Would the discovery of intelligent life on another planet change the way we think about religion?

As Jews, our identity and spiritual heritage comes from the belief in an almighty Creator who sculpted the heavens and the earth from chaos, or ‘Tohu va-vohu’. How would alien life impact our special relationship to our creator? How would the existence of other sentient beings affect Jewish belief and understanding?

To explore these questions, inspired by our Scientists in Synagogues event series, members of Shir Hadash Congregation braved the tortuous road up Mount Hamilton for an extraordinary evening together at the Lick Observatory, located in California’s Diablo Mountains Range overlooking the Santa Clara Valley in the Bay Area. 

In the late afternoon sunlight, we toured the magnificent facility and learned about its history, which dates back to the late 1800s. We also visited the Shane 3-m telescope and others located at the facility. Seeing the astrophysicists at work, and videoconferencing with the UCLA black hole research team, was a fascinating treat.  

Our outdoor picnic dinner was followed by a lecture from Professor Clare Max, the Director of the University of California Observatories at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Dr. Max spoke about the discovery of exoplanets, which are planets circling other stars. Since the first one was detected less than 30 years ago, exoplanets in the habitable zone of stars have been found in ever-increasing numbers, which are now believed to be in the 1022 magnitude. The universe is so unimaginably vast, with billions of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy alone – and some may have conditions favorable to the development of life.  The possibility of extraterrestrial life is no longer just the domain of science fiction. 

So if we did find life on other planets, what would this mean for religion? Would those planets also have their own gods and theologies? From our perspective on Earth, the existence of life elsewhere may unite us – especially if this extraterrestrial life is threatening in nature. We naturally join together in the face of danger and would more easily see ourselves as “human beings” rather than specific religious communities if life is discovered on other planets. However, the likelihood of a successful direct contact with intelligent life on another planet is probably slim, as the evolutionary clocks of our separate planets are probably not in sync. Even if we were able to contact this extraterrestrial life, our species may not be developed enough on the evolutionary scale to establish communication that is meaningful, let alone of a spiritual nature. 

But what about alien gods? This, too, would not be particularly worrisome or in conflict with our Jewish theology, just as we don’t find conflict with the multitude of gods people on Earth believe in. Jewish theology is universal in nature.  Many of our Jewish prayers start with, “Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam…” (“Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe…”). The Biblical creation story in Genesis attributes the creation of the universe to God: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1-2). On the fourth day of creation, God created the Sun, Moon and the Stars. If God is the almighty creator of the universe and the heavenly objects we observe through the telescopes at the Lick Observatory, and the creator of intelligent life on Earth, God surely can create intelligent life on other planets and govern them as well.  

There is even a Jewish belief that other life forms may exist in other worlds. According to Sefer HaBrit, “We should not expect the creatures of another world to resemble earthly life, any more than sea creatures resemble those of land.” Rav Pinchas Elijah ben Maimas Horowitz writes in Ulna’s commentary on Isaiah 45:18: “He did not create it for emptiness. He fashioned it to be inhabited.” Does he write about earth or the universe? 

In Psalm 145, God, the “God of Worlds,” named all the stars. Does the plural use of “worlds” imply other worlds where life exists? The discovery of intelligent life on other planets worshiping other gods should not faze us. We can simply add their god(s) to the long list of other deities people on Earth already believe in. Any potential conflict can be resolved by recognizing that our God is the “God Almighty”, “El Elyon”, and we will continue to adhere to our commitment to put our God first and follow the commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me”. (Exodus 20:2

Before heading back down the mountain on its winding road, we had the opportunity to look through the historic Lick 36” Reflector.  We watched as the roof opened, the telescope moved into place, and the heavens appeared, giving us a magnificent view of Jupiter, a globular cluster, and a spectacular nebula with a green light ring around it. One can’t help but feel humbled and closer to God observing the heavenly objects in the skies. 

Gazing at the stars, thinking about the billions of galaxies out there and how rapidly the universe is expanding, as well as the relationships and dependency between the objects in the sky, leaves one in awe. The beauty of the surroundings and the skies observed from the top of Mount Hamilton lifted our spirit. Like the different roads leading to the top of the mountain, thus are the various religions people follow – different paths leading to one’s god leaving us all in awe, majesty and wonder. 

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Itzik Nir is the Director of Adult Education at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, CA).