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The Rebbe and the Scientist: Looking for Life on Mars

The Rebbe and the Scientist: Looking for Life on Mars

Dr. Velvl Greene
Dr. Velvl Greene

In 1960, I began working for NASA as part of the Planetary Quarantine Division, which was then charged with trying to find life on Mars. The Rebbe was very, very interested in the work I was doing. When we first met, he asked me if I knew what the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century founder of the chassidic movement, meant when he spoke of divine providence.

I said that I did. The principle of divine providence which the Baal Shem Tov taught is that nothing a Jew sees and hears is random. Rather, it is all designed by Heaven to bring you closer to Torah and to G‑d. There is nothing wasted.

And the Rebbe said, “If this is true for everybody, how much more true is it for a person who is exploring the stratosphere, or searching for life on Mars, or working in a medical laboratory dealing with diseases, or traveling all over the world and meeting so many people.”

“Nothing a Jew sees and hears is random . . . certainly when searching for life on Mars”

He went on, “You must have a wealth of stories and anecdotes and events and impressions—each one of which demonstrates divine providence. You should keep a journal of these stories and events, and then try to analyze them to see what is the lesson you can learn from these things. And if you can’t figure it out by yourself, then bring them to me and I’ll help you.”

I followed his advice. And today I have a journal with hundreds and hundreds of stories and events, and I plan, some day, to disseminate these stories to as many people as possible.

Back then—this was the early 1970s—when word got around that I was working with NASA and looking for life on Mars, some religious Jews would rebuke me. They said, “You mustn’t do that. You mustn’t work in the space biology program or the exobiology program, because it goes contrary to Torah. You shouldn’t be doing this kind of work.” Since at this point I had already begun my journey to Jewish practice, their words caused me concern—was I doing something wrong? I didn’t know what to make of these statements. Rabbi Feller suggested that the next time I would meet with the Rebbe, I should ask the Rebbe if that was in fact true.

“You should look for life on Mars, and you should keep looking for life on Mars”

The Rebbe didn’t respond right away. He thought for a while, and then he said this:

“You should look for life on Mars, and you should keep looking for life on Mars. If you don’t find it, then keep looking elsewhere, and do not stop looking, because to sit here in this world and say there is no life elsewhere is to put a limit around what G‑d can do. And nobody can do that!”

And then he asked me if it would be possible for him to read some of my reports to NASA, and he was careful to add, “if they are not classified.”

I told him that there were many unclassified documents that I could send him, but I asked, “Why should the Rebbe want to read this? I mean, most of it is preliminary—we haven’t been to Mars yet. We’re just doing experiments to plan for the Martian trip, and what we’re doing is just normal bacteriology; it’s not very exciting . . .”

He said, “Let me decide that.”

So I promised him that I would do it, but several months went by, and I didn’t send him anything. The next time I was in New York and stopped at Chabad headquarters for afternoon prayers, the Rebbe noticed me and called me over. He said, “You promised me something!”

The Rebbe noticed me and called me over. He said, “You promised me something!”

“What did I forget?”

“You promised me the reports.”

“Well, I thought the Rebbe is so busy . . .”

“Don’t have pity on me. Send the reports.”

I went home and assembled a pile of unclassified documents—three or four thick folders—and I sent them all to the Rebbe. Most of this material described what we thought the Martian environment might be like, based on information from flybys. This was work from before the first landing on Mars, which would not take place until July 1976. In those early days, we were trying to develop a sampling device that could test the dust on Mars for the presence of living microbes. We were speculating what types of microbes might be there, so we could provide the proper nutrients to grow them when we got there.

It was straight laboratory work—I had a big group of microbiologists working for me, generating mounds and mounds of reports which we would send to NASA. But, until we actually landed on Mars and took samples, everything we were doing was speculation.

“In the first place you say that these bacteria would grow there, and in the second you say that they wouldn’t”

At the next audience I had with the Rebbe, he said to me, “There is something I’d like to bring up. Obviously it’s because I don’t understand your work, but it seems to me that there is a disagreement between something you wrote in one place about bacteria on Mars and what you wrote in another report several years later that describes the same experiment.” And he named the volume. “In the first place you say that these bacteria would grow there, and in the second you say that they wouldn’t.”

I told him that I couldn’t remember what he was referring to, but that I would look it up. And when I went home I dug out these dusty reports and read them, and of course he was right. There was a discrepancy.

When I came to the Rebbe the next time, which was a year later, I told him, “With regard to the discrepancy, the Rebbe was right—what I said here I didn’t say there, simply because I made a typographical mistake. And I’m going to correct it.”

“I don’t like contradictions in science”

He said, “Thank you. You make me feel better. I don’t like contradictions in science. But if the difference between what you said here and there is because you made a simple mistake—well, that makes me feel better.”

After that, every time I saw him he asked me for more reports. And, one time, I answered him in a flippant way. I said, “They say that the Rebbe has ruach ha-kodesh, divine vision. If that is true, why is the Rebbe asking me for a report? Doesn’t he know what is going on?”

If any chassidim had been in the room, they would have slapped me. But the Rebbe just smiled and said, “Vos men zogt, zol men zuggen—what they say, let them say. From you, I want a report.”

Printable Version

The late Dr. Velvl Greene, a bacteriologist and professor emeritus at Ben-Gurion University as well as director of the Lord Jacobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics in Be’er Sheva, Israel, also worked for NASA’s Planetary Quarantine Division, which was charged with trying to find life on Mars. He was interviewed in his home in Be’er Sheva in April 2008.
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suzy hander woodland hills, ca February 5, 2014

Thank you, Amichai, for your encouragement. Did you watch the PBS special on Stepehn Hawking? I agree with you that I'm never too old to learn. That's why I read the Torah daily and study various commentaries. Indeed G-d is the 'master watch builder" and he continues His watch throughout the universe.

Phil, I agree that being closer to Torah and to G-d is indeed all designed but as mortals we need a little push to try and understand the teachings. I'm still trying to learn and understand. You keep my mind jumping as usual. Thank you for your writings. Reply

Amichai Schneller St.Cloud MN February 4, 2014

Mars colonies... Suzy....I signed up for the mars one program also. you're never too old to explore.
and as far as any contradictions....why the need to test the divine? why the need to gauge the creation against who sees it as valid? jews and non jews can both learn the TRUTH equally...and in this knowledge, the truth is for all . Reply

Eric Rodriguez M. Barranquilla, Colombia February 1, 2014

The the lowest world I only have a title for this: the burnt world.
Some thing such atoms and viruses, are product pf the burning of this world when Satan and devils were expelled from heavens... and Hashem reordered this lowest world to show his power for salvation and redemption. Reply

Janice January 30, 2014

Life on Mars? To Adam He gave dominion over the earth, the resources of earth, the birds of the air - so I've always asked - is the limit of dominion only as far as birds can fly? so we see manking watched the birds and make planes like them to fly above the limits of live birds (is that ok? is it cheating? then mankind landed on the moon, and planted a flag (does that mean they take ownership? is that allowed by HaShem. is it ok to explore but not ok to take dominion? Ok, so we land on Mars, build cities and dwell in them; poses new problems; when does Shabbat start/end, when is Rosh Chodesh? When is Tirshri !? Can we have another world; when we not finished the original commision here in this place. Reply

suzy hander woodland hills, ca January 30, 2014

mars Phil, (thailand)
I enjoyed your statement very much. You asked an interesting question: What type of Life would there be? I hope these 'entities' or life would be happy, healthy and concerned with others. Maybe that's too much to hope for. With trillions of galaxies and planets, we can't possibly be all alone. I have also wondered about the relevance to us? Maybe none. However, we can't predict the future. Please keep writing. Reply

phil Thailand January 30, 2014

Life on Mars? Get with the program: if there were life on Mars, what sort of life would it be and what relevance to us? How many billions have been squandered on this vain search?

Has G-d ever suggested to anyone that we should do this? It's like the acceptance of Evolution/Darwinism as factual when it most certainly is not! Try Creation Ministry International's website and stop being deceived, please. Reply

Benjilini Brooklyn, NY January 30, 2014

Life on Other Planetary bodies? I truly believe without any doubts, if there is life on other planets, it will only allow us to say(hopefully), "G-D is everywhere!" Anyone who fears life elsewhere as it may belittle there attitude of themselves, does not truly understand the Almighty or themselves. Humans were made after the creation of an "ant," thereby we should not think we are on a such higher plane. We can reach for the stars or fall as low as an ant. Keeping this in mind, allows me to do whatever I can to help others, keep my faith strong, and never think I am on such a high plane that others cannot reach me. This is the essence of a positive self-attitude, respecting all people. Indeed, we must deal with life here on Earth but if there is life on Mars and beyond, I am ready to continue my belief, "that G-d is everywhere!" Reply

Mikey NYC January 30, 2014

Eric Posmentier the physicist Back in PHY-101, must have been the first class, the Prof explained importance of units and reference frame. Unless both are defined the "physics" is meaningless. Since the Torah defined neither, and there was no human prior to Adam to even infer a reference frame... one must ask "can any reference frame be defined in which the universe in less than 6000 years old?" Since, the reference frame of a photon moving at C ages the universe at near zero, and since in our reference frame that would be about 15B years, it stands to reason some reference frame could be defined where the age is 6K. And since the Torah says animals and man where "formed" from existing material and no reference frame for time is rigidly defined, there is no contradiction with science... unless you hold by the multi-verse theory, something the Rebbe would definately object to, because it contradicts creation ex nihilo (i.e, the big bang). Check out Schroeder's Science of God. Excellent concurrence Science and Torah Reply

Anonymous Copenhagen K. January 30, 2014

Challenges due science... What the world has seen and discovered in the last 10 years due a host of advances, space telescopes, the LHC , i.e. amazing advances in particle and cosmological observation and development of say, mutli-universe theories, is certainly a challenge to 'faith,' of any creed. In what must be viewed as an almost pre-Copernican sense that Hashem has made 'man' (and woman from his rib) and that we are central to G-d's universe is severely challenged. Somehow one can only deny and deflect the questions of why Hashem didn't respond or protect the many tens of millions who have died throughout the ages, senselessly and cruelly at the hands of other religions, brutally and enviously protecting their own ripoff ideologies. Maybe in the final analysis is it evident that we simply 'submit' to faith and 'need to believe,' and in so doing merely resolve events that occur due to prayer, not as random possibilities that must eventually occur if we wait long enough, but G-d's will. Reply

Amichai Schneller January 30, 2014

looking on mars while earth is being destroyed...LR-NY I agree with LR, when he says, "Humanity does not know how to co-exist on Earth and yet is already looking to pollute Mars?"
great point...very good point. and I agree, more so, in the eyes of the creator, Hashem is still waiting for the time, when we are all ready for the deeper understanding of ourselves....and our place in this reality. until then we must rely on the great scholars be they scientists, or the Rebbe for advice and insight to such questions...but I think most agree with LR-NY....we should fix our own world first and foremost...before we run around the universe with our sticky germ ridden human a messy baby, humans are in the infancy of universal consciousness...we are still trying to decide whether or not there is divine intervention in the creation of all things...some think we are primitive for believing in G-d...I feel we would be folly and primitive to think there could not have been some help from Hashem...g-d is the master watch builder. Reply

Phil Atlanta January 29, 2014

Another contradiction? Just wondering if there's a contradiction between "The principle of divine providence ... is that nothing **a Jew** sees and hears is random. Rather, it is all designed by Heaven to bring you closer to Torah and to G‑d. There is nothing wasted." -- and -- "the Rebbe said, 'If this is **true for everybody**, how much more true is it...'" Reply

suzy hander woodland hills, ca January 29, 2014

Mars I agree with your article: Looking for life on Mars/exoplants is very good. I even signed up for a one-way trip, however, I'm too old. But so was Moses when G-d showed him signs of the Promise Land. G-d can make life anywhere. And Mars is as good as any place to me. Of course, I write sci fi stories for fun. I've been doingt his for years. However, the problem of Terraforming is the big obstacle. The Torah states that angels came down to Earth and explored. They were curious and why can't we be? Reply

PHILIP DAVIDOVITS Toronto January 29, 2014

The Rebbe-Scientist Many years ago I became friends with a fellow who carpooled with Einstein in Princeton. He used to test the students looking for the their PHDs. I asked him why he became religious before I figured a fellow as smart as him must have done it from a scientific basis. He told me he was introduced to the Rebbe when he had a conference to go to in New York and wanted to discuss the Rebbe his views on education. The Rebbe spent time with him so he kept on coming back to see the Rebbe until that is where he felt at home and that is why he became religious. Reply

S L Zacharowicz New York January 29, 2014

CHALLENGE To my colleague from Dartmouth: read CHALLENGE, editted by Prof Cyril Domb and Aryeh Carmell, wherein he addresses this issue and more, as I recall. Reply

Mitchell J. Small Philadelphia January 29, 2014

Perhaps not all that surprising. If I remember right, the Rebbe was employed at the New York (or Brooklyn?) ship-yards around the start of World War II. I don't know his exact job duties, but picking up an error on a blueprint or in a Tech Data Package could have saved lives.
As for memory, that is just amazing. Reply

yuval Italy January 29, 2014

Uniqueness in the Universe of Mattan Torah First of all, congratulations for the beautiful and thought-provoking article. As a Jew and a scientist, I have always admired the rare attention devoted by the Rebbe haQadosh z"l to these topics (by the way, I suggest to consider the excellent journal "be-'or ha Torah", published by colleagues very close to the Chabad teachings, in which important scientific issues are shown to be not in contrast with our tradition).

Making maybe some pilpul, I would like to ask to the author if Orthodox Judaism has addressed the possible existence of another 'Am Yisrael in the Universe. As far as I know (e.g. from the shlosh-esre' iqqarim) we are asked to believe that nothing will change in the Torah, and that the Torah we know is the same given to Moshe Rabbenu, but this dos not rule out that HaShem could have given the same Torah to other intelligent creatures in another galaxy... I am not sufficiently learned/ informed to know if the topic has been treated in the ghemara' or elsewhere. Reply

Amichai Schneller January 29, 2014

life on mars. There's a ton of questions that out weigh the search for life, and why we should or shouldn't investigate such possibilities. for instance, the connection between the Kabbalah and the simulated reality theories...the connection between the DNA of creation being ingrained into all matter as we know it, and the consciousness that would accompany it through it live?
or is it Memorex...(I love those old TV commercials, the guy in the re-cliner getting his ear drums blown out by Mozart.)
I'm seeing this everywhere lately...Kabbalah is the vessel for such understanding...a simulated reality can still be, "in the now."
the blind watch maker holds no bounds. Reply

Eric Posmentier Dartmouth College January 29, 2014

A question about the Rebbe and science It seems that the Rebbe was very knowledgeable about science, and very encouraging of scientific research. It makes we wonder, in my ignorance, what the Rebbe thought about research that supported Darwinism and evolution. Did he believe this work should not be done? Did he believe its conclusions? Did he think that it could be reconciled with belief in G_d's role in creation and with Torah?

I'm a physicist, not an evolutionary biologist, but from all I've read about both physics and evolution, all that we scientists have learned add to my awe of G_d. I find science and faith to be not only compatible, but mutually supportive. This applies to biology, chemistry, physics, and earth and space science. The more I learn about science, the more wonderous His creation becomes. It appears to me that the Rebbe and I would have agreed on this, but I hope someone who knows better can educate me on this.

Thank you! Reply

Amichai Schneller January 29, 2014

The Rebbe and the scientist... Where does the Rebbe get the time to ...count and reflect about such info? In life, we sometimes ask the wrong questions from time to time...I know I do!!
But when it comes to science and the cosmos, asking questions about life elsewhere in the multiverse of G-D, has been brought to the Rebbe's attention many times I'm sure...and like a witty gunslinger, the Rebbe is always prepared! And for questions with tough answers, are like tools...and better to have it, and not need it...than to need it and not have dig me?
We pray for more or elsewhere, the Rebbe is right when he says: If you don’t find it, then keep looking elsewhere, and do not stop looking, because to sit here in this world and say there is no life elsewhere is to put a limit around what G‑d can do. And nobody can do that!” Reply

Manny Torres Miami January 29, 2014

By What Right? It's G-d given. That's the way life rolls. Where ever we go we will leave a mess for a mess less future.

Furthermore, the Earth is intelligent. It will figure out how to clean up our mess. Reply

Generous support for Here's My Story is provided by the Crain Maling Foundation
Here's My Story is part of JEM's My Encounter with the Rebbe oral history project, dedicated to documenting the life of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
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