Jews and Space Through Time

From their earliest use of lunar cycles as a calendrical guide to the activities of astronomers and scientists today, the Jewish people have maintained a consistent interest in extraterrestrial matters. Outer space has influenced the art, literature, and even the comedy of Jews.

 

Moreover, Jewish scholars and scientists continue to play a role in astronomy and space exploration for the benefit of all humankind. Explore some highlights of the relationship between Jews and space throughout history and today in the timeline below.

Like other peoples in their region, the ancient Hebrews looked to the skies with wonder. While they didn't worship sun or moon gods like some of their neighbors, they were attracted by a deity that created the heavens and everything in them. As they codified their religion, they borrowed and modified a lunar calendar that had been developed by the Babylonians.

 

The Hebrew calendar guides the lifecycle of the Jewish people and, as it is based on the cycles of the moon, it has kept them looking into the skies from ancient times until the present. Queries and responses regarding the ways in which astronomy affects Jewish life can be found in traditional texts from the Bible and extra-biblical works, up through the Talmud and the works of medieval religious commentators.

 

Religion and science were not seen as irreconcilable forces during these periods, and Maimonides, for one, considered science to be a divine gift. In fact, many esteemed rabbinic figures, better known for their commentaries on Torah and Talmud, were attuned to the scientific advancements of their day and considered them in their works. During the Golden Age of Spain, for example, Jewish scholars contributed a great deal to the sciences and much of the period's research can be found in Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew.

 

As the modern period arrived and Jews became more integrated into European societies, medicine and the sciences became especially appealing fields. By that time, religion and science had taken divergent paths, a matter that allowed Jews to enter so-called "neutral" professions that had previously been closed to them. Astronomy was one possibility among many in medical and scientific fields.

 

By the early 20th century, the sciences were not only the major force behind new technologies but had become a significant influence in arts and culture. It was at this time that Jewish inventor Hugo Gernsback coined the term "science fiction," and founded a series of magazines that became the home for a new genre of science and space literature that would come to inspire generations of readers, writers, and filmmakers.

 

The post-WWII era saw the involvement of numerous Jewish astronomers and scientists involved in the "space race" between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both space programs have sent hundreds of astronauts into orbit, among them more than a dozen Jews, some of whom brought Torahs and other Judaica with them into space. Incredibly, more than one dreidel has been spun in zero gravity.

The Maryland presentation of this exhibit is made possible in part by the generous support of a gift in memory of Patrick J. Kelly Jr., a Baltimore Science Fiction Society Founder; The Joseph & Harvey Meyerhoff Family Charitable Funds; PNC Greater Maryland; Larry Boltansky.

 

Additional funding from: Greif Family Fund; Kutler Family Philanthropic Fund; The Kaplan-Kronsberg Family Charitable Fund; A gift in memory of Jim Guy; Emelie Schwab & Family in Memory of James Schwab; Harriet Stulman; Philip Tulkoff; Julian H. Krolik and Elaine F. Weiss Philanthropic Fund; Annette and Michael Saxon Fund and Moog Music.