What would Judaism mean on another planet?
In my short story “What Lights We Have,” (a spin-off from my new novel How to Mars) the characters are trying to figure out how to celebrate the very old holiday of Hanukkah on the planet Mars.
They run into all sorts of problems. Mars’ lower gravity means that the already-soul-crushingly tedious game of dreidel (don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about) lasts much longer than it would on Earth; they lack the ingredients for proper latkes; they don’t have candles. Even when they discover a menorah app that they can use on their tablets, they’re not sure what to do next. Jewish tradition says to put the lights in a window so that others outside your home can see your menorah — but these folks are alone on Mars. There’s nobody outside the habitation dome to see the flames.
Then there’s the matter of the calendar. Judaism has holidays, prayers, and customs that are bound to particular (Earth) seasons or moments in the year. We’re so interested in the calendar that we have a total of four different New Year’s Days! When you start thinking about other planets, your ideas about time have to change. If you’re going to do Hanukkah, do you do it once per Mars year, in the Mars winter? That would mean waiting almost seven hundred days between one festival of lights and the next. Or do you keep yourself tied to Earth and end up doing Hanukkah once per Earth year, which means just about twice during every Mars year, and so not always during the darkest season locally?
And what about Passover, which we’re supposed to observe in the spring? Does that mean Earth spring or Mars spring? For what it’s worth, Mars’ spring isn’t quite the verdant experience we’re used to here at home — and, if you think Tu B’Shevat, our new year of the trees, feels odd in chilly February on the United States’ East Coast, wait until you see what it’s like on the perpetually frigid red planet.
Another question is the length of holidays; Passover, for example, is seven days in the land of Israel but eight everywhere else, a custom that derives from the difficulty the priests of Jerusalem had in reaching far-flung communities to tell them to start celebrating. Well, a place like Mars is pretty far-flung. Would Passover need to be nine days there? Or a hundred and nine?
Finally, we face a question of place. Although Jews live all around the world these days, the religion still orbits around Israel to a considerable extent. Congregations everywhere turn to face in the direction of Jerusalem when reciting prayers like the Amidah, even if they’re thousands of miles away. On Mars, would we need to face the planet Earth, in order to keep the focus on Jerusalem?
If you’re going to do Hanukkah, do you do it once per Mars year, in the Mars winter? That would mean waiting almost seven hundred days between one festival of lights and the next.
All this to say: Is Judaism an inextricably Earth-bound religion?
It’s important to note that Judaism has already survived a number of enormous historical changes. When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, Jews had to make a choice: either (a) stick to a centralized vision of Judaism with priests, animal sacrifices, and a single temple as the only legitimate site of worship, or (b) decentralize Judaism, shifting to rabbis over priests, prayer over sacrifice, and many legitimate sites of worship — synagogues, community centers, the home — rather than just one. If we hadn’t chosen (b), the religion, in the absence of the Temple, would have died. But we adapted, and here we are.
If we want to make our way into outer space, Judaism is going to have to transform still further.
That may already be happening; you could argue that Mars would just be the next step in an expansion that started a long time ago. After all, the Jews of Buenos Aires, Sydney, and Johannesburg celebrate Hanukkah in summer each year, and Passover in autumn. If someone wanted to celebrate Tu B’Shevat in a desert or in Antarctica or somewhere else on Earth without the possibility of trees, nobody would object.
Judaism has been changed by the Earthly diaspora. Passover’s dietary laws, for example, have expanded to encompass species of grain from continents that our Israelite ancestors never knew. And rabbis have thought through the logistics of celebrating holidays in Iceland, where nights can get very long or short depending on the time of year — and Shabbat starts at different times depending on where you live. So we’re used to dealing with new geography.
We may also be becoming even more decentralized with time. As one case in point, some communities outside the land of Israel no longer observe the extra eighth day for festivals.
Thus there really isn’t a question of whether Judaism can be liberated from certain local conventions of time and place; it’s already happening on a planetary scale. The next step would just be to extend this adaptation to the rest of the solar system, and beyond.
The key is that this evolution is not just a leaving behind; it’s also a carrying forward. Hanukkah in Reykjavik is still our Festival of Lights; Passover in Mumbai is the much-loved celebration of our Liberation; Shabbat in Christchurch is our day of rest. We change and adapt not to lose something but in order to preserve what matters, under new circumstances, and keep growing.
As the narrator of my story “What Lights We Have” says, “Jenny and I head back to the common room, hand in hand. We end up in front of the virtual menorah, which has stopped flickering — the digital candles on this app burn all the way down and then stop, like the real thing. And I feel the same tiny sense of loss that I always have when the candles are done. It’s not like this is even the darkest time of the Martian year. But it’s full night now, and in some ways this planet is always darker than Earth. Maybe those candles are what this whole thing is about for me — the something that happens to me when candles get lit, and the something that happens to me when they burn out.
“And we go put on the suits — we have radios in our helmets in case Eve wakes up and needs us — and head off a few steps into the very dark Martian night. We sit under a night sky that is in fact very similar to the one we had back on Earth. The constellations are the same. Jenny says that’s because the other stars are so far away that Earth and Mars are basically in the same place, as far as the rest of the universe is concerned. Which means that a journey like ours has in some sense been too short to have left all that much behind.”
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, including the new novel How to Mars and the creativity guide The Artist’s Torah. His work has won such awards as the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, the Juniper Prize, and others. David lives with his family in Washington, DC, where he teaches at Georgetown University. You can find out more at davidebenbach.com