Do you believe in aliens? Do you believe in God? And how do you decide? More importantly: Do you decide about God the same way you decide about aliens?
In this year's Kol Nidre sermon, I suggest that the wonders of the natural world can inspire us to awe. The fantastic search for extraterrestrial life misses the point of "unidentified aerial phenomena," which are reminders of the marvelous mysteries our world offers to us as waystations to faith.
God is Not An Alien
Kol Nidre 5782
What would it take for you to believe in aliens? Not just extraterrestrial bacteria languishing on some otherwise desolate exoplanet. No, I mean intelligent ETs stepping off of flying saucers right here on Earth. What would convince you that they’re real?
Some small fraction of us may not need any convincing at all. Scattered evidence collected over the past several decades is proof enough. Others among us—perhaps an even smaller fraction—could never be convinced. Even personally shaking hands with a Martian would require some alternative, earthly explanation. But between these poles sit the rest of us – the vast majority who would need convincing but who are persuadable.
Now let me ask you a similar question. What would it take for you to believe in God?
Are the answers the same?
We’ll come back to God in a minute. Let’s stick with aliens for now. Or to be more precise, unidentified aerial phenomena, formerly known as UFOs.
You may have caught the news over the summer. That is, if you follow The Washington Post, NPR, Fox, The New Yorker, or pretty much any other major news outlet. In June, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassified a years-long study conducted by the Department of Defense. The report was a “Preliminary Assessment” of so-called “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” or UAP. It reviewed reliable sightings, occurring largely in the last two years and registered mostly by military aviators. Of the 144 incidents, only one was able to be identified. The other 143 were classified as “unexplained.”  And of these, 18 exhibited “unusual … movement patterns or flight characteristics.”
The report credibly asserts that there are probably multiple explanations for these sightings, which fall into five basic categories. The phenomena could be American or foreign aerial technology or possibly “airborne clutter” such as birds, balloons, and plastic bags. The fourth category is labeled “natural atmospheric phenomena”; we’ll be coming back to that. (And no, I haven’t forgotten about God either.) But it’s the fifth category that took the internet by storm: The tantalizingly vague but deliciously capacious “other.”
The report says:
…we may require additional scientific knowledge to successfully … analyze and characterize some of [the unidentified aerial phenomena]. We would group such objects in this category pending scientific advances that allowed us to better understand them.
In other words: aliens.
Okay, not exactly. But it was enough to excite UFO-chasers and ET-believers the world over. And the news outlets that covered them were happy to promote the alluring possibility of alien life on earth.
But a popular story is not necessarily the best one.
Science writer Sarah Scoles is the author of Making Contact, a biography of Jill Tarter, the former chair of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Scoles points out that most journalism about UFOs is sensational and possibly even harmful. She wrote this summer in The Atlantic: “It’s much easier to stop at fun and weird, and in the case of the current rhetoric, spooky-scary. And keeping it simple makes for a better story, in the traditional sense of the word. … But keeping the nuance could lead to investigations of bigger questions, and more context.”
It makes sense why people look so eagerly for aliens. The possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence is, for many, a source of hope. David Kestenbaum, for instance, earned a PhD in particle physics from Harvard University and was part of the team that discovered the “top quark” at Fermilab. He’s now a journalist and has shared his own desire, almost an emotional need, to believe that intelligent life exists outside of earth. “It’s a lot of pressure if we’re the only thing going on,” he says. “It’s a lonely thought.”
I get it. I’d love for aliens to exist also. But I don’t think they do.
Anyone who’s been in my office or spoken to me for, I don’t know, more than twenty minutes will know that I’m a big fan of Star Trek and other science fiction and fantasy titles. So while I don’t believe aliens are real, I do agree with Jon Wagner and Jan Lundeen, co-authors of Deep Space and Sacred Time: the hypothetical aliens posed by Star Trek and other works of science fiction “invite us to notice traits of thought or feeling that resemble or contrast with our own, … [leading us] to certain questions … about what is essential or accidental to [humanity].” The human capacity to imagine a slanted or time-shifted reflection that shows us an image of ourselves beyond ourselves helps us delve more deeply into who we really are.
But Sarah Scoles is right. When we’re not talking about fiction—and certainly when we’re not talking about conspiracy theories and fraud—we have to keep a cool head and an inquiring mind when considering the possibilities, the many possibilities, that might explain UAP.
Which brings us back to our “Preliminary Assessment” and the seemingly innocuous Category Four. Virtually absent from any of coverage of the governmental report is a treatment of unexplained “natural atmospheric phenomena.” But in my opinion, the marvels of the natural world are more than worthy of our attention. In fact, I believe they are critical to understanding the meaning behind these airborne anomalies.
For centuries, the tools of science have peeled back layer after layer of the natural world’s hidden mysteries. But as our own fellow congregant, Adam Lyon—another particle physicist at Fermilab—taught us over Zoom last Shavuot, our best minds and sharpest models can’t fully account for how the world works. Science has done a very good job of expanding our understanding and improving our lives – but the one thing we know for sure is that we don’t know everything for sure. Reliable models contradict one another, and the “truth” of the natural world lies far beyond our ken.
Take just one terrestrial example. The Hessdalen Valley in southern Norway is home to “rare and unusual atmospheric lights.” These lights have been observed for nearly a century and have been seen scores of times by thousands of people. They can be inches long or over 100 feet wide. Sometimes they blink out shortly after appearing; other times, they last for hours. Researchers have described them as having “the appearance of a free-floating light ball … characterized by geometric structures that are often accompanied by … ‘spikes’ in the high frequency and very low frequency radio ranges.” Unlike other transient luminous events like ball lightning, blue jets, and red sprites, these lights over the Hessdalen Valley occur independently from electrical storms.
And no one knows what they are.
There are some who might approach the Hessdalen Lights with a single question: Are they aliens? Since almost certainly they are not, such a person might walk away from the whole thing disappointed.
But there is another approach: Not “Are they aliens?” but simply “What are they?” Clearly these lights are “unidentified aerial phenomena,” but the fact that they’re not aliens doesn’t make them any less captivating. They are, in a word, wondrous.
“Wonder” is a word we throw around a lot, but when taken seriously, the concept of wonder serves as a basis point for Jewish faith and, especially on a day like today, meaningful prayer. Perhaps the greatest Jewish thinker on the concept of wonder was the 20th-century theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He defined wonder as “a state of mind in which we do not look at reality through the latticework of our memorized knowledge; in which nothing is taken for granted.” That is, wonder is an orientation toward the world with the humble appreciation for its radical, miraculous otherness.
For Heschel, wonder is the root of awe. And tonight, as the Days of Awe climax in our observance of Yom Kippur, we might pay special attention to this profound and resonant connection. In Heschel’s words:
Awe is the awareness of transcendent meaning, of a spiritual suggestiveness of reality…. The world in its grandeur is full of spiritual radiance, for which we have neither name or concept. … Awe, then, is more than a feeling. It is an answer of the heart and mind to the presence of mystery in all things, an intuition for a meaning that is beyond the mystery, an awareness of the transcendent worth of the universe.
Awe, Heschel teaches us, is not something we have or do or even feel – it’s a way of being that conditions us to experience and express unending gratitude for the miracle of life.
And it is only from a posture of awe that we can believe in God.
Looking at the High Holiday prayerbook, it’s easy to see described a God that’s beyond belief. Creator of the Universe. Arbiter, Judge, and Witness. The One who gives life and brings about death. Any of these ideas defies our modern sensibility and reeks of an earlier, more credulous age.
But today is Yoma--The Day—and the prayers we say are not meant to be taken apart, to be examined each on its own. We let them wash over us as encompassing waves, saturating us with metaphor after metaphor in hope of bringing us ever closer to teshuvah. From Kol Nidre through morning services, to Yizkor and the Closing of the Gates, without a scrap of food or even, it seems, a breath of rest … this prolonged moment out of time is designed to remind us of the powers beyond ourselves that we can barely struggle to describe let alone understand. God is all that is in our prayerbook in a way that is real outside the domain of science. God cannot be found. We only pray that God can find us.
With this orientation of awe, we see the world anew. In contrast to their source, the marvelous creations we discover on earth and in its skies serve to remind us of that which is behind it all.
In other words: God is not an alien.
What I mean to say is this: When asked what would make you believe in aliens, I presume most of us think of the classic forms of evidence: personal encounters, photographs and film, radio transmission, and so on. But we cannot expect the same kind of evidence to testify to the reality of God because God, essentially, could not exist in any perceptible way.
Say what you will about the Bible’s anthropomorphic depictions of a personal, and rather emotional, God. Our tradition from its earliest days has understood the reality of God to be more complex. Judaism has always stood for God’s significance, relevance, the priority while endeavoring to produce in every age meaningful ways of accessing the divine spirit without relying on supernatural signs. How much the more so does our tradition reject imparting divinity onto the natural world, which violates our prime directive against idolatry. We affirm that God created the world but isn’t in it even as we devote our lives to the pursuit of divine ideals.
A mythic Rabbinic tale found in the Talmud illustrates the point. It teaches about the role of nature in its relation to humankind and depicts a very traditional, if seemingly unorthodox, view of God.
A dispute arose over what would seem to be a fairly minor point of Jewish law. Would an impure oven—segmented and patched with sand—become pure again or remain unusable? Rabbi Eliezer gave every argument in the book that the oven was pure, but the other Rabbis disagreed.
So Rabbi Eliezer announced: “If the ruling is in accordance with me, this carob tree will prove it!” The carob uprooted, moved on its own one hundred cubits (and some say four hundred cubits), and replanted itself anew. But the rabbis replied, “You can’t bring legal evidence from a carob tree.” So Eliezer tried again: “If the ruling is in accordance with me, this stream will prove it!” Whereupon the stream reversed its flow. But the Rabbis insisted: “You can’t bring legal evidence from a stream.” Perhaps now showing his anger, Eliezer declared, “If the ruling is in accordance with me, the walls of the study hall will prove it!” But even with the walls caving in around them, the Rabbis didn’t relent. At last, Eliezer appealed to the highest authority imaginable: “If the ruling is in accordance with me, then heaven will prove it!” At that moment, the voice of God proclaimed that Rabbi Eliezer was right.
But Rabbi Joshua arose and addressed the divine voice, quoting tomorrow morning’s Torah portion: Lo bashamayim hi, he shouted, “[The Torah] is not in heaven” (Deut. 30:12). Joshua reminded God, “As You wrote, ‘Incline after the majority’ (Ex. 23:2).” Joshua is saying: The Torah is in our hands, not God’s, and human laws need to come from human decisions. Later, Elijah the Prophet would report that God responded to Rabbi Joshua by declaring, with a smile, “My children have triumphed over me!”
This hallmark text is often used to teach the sacred Rabbinic tradition of receiving, respecting, and transmitting Torah. In addition to showing how the Rabbis saw themselves, though, it also demonstrates how they thought about God. Yes, in the story, God works miracles to make manifest the divine will. But the Rabbis ignore those supernatural events. A stream flowing downhill is no less wondrous than a stream flowing uphill, they seem to say—and neither can bring a moral or legal claim. The same Rabbis who taught us to say a hundred blessings every day were conditioned to think of every person, every creature, every moment as a miracle, a gift presented to us through no merit of our own, drawing from us nothing but appreciation and the urge to utter our insufficient thanks.
Judaism has taught for centuries that God is not a being who can be discovered, detected, or proven. God is not on earth, and God is not in heaven. With wonder and awe, our tradition offers a view that God is unlike anything we can imagine but radically, essentially, and necessarily real.
And this, I believe, is the wisdom offered to us as well by unidentified aerial phenomena. Forget about aliens. The marvels of our very own earth are enough to fill us with wonder if we but open ourselves to them.
Yom Kippur, capstone of the Days of Awe, is the perfect moment to stand in amazement before the ultimate cause and the ultimate end. “You are first and You are last, and we have nothing besides You,” our liturgy declares. Let this be our meditation on this Day of Atonement, and may our eyes behold all of earth’s treasures—mysterious or explained—with wonder.
G’mar chatimah tovah. May you be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.
 “Preliminary Assessment: Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” p. 4. Available: https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/Prelimary-Assessment-UAP-20210625.pdf.
 Ibid. 6.
 “The UFO Trap.” https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2021/06/ufo-report-uap-director-national-intellegence/619293/
 This American Life: “Fermi’s Paradox.” https://www.thisamericanlife.org/617/fermis-paradox.
 Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos, p. 47.
 Etienne Caron and Pouya Faridi, “To Investigate or Not to Investigate? Researchers' Views on Unexplored Atmospheric Light Phenomena.” Frontiers in Earth Science, 24 February 2016. https://doi.org/10.3389/feart.2016.00017
 Man is Not Alone, p. 12.
 God in Search of Man, p. 106.
 BT Bava Metzia 59a-59b.
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