I was 13 years old. I’d just become a UFOlogist; I was excited by the idea that ancient documents like the Bible might speak of flying saucers. I asked my grandfather, who was something of a Hebrew scholar, what the Talmud–the great book of post-Biblical Judaism, dating from the early centuries of the Common Era–had to say about life on other planets.
The question bewildered him. And no wonder. To the rabbis who wrote the Talmud, “the earth” was a flat disk surrounded by ocean, seven heavens arching dome-like above it. God and His angels inhabited the heavens, humans and demons the earth. “Life on other planets” would have been meaningless in the Talmudic universe.
Too bad neither Grandpa nor I had ever heard of Rabbi Pinchas Elijah Hurwitz (1765-1821).
Hurwitz, a Lithuanian from Vilnius, lived in a time when Jews, far from being at the cutting edge of European thought, lagged far behind. In many places they’d been segregated into ghettos. More often they’d mentally segregated themselves, bewitched by the splendid, dazzling house of mirrors that was Kabbalah. A scientific revolution had shaken Europe’s mental world; most Jews felt only a few distant tremors. They barely noticed that “philosophy” didn’t mean medieval Aristotelianism anymore.
The writers of the 18th and 19th-century Jewish Enlightenment, who tried to remedy this situation, had a stupendous job of catch-up to do. Hurwitz was one of those writers. His Sefer ha-Breet (“Book of the Covenant”), first published in 1797, was a compendium of scientific, geographical, and Kabbalistic knowledge, designed to give his readers a sense of the new world they were living in–Jewish style.
Written in Hebrew, the book was “a popular bestseller in Eastern and Western Europe, as well as in North Africa and the Middle East” according to Yoel Matveyev, whom I have to thank for introducing me to Hurwitz. Yoel has written a fascinating article for the journal History and Philosophy of Logic, arguing that Hurwitz’s Kabbalistic thought is extremely subtle and profound, foreshadowing modern developments in mathematics and computer science. I can’t comment on Yoel’s thesis; I lack the mathematical background. But an incidental remark of Yoel’s, that Hurwitz’s book touches on the question of extraterrestrial intelligent life, sent me hurrying to the website hebrewbooks.org to find the original 1797 edition of Sefer ha-Breet.
The discussion of extraterrestrial life is on pages 15a-16a of this edition (pp. 37-39 of the numeration of hebrewbooks.org). I found it so fascinating I decided to translate it, and am posting it here in two parts. (Part 2 will be up next week.)
Given Hurwitz’s historical situation, it’s no surprise that his take on “life on the stars” comes across as a bit quaint, a mixture of 18th-century science and traditional Judaism, stirring Kabbalah and Copernicus into a single pot. He knows, as educated Jews (and Christians) had known since the Middle Ages, that the world is round. He knows, further, that the sun and the stars (a term he uses for both stars and planets) don’t revolve around it. Yet in his cosmology this world remains, morally if not spatially, the center of the universe. “All things were created for the sake of earthly humanity.” This includes sun and moon, stars and planets, and the beings he’s convinced inhabit them all.
And yes, Grandpa, the Talmud does have something to say about life on other planets, at least as Pinchas Elijah Hurwitz reads it. The Biblical “Meroz,” a name that occurs in Judges 5:23 and nowhere else, is explained as a star–I suspect, though Hurwitz doesn’t say so, the planet Mars. The “Merozians” (Martians?) are condemned for not having “come to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty”–as all good Martians, and extraterrestrials in general, are bound to do.
My grandfather, Ichael Garb, died a little over 50 years ago. I’m sorry I can’t show him the passage from Hurwitz–I’m sure it would have tickled him. I dedicate this and next week’s post to the memory of this good and gentle man.
And now … Hurwitz on extraterrestrial life:
* * * * *
There are some Gentiles, distinguished and prominent philosophers, who foolishly ascribe corporeality to the stars. They say that all the stars, fixed and mobile alike [i.e., stars and planets], are corporeal worlds that contain humans and animals in great number, flowers and inanimate objects, all coming into existence and then perishing, just as in this world.
Some of them say it is the non-luminescent stars that are the earth-like worlds, while those that are luminescent are the suns for those worlds, each luminescent star a sun for the world close by it. The “wandering stars”—that is, the seven mobile stars—they declare to be earth-like, receiving their light from the sun as does our terrestrial sphere; and these are truly corporeal worlds, like this world that is upon the terrestrial sphere. Their motion varies in accord with their distance from the sun; clouds rise from them as they do from our terrestrial sphere; while from their perspective this world is a star, visible to them through the light it receives from the sun, like the moon that shines for us through the light it receives from the sun. Thus all are stars, and all are worlds as well.
Their argument runs as follows: If the small is inhabited, surely the large must certainly be so. Is it possible that, of all the many and great spheres that God created, it is this tiny one alone that is inhabited, all the others remaining useless and idle? Why, it would be like a huge field that measures a thousand parasangs, yet is sown with one solitary ear of grain!
Some among the Gentiles go farther, and say that the stains visible upon them through a telescope—dark spots and white ones, such that the sphere appears part black and part white—are their mountains and hills and seas. Their black aspect is dry land, while the white is their watery, oceanic part. Others give the reverse explanation, that the black aspect is the watery part while the white is the dry land. The rays of sunlight, it seems, can penetrate water and pass through it. But they cannot penetrate the land and so are reflected back, with the result that the land appears white and the seas black.
However this may be, this [presence of land and water together] implies that [these worlds] are designed for the benefit of their human inhabitants. The astronomers, they say, have discovered that all the stars are composed of form and matter and four elements, just like the terrestrial sphere. They have an atmosphere surrounding them, and therefore are not destroyed by their motion. Not one of them is uninhabitable: the surrounding atmosphere serves as a shield, preventing anyone from falling off and their motion from doing any harm to the resident population.
The gravitational attraction that each possesses, moreover, pulls toward it all the bodies present upon it, just as it does on the earth whereon we dwell. Thus the view of Copernicus, who advocates for the earth’s motion, placing it among these planetary orbits.
And now your humble servant’s opinion upon this subject:
I am perfectly convinced that [the other worlds] were created not in vain but for the purpose of habitation, and that there are creatures living upon them. Not, however, for the reason they have given—their analogy with the huge field, their declaring it impossible that this little earth be inhabited and the stars, so many and great, without any dwellers. For I am able to retort to them, that all those worlds were created solely for this earth’s benefit.
All things were created for the sake of earthly humanity. So the Bible tells us, that God created the lesser light to rule over the night, the stars as well, and God placed them in the firmament of heaven to shine upon the earth [Genesis 1:16-17]. Thus it is truly: they and all they contain were created solely for the sake of human perfection upon this earth.
None of us, to be sure, knows what benefit accrues to us from those [extraterrestrial] creatures. Similarly, we do not know what benefit we gain from the celestial creatures, such as the angels and the wheels and the living creatures [of Ezekiel 1:5-21], yet all experts in Kabbalah agree that humans indeed derive benefit from them. This is humankind’s superiority in that we are possessors of free will, just as the tiny mosquito is superior to all the mighty and many trees of the forest in that it has the power of life.
This, however, is my line of argument:
It is known to the Kabbalists, and stated frequently in the Zohar, that the [superior Kabbalistic] worlds of Yetzirah, Beri’ah, and Atzilut contain innumerable worlds within each of them. Why, then, should the world of ‘Asiyah [the lowest of the four Kabbalistic “worlds” or dimensions, which Hurwitz equates with our physical universe] be lacking its own multiplicity of worlds? The Mishnah, at the very end of the Talmud, tells us that God will someday allot 310 worlds to each of the righteous [Uktzin 3:12]; and in the first chapter of the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah [3b], God rides on a cherub through 18,000 worlds.
I have, moreover, solid proof for my opinion in the Talmudic interpretation of this Biblical passage:
“Curse Meroz,” said the angel of the Lord,
“Pronounce a curse upon its inhabitants.
For they did not come to the help of the Lord,
To the help of the Lord against the mighty.” [Judges 5:23]
“Some say, ‘This “Meroz” was an illustrious man. Others say, ‘It was a star’” [Talmud, Mo’ed Katan 16a]. Now, if in the opinion of some Meroz was a star [Mars?], and the Bible speaks of cursing its “inhabitants,” it follows that the stars must be inhabited; and the angel curses and execrates that star with all its inhabitants because they did not come to the help of the Lord against the mighty as the other stars did, each of them spilling out evil upon Sisera and his army [who were enemies of the Israelites] from its own place. …
Hence my view that the stars are inhabited and that they are worlds, as implied in the [Kabbalistic book] Tikkunei Zohar. And now I must express my opinion concerning the nature of the star-creatures, by which those entities shall be carefully considered and the question evaluated, whether or not they be in human form.
by David Halperin
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