In his 2011 book, “Intergalactic Judaism” (Urim Publications), Rabbi David Lister of the United Kingdom presents a Jewish view of space travel.
Much of the theological discussion in this book is based on the teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch whose “advocacy that one sublimate secular learning and culture into opportunities to serve G-d … “has had a major influence on my life and work,” according to Rabbi Lister.
In my communication with Rabbi Lister, he states that when he discovered Rabbi Hirsch’s writings as a teenager, “his thought was a revelation to me.”
Rabbi Lister noted how Rabbi Hirsch demonstrated “how each of the technicalities associated with the rituals is not there for its own sake or as a result of exegetical happenstance, but is, rather, ordained by G-d to add a further depth of meaning to what we do.”
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, in the book’s foreword, states, “Here is a work that combines dazzling erudition in astronomy, theoretical physics and various other scientific disciplines, together with a fine knowledge of Jewish mysticism and biblical commentary, and — what is truly rare — an ability to combine them seamlessly into a view of the world that is both spiritual and humane. What Rabbi Lister has, and generously shares with us, is a capacity for wonder: at the majesty of creation and therefore of the Creator.”
In reading about the experiment that a group of students and staff at Inwood’s Yeshiva Ketana designed for a space flight (it dealt with the deposition and formation of zinc phosphate crystals in microgravity), I came to further appreciate both Rabbi Hirsch’s ideological premises relating to the symbiosis between Torah teachings and secular knowledge and contemporary teachings of the same under the rubric of Torah U’Madda as advanced by Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Norman Lamm.
A heavenward view of modern science is reflected in the religious teachings of our faith, as Rabbi Lister notes: “If we look at the biblical accounts of G-d’s election of the Jewish people, one fact cannot escape our notice. Great stress is laid on the fact that the Torah was given to the Jewish people ‘from the heavens.’ This is made clear during G-d’s instructions to Moses concerning the great revelation on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:11-20).
“Immediately after the Ten Commandments have been pronounced, G-d repeats this idea: ‘You have seen that I have spoken to you from the heavens.’ (20:19)
“To this day, Jewish people refer to the Torah as ‘Torah min hashamayim (from the heavens).”
A version of this column appeared in 2011.