Last week I posted part 1 of my translation of the chapter on extraterrestrial life in Rabbi Pinchas Elijah Hurwitz’s 1797 book Sefer ha-Breet (“Book of the Covenant”). What follows is part 2.
I’ve talked about Hurwitz and his book in last week’s post. I’m intrigued by his quotation–I can’t vouch for its accuracy–from the 15th-century Jewish philosopher Joseph Albo: “I fear lest they say there exist other worlds.” What was it, I wonder, that so frightened Albo?
Was it something like the concern that Kepler expressed in 1610? “Well, then someone may say, if there are globes in the heaven similar to our earth, do we vie with them over who occupies a better portion of the universe? For if their globes are nobler, we are not the noblest of rational creatures. Then how can all things be for man’s sake? How can we be the masters of God’s handiwork?”
Or more akin to Pascal’s admission, later in the 17th century, that “the eternal silence of those infinite spaces frightens me”?
(Both quotations from Steven J. Dick’s Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant, Cambridge University Press, 1982. My thanks to Martin Kottmeyer for telling me about this wonderful book!)
And what are we to make of Hurwitz’s warning to “pay no attention to the dreamer, the visionary. His visions are vain illusions …” It sounds very much like Hurwitz has a specific person in mind, and I think I can guess who that is.
In 1758, the Swedish mystic and visionary Emanuel Swedenborg published his book De Telluribus in Mundo nostro Solari (translated into English as Life on Other Planets), describing his revelations from spirits from other parts of the solar system as to how things were on their home planets. For example:
“Since I wished to know what the people of Mercury were like in face and body, whether they resemble people on our earth, a woman was displayed to my gaze, who was very much like women on earth. She had a comely face, but one smaller than women on our earth have. Her body too was more slender, though of similar height. She wore a linen scarf on her head, neatly but not elaborately arranged. A man was also displayed; he too had a more slender body than men of our world. … I was told that this was the form and bodily habit of people belonging to that world. I saw also their species of oxen and cows; they were not very different from those in our world, only smaller. They looked in a way rather like hinds and stags.”
Is this the “utter falsehood and nonsense they babble,” of which Hurwitz speaks below? Sounds like it to me.
* * * * *
It is a foolish error indeed to say, as some do, that the stars and what they contain are exactly like this world, without any difference in nature, and that they are inhabited by human beings with free will, along with animals and plants and minerals, all of which come into existence and then perish. This is utter falsehood and nonsense they babble. Anyone who believes it is a fool who will believe anything.
What need, in this case, would there be for a plurality of worlds? To encompass a great multitude of humans and animals, a throng of creatures so vast? This world might have been made so large as to contain them all, while remaining unique. Is it beyond God’s power to create a world either small or large? Yet there do exist many distinct spheres, from which it follows that, if indeed they are worlds, not one of them can possibly be identical with any of the others. Nor can two of them share a single nature.
Quite the contrary. Each world must be different from every other, in general and in particular, with regard both to itself and to the creatures in it. Consider the instrument for measuring time that is called Uhr [“clock” or “watch”] in the German language. In it there exist numerous wheels, each designed for a specific purpose and to serve a distinct function, no two performing the same action. In like manner, not one of the other worlds can share the nature of this our world, nor can its creatures be the same as ours.
It is false what they claim, that those creatures are composed of four elements, corporeal as in this world. How could human beings like ourselves possibly dwell on the sun without its heat burning them up–given that the very beasts cannot survive heat? Or assume that the sun is not in fact hot, as the moderns assert. How can its dwellers not go blind from continually viewing the great orb’s powerful radiance, which we cannot bear to look at for a single instant? Or how could human beings live on Saturn, with its unendurable cold?
We have already explained that the stars are made of matter and form more sublime and noble than those of which the four earthly elements are created, and that which arises from them is of the same order. They are different things, different creatures, in quality and composition excelling the creatures of this earth. Take the sea as an example. It is part of our world; all that is on dry land is found also in the sea. Yet all the creatures who dwell in it are in essence and nature different from those on dry land, owing to its being a different element.
There can be no doubt, then, that not one of the stars can have human inhabitants of our form and shape. They may be endowed with intelligence and knowledge. What they cannot have is free will; for it is known that by the nature of creation free will is a property unique to human beings dwelling upon this earth, not those above or below it.
It follows that there is no place for the Torah or for worship other than in this world. Where there is no free will, Torah and worship have no relevance. That is why God takes pleasure only in this world, and why it is the goal of all creation, the most sought-after of all the worlds.
Even the holy, sublime [Kabbalistic] worlds, like Beriah and Yetzirah and all the multiple worlds in them, were created only to serve the needs of this world. How much more so those worlds that are called by the name of stars, in accord with the saying of our ancient sages:
“Said the Blessed Holy One: My daughter, I created twelve constellations in the sky. For each constellation I created thirty armies … and suspended 3,650,000,000 stars upon each of their encampments. And all this I created only for you.” [Talmud, Berakhot 32b]
This world, then, is the end and purpose of all the worlds. And so God elected to dwell in darkness [1 Kings 8:12], namely this lowly world; and He came from the holy multitudes [Deuteronomy 33:2], the heavens spread out like a curtain [Psalm 104:2], establishing His sacred presence amid those who dwell down here. His splendor rests upon Israel, and this is His glory.
So there is no need for the dread that afflicted the author of the book Of Principles [Joseph Albo], when he said: “I fear lest they say there exist other worlds.” Those worlds contain none who possess free will. They do not come into existence and perish, but survive individually. They have nothing of Torah or worship. They are consequently of no relevance to us, but are exactly like all other created entities in the skies.
On this subject you must pay no attention to the dreamer, the visionary. His visions are vain illusions, claiming that [the extraterrestrials] come into existence and perish just as we do. [The Talmud, Hagigah 12b] speaks to the contrary, of there being “seven heavens: Vilon, Rakia, Shehakim, Zevul, Maon, Makhon, and Aravot. Vilon serves no function, but only enters in the morning and departs in the evening. Rakia contains the sun and moon, the stars and fixed constellations, as it is written, ‘And God fixed them in the heaven Rakia’” [Genesis 1:17]. It follows that the seven mobile stars, and all those that are fixed, are in the second of the seven heavens as one reckons upward; and it is known that all entities in the heavens survive individually and not as a species.
All terrestrial beings, by contrast, survive as species and not as individuals. It is therefore only on this earth that creatures come into existence and perish. This is why the Bible, after saying that “you shall surely die,” goes on at once to add: “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the human to be alone; I will make for him a partner’” [Genesis 2:17-18]. As if to say: given that he dies and has no individual survival, I must make for him a partner—a woman, that is—so that his species can endure.
by David Halperin
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