Jewish Astronauts in Space

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B'nai Emet -> Messages -> Special Sermons -> 2002

Jewish Astronauts in Space

Second Day of Rosh Hashanah 5763.  September 8, 2002.

You know the old joke about the priest, the minister, and the rabbi who go up in space?  They orbit the earth for a few days, return to earth, and appear at a large press conference to share their impressions of the trip.

The priest is the first to speak.  He is beaming; his face is radiant.  “I understand for the first time what it really means to live in God’s universe,” he says.  “I really sense, for the first time, God’s handiwork in creation.  I now know what the Psalmist meant when he said, ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness.’ ”

The minister is the second to speak.  He, too, is glowing, overflowing with spiritual enthusiasm.  “We orbited the earth in ninety minutes,” he reports.  “Each ninety minutes, I saw a new sunrise--a new miracle. I now understand that every sunrise and every sunset are miracles.”

Finally, it was the rabbi’s turn to reflect on his experience.  He looked haggard and exhausted.  “We orbited the earth every ninety minutes,” he says..  “So each and every thirty minutes--Shacharit, Minchah, Ma‘ariv, Shacharit, Minchah, Ma‘ariv...”

It’s not really such a joke.  Next December, Col. Ilan Ramon is scheduled to be part of a NASA crew on the Space Shuttle Columbia.  While he will not be the first Jew in space, he will be the first Israeli.  And he asked rabbis in Israel and elsewhere what he should do regarding kashrut observance and Shabbat observance.  Thus, he is the first Jew in space to ask serious questions about Jewish observance in space.

There are important, both in Col. Ramon’s questions and in the answers he’s received.

The kashrut question was the easiest one to answer.  It turns out that NASA is able to provide Col. Ramon with kosher space meals.  Apparently, NASA can provide, in eight-ounce pouches, ten kosher choices. Ramon picked five: Florentine lasagna, beef stew, chicken Mediterranean, another kind of chicken, and an old world stew.  Yum yum; it’s enough to make me want to go up in space!

The question about Shabbat observance is more complicated.  At  first glance, it seems like a klutz kashe--a silly, meaningless question designed to annoy rather than to elicit important information.  As a matter of fact, decades ago, when space travel was a fantasy rather than a reality, it was a klutz kashe:  “If a Jewish astronaut is circling the earth every ninety minutes, should he pray the Morning Service every ninety minutes--and, of course, the Afternoon and Evening Services on ninety-minute rotations as well?  And if a ‘day’ for an orbiting astronaut is ninety minutes long, rather than twenty-four hours long, should he observe Shabbat after six orbits--that is, every nine hours--for ninety minutes at a time?”  It does sound like the classic klutz kashe--akin to the old Jesuit cliché, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

But it’s not a klutz kashe.  It’s a serious question, one that demands serious consideration, one that really asks a broader question--as Rabbi Harold Kravitz recently put it: “How do we respond to changing circumstances and still live observant lives as Jews?”

Numerous responses to Col. Ramon’s questions have been written, and one of the most impressive that I’ve read is a t’shuvah, a responsum, written by Rabbi David Golinkin.  Rabbi Golinkin is one of the most important halakhic minds in the Conservative movement.  His scholarship is serious and thorough; his halakhic methodology systematic and creative.  Rabbi Golinkin’s t’shuvah on space travel presents a number of possible responses to the question of Shabbat observance in space.

The first draws upon a t’shuvah written by Rabbi Simha Halevi Bamberger, in Bavaria, in 1886--yes, in 1886.  No, of course Rabbi Bamberger wasn’t writing about Shabbat observance on spaceships.  But halakhic exploration--trying to find a halakhically valid response to a new, contemporary question--doesn’t begin in the here and now, just trying to pull a plausible answer out of thin air.  It involves  going back to the classical Jewish sources--trying to find answers to earlier halakhic questions that might, by analogy, relate to the present question.

In Rabbi Bamberger’s case, he was responding to a question posed by someone contemplating a trip to Norway--where the sun doesn’t set completely, for much of the year.  If the sun doesn’t go down, when does Shabbat begin?  If the sun doesn’t go down, when does Shabbat end?  If the sun doesn’t rise, when’s the earliest time one can say the Morning Service?

Rabbi Bamberger’s advice was:  “ should not live there since it raises doubts about prayer, Shabbat, and festival observances.”  Like Rabbi Golinkin, though, I believe that “don’t go there” is not a valid answer to the question.  In fact, there are Jews today who visit Norway, and there are Jews today who live in Norway.  And their serious halakhic questions require serious halakhic answers--just as the astronaut contemplating Shabbat in outer space deserves a serious halakhic answer.

A second response comes from the pen of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Halperin, who recently wrote “that Col. Ramon should be relieved of his obligations because he will not be experiencing Earth time.”  In other words, since an astronaut in outer space is beyond the “earth time” of sunrises and sunsets every twenty-four hours--that is, he is beyond days and nights--he should be absolved of obligations that are determined by the passage of days and nights.  No days?  No nights?  You don’t have to worry about resting on the seventh day.

This position is actually an old one, written by earlier rabbis in earlier times, and it was refuted in the 1930s by a Moroccan rabbi named Yosef Mashash.  Presented with a t’shuvah that discussed someone traveling to an area where a “day” could last three months or more, Rabbi Mashash rejected this position, arguing that, if taken to its logical conclusion, one might maintain that a Jew traveling to such a place would be free to eat chametz on Pesach, to eat on Yom Kippur--in addition to ignoring Shabbat--because those mitzvot, as well, are tied to days.

Indeed, if you take this argument even further--that is, the argument that a space traveler doesn’t have to observe Shabbat, because he doesn’t live within a world of “days” and “nights”--you’re really led to the conclusion that, when one travels into outer space, it’s really legitimate to leave most of Jewish life behind, back on earth.

A third response, articulated by Rabbi David Hayyim Shaloosh of Netanya, maintains that Col. Ramon should count each orbit as a new day.  This makes a certain sense, since at a certain point in each orbit, Col. Ramon will see the sun “rise” and later will see it “set”--the only difference being that each “day” for Col. Ramon, rather than being twenty-four hours long, will be approximately and hour and a half long.  But if you think this approach makes sense, think of the implications:  Rabbi Shaloosh maintains that a Jewish astronaut should observe Shabbat, for ninety minutes, every nine orbits, and that he should pray the three daily services during every ninety-minute orbit.  There’s a certain logical consistency to this approach, but it is ludicrous in practical application.  Shabbat is not about resting for ninety minutes every nine hours--it’s about a day of rest every week.  And as for the assertion that the astronaut should daven three times every ninety minutes--just like the astronaut in the joke--he would have to spend almost all his time praying.  And that’s ridiculous!  Our daily prayer life is supposed to punctuate our daily lives, not dominate them entirely.  As the Talmud says, “lo nit’nah torah la-mal’akhei ha-sharet [the Torah was not given to the ministering angels]”1--the Torah was given to real people, who have real lives, and who are challenged to sanctify those real lives!

If your thinking is leading you to the conclusion that the Jewish astronaut should link himself to twenty-four-hour days--davening three times in a twenty-four-hour period, just as we do on earth, and observing Shabbat every seven days, just as we do on earth--you’re in good company.  The Talmud itself tells us: “A person lost in the desert, who doesn’t know when it is Shabbat, should count six days and rest on the seventh.”2  And Rabbi Israel Lifshitz, writing in the nineteenth century, maintained that, if a traveler has a watch that shows the time in his point of origin, then he should observe according to his point of origin.  And this is essentially what Moses Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah3 in the twelfth century and what Yosef Karo wrote in the Shulchan Arukh4 in the sixteenth century:  “the principle of following the customs of your point of origin if you intend to return there and if there is no local Jewish community.”5

So what should Col. Ramon do when he’s up in space--despite and because of the fact that he will be far, far away from any Jewish community, despite and because of the fact that he will see the sun rise every ninety minutes?  He should link himself to Houston time--as the clocks on the space shuttle and the daily routine on the space shuttle will be linked to Houston time--and when it’s morning in Houston that will be the time for his morning prayers, and when it’s evening in Houston that will be the time for his evening prayers, and when it’s Friday night and Saturday in Houston that will be Col. Ramon’s Shabbat up in space.

The most reasonable approach, one which maintains the “normal” schedule of daily prayer and the normal schedule of Shabbat observance, is right before our eyes--and is in consonance with talmudic principles and with principles elucidated by the classical halakhic literature.

I mentioned at the beginning that there are important lessons both in Col. Ramon’s question and in the answers we might find.

You should know that Col. Ramon is not a particularly observant Jew.  I don’t know if he keeps kosher in his own home or observes Shabbat at home.  But he’s asked these questions because, as he said, “I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis.”  There’s an important lesson there for each of us--regardless of our own level of observance.  It’s similar to Sandy Koufax, on that Yom Kippur more than thirty-five years ago, when he was over at the Temple of Aaron, instead of pitching in that crucial World Series game.  The notion of a Jew who may be less non-observant privately but who is concerned about matters of public observance--it’s not just for celebrity ball players or celebrity astronauts, but for all of us, regardless of our own pattern of private observance, when we are in the public arena.  If a Jew who does not keep kosher at home, for example, arranges a kosher bar or bat mitzvah luncheon or a kosher wedding reception or arranges for kosher food at a Jewish communal function, that is laudable, and quite appropriate.

Remember the halakhic answer that suggested that Col. Ramon, orbiting far away from earth and early experiences, should be exempt from obligations of Jewish observance?  Not an appropriate approach.  Travel doesn’t exempt us from Jewish observance; Jewish tradition doesn’t tell us: don’t worry about daily prayer and don’t bother to observe Shabbat or holidays when we’re “on the road”--whether that road is the next town, the next state, across an ocean, or in outer space.  Just the opposite: our challenge is to bring our Judaism with us--b’shiv’t’kha b’veitekha u-v’lekh’t’kha vaderekh6--when we sit in our homes and when we’re on the road.

It’s significant that the answers--the halakhically valid answers--that we’ve seen are grounded in classical halakhic literature--Bible, Talmud, halakhic law codes, etc.  The Talmud didn’t know of space travel, and Maimonides wasn’t writing for astronauts facing ninety-minute “days.”  But if Judaism is to remain an authentic tradition as well as a real, living tradition, then it must be both rooted in our past and our classical sources and responsive to contemporary realia and contemporary questions.

Back to the joke:  At first glance, the priest and the minister were waxing poetic, were responding spiritually, while the haggard rabbi was bogged down in the burdensome minutiae of observance.  How “un-spiritual,” we may be initially moved to respond.  But in fact, Jewish observance--and, in particular, daily prayer and weekly Shabbat observance--are among the most spiritual pursuits we are challenged to engage in.  Prayer is a challenge--to open ourselves up to the miraculous, to sensitize ourselves to God’s role in our lives--not only in outer space, but here, in our world, in our lives.  As for the priest’s citation of the Psalmist’s insight--“The earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness”--we say that every Sunday, for it’s the Psalm of the day on Sunday, and we just said it a few minutes ago when we put the Torah away--“la-donai ha-aretz u-m’lo’ah [the earth is the Lord’s and all its fullness]!”7

And as for the minister’s insight that every sunrise is a miracle--our daily liturgy tries to teach us that insight every morning and every evening; our daily prayers try to sensitize us, three times a day, seven days a week, to nissekha she-b’khol yom immanu erev va-voker v’tzohorayim--God’s miracles that are with us every day, evening, morning, and noon.

Finally, the halakhic approach to Col. Ramon’s question which I think is the valid one--linking himself to Houston time--contains a lesson for all of us as well.  How important it is to link one’s self to the Jewish community--no matter where one is.  Probably none of us will ever travel in space as Col. Ramon will do next winter.  But just as it will be crucial for him, as he orbits miles away from our world, miles away from any community, to link himself to a Jewish community, it is no less important for each and every one of us.  Our lives as Jewish individuals are more complete to the extent that we see ourselves as members of the Jewish community--the Jewish community of here and now; the Jewish community of the past, present, and future; the Jewish community of near and far.

How many intriguing questions are raised by the prospect of a halakhically serious Jew in space!  How many important answers are revealed--for him, and for all of us!


 1    B’rakhot 25b

 2    Shabbat 69b

 3   Hilkhot Sh’vitat Yom Tov [Laws of Resting on a Festival] 8:20:  “V’khein mi she-da‘ato lachzor lim’komo noheig k’anshei m’komo [Accordingly, if one intends to return to his original place, one should follow the practice of the residents of that place].”

 4   Orach Chayim 468:4; same phrase as in Maimonides, above.

 5   Golinkin, “A Responsum Regarding Space Travel,” June 2002

 6   Deut. 6:7

 7   Ps. 24:1

Rabbi David L. Abramson

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