the planet will resemble British Columbia, Petranek claims. Which sounds a lot like Portland.

Another scientist, meanwhile, believes that we will have better results if we change human biology so that we can withstand the rigors of outer space, such as the constant bombardment by gamma rays. She is working on melding bacteria that can live off of radiation on to mammals so that humans could survive otherwise inhospitable environments.

Around the same time, I lalso earned about advances in prosthetic limbs. We are now able to connect with the human nervous system and wire these artificial limbs into individual nerves. This allows the person merely to think to make the limb move, just as someone with a normally functioning body does. It would be hard to overstate how impactful this would be to restore someone’s mobility. This is deeply miraculous.

Over the long haul, these many advances will also change our definition of what it means to be human from a biological definition to one where we are defined primarily by our consciousness.

While the above discussions may seem far removed from our own busy lives, they reflect a perspective on Judaism recently put forward in this column. The essential, unchanging core of Judaism is our embrace of change.

What makes change easier for some cultures and some people than others? There are probably numerous partial answers. Genetics. Good attachment as a very young child. A supportive environment. But an embrace of curiosity is also equally important.

So much of our contemporary world is transactional. We often reduce what interests us to that which is relevant to our current situation. Curiosity, on the other hand, widens our perspective, even to examine theoretical matters. It actually reduces our stress and gives us a greater sense of inner expansiveness. And today’s theory often becomes tomorrow’s relevant reality.

As a small reflection of this, I wanted to mention in passing two teshuvot—Jewish legal opinions—connected to the above discussions. One has to deal with the kashrut of laboratory grown meat. The other has to do with the ramifications of space travel on Jewish practice.

Lab Grown Meat

There are now 7.5 billion of us on the planet. For us all to coexist, we have to embrace new ways, and that includes food. As we speak, scientists have been working on growing meat in laboratory conditions and are meeting with some success. This has many benefits. There is no animal suffering involved, and the environmental impact is minimal in comparison. Currently, all of our initial space travel, whether to the space station or the moon, required that we bring all of the necessary food with us, normally in freeze dried form. If we are to survive on Earth, let alone have the capacity for longer space exploration, we will need to grow our food more efficiently.

While we can not yet produce lab-grown meat at commercial scale, many Jewish scholars have already been studying what this means for kashrut. Within the conservative movement, Rabbi Danny Nevins wrote a fascinating if somewhat technical teshuvah on this topic. In short, the way he understands the tradition means that meat grown from a kosher animal (cow, chicken, etc) would be kosher for us to eat, but the prohibitions on not mixing milk and meat would remain in place. If you are interested, you can find his paper here.

Jews in Space

Back in 2002, meanwhile, Rabbi David Golinking penned a response on Judaism and space travel. The main issues he addressed were when someone should observe the Sabbath and holidays. Should these be determined by time on earth? The time it takes a space ship to orbit a planet? Local time? In a thorough review of the literature—some of which goes back hundreds of years, he concludes that one should practice according to one’s place of origin. So if an astronaut left from Houston, Shabbat in space would be observed based on the launch site. His paper can be found here.

In a hundred years, what it means to be human will be unrecognizable to someone living today. Even which planet we live on may be up for grabs. Yet our willingness to imagine those futures and seek Jewish answers today for tomorrow’s problems assures us that this sacred Jewish way of living will accompany us to the stars. The only limitation is what we dare to dream.

Dream well,

Rav D


Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What’s the most far out idea you’ve thought about recently?
  2. Do you think humans should prepare to live on other planets? Why or why not?
  3. Can you recall something that seemed impossible in your childhood that is now commonplace?

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.

In Place of Torah Sparks Commentary This Week