“And I’m floating in a most peculiar way …” — David Bowie, “Space Oddity”
As a kid in Catholic school around the time “Lost in Space” was popular on TV, I always wanted to ask the nuns if Jesus qualified as an extraterrestrial.
Though the Jewish superstar from Nazareth had an intergalactic resume, I don’t think the School Sisters of Notre Dame would have interrupted the catechism — “Who is God?” — to discuss whether the Christian messiah zipped through the heavens in a spinning disc.
Not long ago, after front-page New York Times articles revealed that the Pentagon spent about $22 million between 2007 and 2012 investigating “advanced aerospace threat[s],” Rabbi Jonathan Gross told me that more UFOs have been reported in the skies above Israel than any other place on Earth.
A former pulpit rabbi at Pikesville’s Beth Tfiloh Congregation, Rabbi Gross attributed the Holy Land/UFO data to a Canadian-born Jew named Barry Chamish, who died in Florida at age 64 in 2016.
Though regarded as Israel’s most learned UFO-ologist, Chamish, a prolific author and public speaker, chased passions that typically file writers under K for kook — life on other planets and conspiracy theories. His “JFK” was Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination, asserted Chamish in a 1998 book, was the coordinated work of several people and not a lone gunman.
“According to Chamish, Israel has the most UFO sightings per capita of any place in the world. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were true,” said Rabbi Gross. “As a people, Jews tend to be curious, imaginative, optimistic and neurotic — all traits that would incline someone to believe, hope and possibly fear that we are not alone in the universe.”
Several of the unexplained phenomena reported by Chamish in his 2000 book “Return of the Giants” occurred on Shikmona Beach in Haifa, where some believe an alien spaceship crashed. The part that fascinates me is the location of the alleged wreck — some 200 yards below a grotto known as the Cave of Elijah, not far from the spot the prophet is said to have challenged the Canaanites to a duel of the gods.
“Elijah’s God,” wrote Chamish, “sent a ray of light from heaven. … [It] must have been similar to the kind of beam which burned the sands of Shikmona Beach into a saucer shape.”
Polls report more than half of all Americans, Germans and Britons believe in UFOs. A Dec. 16 New York Times article described the United States as the most backward of all First World nations in the study of extraterrestrials because of the stigma we still hold for those who believe in UFOs.
While baby boomers and their progeny have a blast celebrating “Plan 9 from Outer Space” as the worst movie ever made, most hope that their genius kid studies medicine and not Milky Way migrants. Still, over the years, the possibility of intelligent life on other planets has fired up the disciplined imaginations of Jewish thinkers from Maimonides to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Maimonides described angels in the Torah as intelligent beings without bodies, other-worldly agents delivering messages from the empyrean to the prophets in dreams or visions. If we cannot touch an alien visitor — if its presence merely flickers in our consciousness long enough to deliver the news and scram — does it mean it doesn’t exist?
On Christmas Eve 1968, astronauts aboard Apollo 8 became the first humans to orbit the moon. In broadcasting the event back to Earth, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders read the first 10 verses of Genesis. “And God called the firmament heaven …”
The next day — Shabbat — Rabbi Schneerson used the example of Apollo 8 in a lecture. The revered Lubavitcher rebbe, who attributed the existence of alien life to the witness of Deborah in the Book of Judges, said that before NASA’s accomplishment, there was “scientific proof” that Apollo 8’s mission was impossible.
Impossible. What an abominable word.
Whether the righteous will rule one day over a star of their own and fly through the universe on wings — as stated in the Zohar — or Friday night prayers are interrupted by a small gray being with very large eyes, who is to say what is impossible?
The Zohar, argued Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, an American trained physicist and kabbalist, “predicts the advent of space travel [and] it provides at least one of the reasons why space flight would be inevitable as part of the prelude to the messianic age.”
They never taught that in Catholic school.