Kosher Bookworm: “Intergalactic Judaism” and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

by Alan Jay Gerber

The recent visit to Cape Canaveral to witness the launch of the last space shuttle by a group of very talented students of Yeshiva Katana of Inwood and the publication of a new book dealing with that very subject will serve as the focus of this week’s review.

In his new book, Intergalactic Judaism [Urim Publications, 2011] by Rabbi David Lister of the United Kingdom, the subject of the Jewish take on space travel and related activities and studies is dealt with in depth.

Much of the theological discussion found in this book is based upon the teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who, according to Rabbi Lister, “has had a major influence on my life and work. His [Hirsch’s] deep love for the Torah, for his fellow Jews and for humanity as a whole, and his advocacy that one sublimate secular learning and culture into opportunities to serve G-d, have been inspirational for me in my work as a rabbi.”

In my communication with Rabbi Lister, he states that, “I discovered Rabbi Hirsch’s writings when I was a teenager and his thought was a revelation to me. He explained the Torah not just as a series of obligations with lots of technicalities but as a system for perfecting oneself, one’s community and the whole of mankind through deeply symbolic and meaningful actions, underpinned by a history of interaction between G-d and His creation.”

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.”

Throughout his book Rabbi Lister references Rabbi Hirsch and clearly demonstrates the contemporary relevance that Rabbi Hirsch still has in Jewish theological methodology.

The method by which Rabbi Lister utilizes Rabbi Hirsch’s teaching is noted throughout the very text itself as well as in the footnotes. British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his foreword to this work 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 Yeshiva Ketana designed for the last space flight, dealing 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 the current teachings of the same under the rubric of Torah U’Madda in the teachings of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rav Norman Lamm.

Truly, the heavenward view of modern science is reflected in the religious teachings of our faith. Rabbi Lister makes note of this in the following teaching:

“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.’” [Exodus 20:19]

“To this day, Jewish people refer to the Torah as ‘Torah min hashamayim – Torah from the heavens.’”

To the young students from Yeshiva Ketana and to their teachers, I wish them a hearty ‘yashar koach’ and that they should know full well that they were taught, through this experiment and experience, the practicality of the teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, as well as the later teachings from Rabbi David Lister. One last word to the students of Yeshiva Ketana. 25 years ago, after the Challenger disaster, I embarked upon a four year research project into the life’s story of Challenger astronaut, Dr. Judith Resnik. Much was learned concerning this talented young lady including two very memorable facts. One, that her dad, Dr. Marvin Resnik whom I interviewed, was a survivor of the Hebron massacre of August 1929, and that his favorite nickname for his beloved daughter was, Ketana.

This article from The Jewish Star may be found online.

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