Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Religion in Outer Space

Today in my Space Law class, we had a guest speaker who talked briefly about the issues of practicing religion in outer space, which I thought was really interesting. The speaker was Rabbi Steven Glazer, and in about 30 minutes, he gave an overview of Jewish Law and its application to outer space.

Though how to follow religious law in outer space may not seem like a pressing issue, it got a bit of a boost in 2002 when the first Israeli astronaut went to outer space. Recently a Malaysian astronaut, who is Muslim, also raised such questions.

Rabbi Glazer began by explaining that Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe in the divinity of the Jewish texts, which provide Jewish law. To allow the law to be understood throughout time, there are scholars who provide responses to specific questions, allowing interpretations of the law that apply to changing situations and technology. The responses are provided in the form of legal position papers, so they are pretty rigorous. Also, they are based on precedent, so you have to understand the answers given by previous scholars throughout history and base arguments on that. He said that there are three basic issues to address in the case of space travel: dietary restrictions, sabbath and daily prayer requirements, and holiday observances.

The issue of dietary restrictions is the easiest to deal with, because astronauts get pre-packaged food. It is not difficult for the food to be chosen to follow Jewish law for a particular astronaut.

The question of prayer and sabbath are more difficult. Jews are required to pray three times a day, and are also required to refrain from doing any type of work on the Sabbath. However, a day on Earth is defined as the amount of time it takes the Earth to make one rotation on its access. If you are in space, what is a day? The shuttle and station revolve around the Earth every 90 minutes, so some say that is a day when on the shuttle or station, your day lasts 90 minutes. Given this situation, there have been about 5 basic answers by different scholars about what and astronaut should do, which are:
1) Don't go. You can't observe properly, so you should not put yourself in that situation at all.
2) Go, but don't observe. The rules about prayer and sabbath were meant for this planet, so if you're not on the planet, you don't need to observe them.
3) Go, but just observe what you can. Essentially, do you're best.
4) Go, and observe strictly, meaning pray three times every 90 minutes, and every 7th 90 minute segment, you should observe the Sabbath, and rest. This would essentially require you to pray and rest the entire time you're in space.
5) Go by Houston time. Since Astronauts set their watches by Houston time and do other work on Houston time, they can observe prayers and the Sabbath based on this clock. (This seems to be the most widely accepted option, though not doing work on the sabbath still provides an issue for astronauts, who don't really get a "day off" while in space. A space tourist, however, may be able to adhere to this.)

I mentioned earlier that the responses have to be based on precedent. In this case, an example of precedent was a question long ago, before modern technology, by someone visiting an area near the pole, like Norway. Since in the summer the sun shines constantly, and there is no night, the person wanted to know how they can observe the laws of praying three times a day, etc. The answers given were similar to the ones above. Another example is a question someone asked about being lost. How can you observe the rules if you're lost and have no way to know when it's the Sabbath? The answer there was, if you have a watch or a way to keep time, just rest every seven days, even if you don't know that is it the correct day of the week.

Another issue with the Sabbath is that one of the restrictions is on travel - you're not supposed to travel on the Sabbath. If you're on the shuttle or space station orbiting in the Earth, stopping is not an option, so what can you do? It turns out there is a good precedent for this as well. Long ago scholars decided that if you are on a sea journey that goes over the Sabbath, it is ok, as long as you do not embark or dis-embark on the Sabbath. So as long as you're not taking off or landing the shuttle on the Sabbath, you're ok.

The last issue is holiday observances. One example of an issue is lighting the menorah at Hanukkah. Clearly, you can't light candles in the shuttle or station due to safety concerns. A possible solution may be an electric menorah. Similarly, for Rosh-Hashanah, you are supposed to blow a ram's horn, however, in an enclosed space like the shuttle or station, you could damage people's eardrums. In these cases, changes to the traditions can be justified based on the Jewish law requiring that you do not cause harm to yourself or others. Another holiday requires building a hut with branches and fruit, another thing that will be difficult or impossible in space.

For Muslims, a common example of a difficulty is how to pray towards Mecca. Mecca is essentially below you, on Earth, but also, since you are moving very quickly as you orbit the Earth, the angle changes as you are praying.

There are lots of pressing technical and organizational issues with space travel, but I thought this was a really interesting thing to think about.

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