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Behind the Headlines: Contemplating Life on Mars; an Ancient Jewish Undertaking

Evidence of primeval bacteria was discovered recently in a meteorite that apparently fell to Earth from Mars, and the news sparked excited discussion among scientists and extraterrestrial prognosticators alike.

Some wondered whether this might be the first evidence of the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

But what is the Jewish view of such news? How does it square with the Torah’s story of creation, which says God created the world in six days?

Is proof of life on Mars consistent with Judaism at all?

For Jewish theologians who have been working since the Second Temple era to reconcile the Bible’s creation story and the mysteries of the universe, it is.

Commentary and conjecture on the very beginnings of the universe are found even in records of early rabbinic discussions, in the Talmud and midrash.

But the rabbis also instructed that too much wondering isn’t allowed.

The first rabbinic dictum in “The Book of Legends,” which was compiled earlier this century by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, says:

“You are allowed to inquire concerning the things that are from one end of heaven to the other, but not concerning what is above (the heavens), what is below (the deep), what is before (the six days of creation) [of the Earth] and what is after (the world’s existence).”

But that hasn’t stopped contemporary Jewish thinkers from considering what the news of life on Mars might mean.

The reports of Martian bacteria reminded Rabbi Burton Visotzky of a well-known midrash: When asked what the Creator was doing before bringing the Earth into being, the rabbis said God created worlds and then destroyed them, created worlds and then destroyed them again.

Only after creating the Earth did the Creator stop and say, “Behold it is good.”

That midrash indicates that “there may have been many worlds out there,” said Visotzky, a professor of midrash and interreligious studies at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

“Now we can say that there are perhaps the beginnings of life on Mars? So nu?” he said.

Visotzky also sees an ecological warning in the news.

“Maybe it’s good to wake up and realize there may have been other life forms. Maybe they failed and we might be a little more careful with the way we care for our own world.

“God put us on the world not only to work it, but to guard it,” he said. “We can’t despoil it, and maybe this message from Mars will remind us that we live in a greater universe, with a much greater design, than we tend to see.”

For Rabbi Basil Herring, who is Orthodox, the news prompted consideration of whether humankind is unique in all of God’s creation.

He concluded that it is.

“Man’s soul is a reflection of the divine and therefore man has a unique spiritual identity and place in the universe,” said Herring, who is spiritual leader of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach, N.Y.

“I don’t think the Torah seems to say there are other human beings elsewhere in the universe.

“But I don’t think Torah contradicts the idea that there might be lower forms of life” in the universe, he said.

According to Herring, the creation story of the Creator forming the world in six days “is not really a manual on how God physically created the Earth; it’s not a science primer.”

The Torah’s narrative of creation tells that God first created heaven and then Earth, which was a vast, empty water.

Then God created light and divided it from darkness to form day from night, and then created the firmament and divided it from the waters below, then created dry land and separated it from the sea.

Then God created vegetation, and then “lights in the dome of heaven,” or the sun and the moon.

On the fourth day, God created living beings, which filled the waters and the skies. On the fifth, the wildlife of the Earth was created.

And on the last day of creation, before resting, the Creator produced humankind.

Even some Orthodox Jews view the creation story as being consistent with the concept of evolution, Herring said.

“There are those who follow the view that the six days are not 24-hour days but are eons, so to talk about millions or billions of years could be reflected in the days” described in Genesis, he said.

“One can comfortably reconcile aspects of scientific theory with the creation story, which starts with the ocean, progresses to the land, ends with higher life forms,” he said.

“None of it contradicts the notion that there may be other life forms scattered throughout the universe,” he said.

“Nonetheless, man remains unique because of his soul and spiritual grandeur, and his relationship with God.”

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