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By: Dave Gordon

Are we alone in the universe? Well, we certainly don’t know if “they” are watching us, if they are out there, or where they are. But one thing is sure – we are actively looking to meet them. More and more evidence from the scientific world suggests that extraterrestrial life does exist.

Dr. Charles Mattias “Matt” Mountain, Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, once noted, “What we didn’t know five years ago is that perhaps 10 to 20 percent of the stars around us have Earth-size planets in the habitable zone.”

A habitable zone is an area around an Earth-like planet in which there is liquid water (that is, not frozen) on its surface and where it is possible to support life. Liquid water is essential to all life on Earth, and so the definition of a habitable zone is based on the hypothesis that extraterrestrial life would also need liquid water in order to live.

Habitable means not too hot, not too cold, in an environment that allows life to thrive and grow. Scientists have lately stumbled upon some places in space which may just be able to support life.

Where in the Universe
Would Life Likely Exist?

In recent years NASA has discovered seven Earth-size planets 39 light years away, which orbit a sun they call TRAPPIST-1. All of these planets could possibly have oceans, and have temperatures much like Earth’s. This means that they could possibly foster life.

What we also know from our own Earth is that life can function even in the harshest of conditions. Cacti can survive with almost no water in the desert; microbes survive deep in the ice of the Antarctic.

In fact, near the Philippines is Mariana Trench, the deepest part of any of Earth’s ocean. If you placed Mount Everest at the Trench’s lowest point, its peakwould still rise more than a mile above sea level. Sea life thrives in the depths, despite the below-freezing waters, and hydrothermal vents, which are like underwater geysers, which spew acid that can reach up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit.

This gives hope that it is possible for life forms to exist elsewhere in the universe, in circumstances once thought to be inhospitable.

Taking this into consideration, scientists have been busy building vehicles, probes, and telescopes to get a better sense of where extraterrestrial life could reside.

Within the year, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is expected to scan planets beyond our solar system, and examine 200,000 of the nearest stars.

NASA hopes to complete a robot in two years that will land on Mars, and will study Mars’ interior, search for life, and gather up soil samples, in the hopes that these elements could help future astronauts live on Mars.

And over the next decade, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is slated to orbit through space nearly a million miles from Earth, and will open up new expanses of the universe to our view. Its infrared detecting gaze will penetrate clouds of dust within our own galaxy and will reach back in space and time to the very edge of the cosmos, scanning the universe for places that might be hosting life forms.

Suffice it to say, that in the coming decades, NASA’s long-term goal is to have sophisticated state of the art aircraft that can make regular trips to Mars, that is, if Elon Musk or Richard Branson, with their private ventures, don’t do so first.

The Jewish Response

In ancient as well as modern Jewish literature there is some recognition of the possibility of life on other planets. At the very least, Jewish literature looks at this idea in a positive light.

Among other sources, there is an oft cited scene in the Book of Judges. Deborah the Prophetess sings about the victory of Barak over Sisera. In her song, she says, “Cursed be Meroz! Cursed, cursed be its inhabitants, says the angel of Gd.”

What – or who – is Meroz, and where do they come from?

The gemara (Mo'ed Kattan 16A) offers that Meroz might be a star or planet, given that one verse earlier Deborah says, “From the heavens they fought, the stars from their orbits... This star, however, which was the dominant star of Sisera, apparently did not come to their aid. And so, General Barak penalized Meroz and the inhabitants.”

In his book Sefer HaBrit, 18th century Rabbi Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz maintains that Meroz is a planet. Meanwhile, the Arizal (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria) said that he believed that the universe contained an “infinite number of spiritual worlds.”

To reinforce this, the Ari'zal quotes the Talmudic teaching (Avoda Zara 3b) that “Gd flies through 18,000 worlds.” It is perhaps meaningful that the words “stars” or “planets” are not used, but instead it is “worlds” – indicating some probability of life in outer space.

A thousand years later, Rabbi Chasdai Crescas (Spain, 1340–1411) in his work Ohr Hashemwrote that there is nothing anywhere in Torah that negates such a possibility.

The suggestion of the existence of life on other planets, however, has been treated with strong reservation by many from the observant Jewish public.

Unlikely There is Life on the Moon

Before man landed on the moon, astronomers argued vehemently about the possibility of life existing there. In his book Heavenly Hosts the astronomer, Dr. N. Vital notes with amazement that the great Torah Sage and kabbalist, Rabbi Mordechai Sharabi, was asked about the possibility of finding life on the moon. Rabbi Sharabi replied with a quotation fromthe preface to the Tikkunei Zohar, in the section titled Patach Eliyahu:

“And You [Gd] created heaven and earth… and on earth there are trees and grasses… and birds, fish, domestic animals, wild beasts, and human beings.”

“In view of this statement,” continued Rabbi Sharabi, “it is highly unlikely that there is life on the moon, for it states explicitly that ‘on the earth, there are trees, grasses, birds, fish, domestic animals, wild beasts, and human beings.’ This implies that only here on Earth were these creatures created.”

Dr. Vidal further suggests that according to this quotation, not only does life not exist on the moon; it may not exist anywhere else in
the universe. 

The Possibility of Life on Another Planet

In recent years, Dr. Velvl Greene, a microbiologist hired by NASA to help them with their search for life on Mars, asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe privately if this was a worthwhile endeavor.

“Dr. Greene,” the Rebbe said, “look for life on Mars! And if you don’t find it there, look somewhere elsein the universe for it. Because for you to sit here and say there is no life outside of planet Earth is to put limitations on the Creator, and that is not something any of His creatures can do!”

Possible Places Where Scientists Think Life May Exist

Europa– Europa is an ice-covered moon that orbits Jupiter. There is evidence of an ocean 10 miles below Europa’s surface. It is surmised that volcanic activity below could be sustaining simple life. Also, the ice on Europa is smooth with very few craters, leading scientists to believe that the ice is newly formed and is continually reforming over time.

Io– This moon of Jupiter has more than
400 active volcanoes, making it the most geologically active body in our solar system.
With wide ranging temperatures, it is possible that some places on this moon could produce a middle ground temperature that is conducive to life. Though, as of yet, there is no evidence of water or organic chemicals on this moon.

Enceladus – Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, is an ice moon. Enceladus has begun to show signs of liquid water, thanks to an effect called tidal heating. Tidal heating is caused by Saturn’s gravitational pull, which deforms Enceladus strongly enough to heat rock, and certainly ice. This makes it the only other place in our solar system, other than Earth, where there is evidence of the existence of liquid water.

Titan– Titan is the largest of Saturn’s moons. It has a very thick atmosphere which would provide protection to any potential life. It has been dismissed as having potential for sustaining life because of its very cold temperatures, but recently the Cassini-Huygens probe discovered liquid lakes (probably made of hydrocarbons)
on Titan’s surface.

Mars – There is evidence that there may
have been oceans on Mars at one point. Also, carbon-containing molecules have been discovered by the Curiosity Rover on Mars. These are some basic necessities for earth-like life.