When Barry Schwartz was 11 years old, he begged his parents to let him stay up way past his bed time so he could watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon.
Outer space seemed close at hand in the summer of 1969. President Kennedy’s promise of landing a man on the moon within the decade had been fulfilled. Hollywood imagined routine Pan Am space shuttles to orbiting space stations by the year 2001.
That promise was not fulfilled. Pan Am went under, and the Challenger exploded, and though tickets have been sold to the optimistic and rich, tourist flights to space have yet to launch. The astronauts of Apollo 17 left the moon in the winter of 1972, and nobody has returned.
Barry Schwartz dreamed of being an astronaut as a child, but when he grew up he landed not on luna but in Leonia, where he is rabbi of Congregation Adas Emuno. This month, with the publication of “Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion,” a new anthology from Fordham University Press, Rabbi Schwartz finally finds himself bound up with astronauts both real and fictional, if only in the pages of a book.
The volume begins with an interview with astronaut John Glenn, conducted by one of the editors, Dr. Paul Levinson. Dr. Levinson is a professor at Fordham University’s department of communications and media studies. He has published several science fiction novels and was president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but it was a nonfiction work, 2003’s “Real Space: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age, On and Off Planet,” which was the springboard for this new anthology.
One of the topics he explored in that book, Dr. Levinson said, was “how come we made such little progress in getting off the planet since the ’60s? Even now no human beings have been back to the moon. We haven’t been to Mars.”
This got him thinking about people’s expressed motivations for exploring space. There was the military motive that fueled the Cold War space race of the ’60s, the pull of scientific curiosity, and more recently, the view that there is money to be made in orbit.
What was missing in these discussions, he realized, was “something that underlies all these motivations, the almost spiritual exploration of knowing more about who we are in the cosmos. Getting out to space satisfied the yearning every sentient being has, to learn a little more about what this is all about, what are we doing here, what part of the larger picture are we part of.”
And thus was born “an anthology where people from different religious backgrounds and people who are not religious at all write about this intersection of space travel and spirituality,” he said.
Dr. Levinson’s interest in space travel, like Rabbi Schwartz’s, goes back to childhood. “I was absolutely riveted when the Soviets launched the first sputnik,” he said. “I thought it was amazing.”
The book includes an essay from the Vatican’s astronomer, an anthropologist considering the symbolic meaning of objects taken to space by astronauts (including the Torah scroll taken by astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman), and scientist and science fiction writer David Brin giving an original midrashic reading of Genesis to justify scientific discovery and creativity. The book’s fiction includes a seder-in-space scene excerpted from one of Dr. Levinson’s novels and a story by Jack Dann, the editor of “Wandering Stars,” a 1974 anthology of Jewish science fiction, about a far-future rabbi on an alien planet
As for the actual rabbi in the book — Rabbi Schwartz entered the anthology via Dr. Lance Strate, Dr. Levinson’s colleague at Fordham who is president of Rabbi Schwartz’s shul. Dr. Strate — who is a Jewish Standard columnist — has an essay of his own in the volume, which mentions Maimonides but takes a somewhat more skeptical stance toward space exploration than the other contributors do.
In his essay, Dr. Strate suggests that the desire for space travel reflects a “longstanding desire to look upward, perhaps a returning to the trees,” he said. He quotes Lewis Mumford, who condemned the space program during the Apollo era as a rerun of ancient pyramid building, in which “a select few individuals were the subject of an extreme amount of labor and resources to send this select few to that culture’s conception of the heavens.” Mr. Mumford argued that “our time and effort and resources would be better spent dealing with our needs here on earth. The overall thrust of the essay is that space travel is about the search for transcendence but we’re not going to find it.”
Rabbi Schwartz, however, argues in his essay that astronauts found transcendence in space — and that they were able to bring it home with them and share it with the world.
“Our journey into space is really about our journey back home,” he writes in an essay that began as a High Holiday sermon in 1989, 20 years after the first moon landing. The essay looks at how the views from space changed our view of earth.
He quotes Saudi astronaut Bin Salman: “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.”
When Rabbi Schwartz first delivered the sermon, he ended by holding up a photograph taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts that showed the blue globe of the earth.
“From outer space we have gained an inner understanding; a fresh perspective,” Rabbi Schwartz writes. “We are one community on one Earth; a dazzling bundle of interdependent life, hurtling through the void. We are one human race; and must we not join hand in hand across the globe, to care for this our home?”