As the first of Aleph Centauri’s two suns began to set, Itzhik huddled into the state-of-the-art interplanetary sukkah he had recently built. The rabbis had needed to consult a team of astrophysicists to determine when the hag would start, and according to their calculations, he had about 10 more minutes. He had finished the sukkah yesterday, making sure to install the gravity-enhancing poles, so that it would not float away.
Surveying his impressive construction, Itzhik marveled at how the holiday had changed since he was a kid so many years ago. Back then, building a sukkah in the snowy Montreal autumn had felt so arduous, and sleeping in it was out of the question. That was before global warming had turned Canada into a tropical paradise, and then an uninhabitable desert. As Earth’s ecosystem collapsed, the human race was forced to abandon the planet and ship off to brave new worlds in outer space.
The impact of Earth’s destruction on all world religions was monumental, but Judaism more than most. Sure, some rabbis compared it to a modern Tisha b’Av, equating Earth’s implosion with the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. But since the actual Jerusalem ceased to exist, along with the rest of the planet, the notion of praying for a return, or working for one through Zionism, became mostly obsolete. Nationalism melted away as humankind faced the ultimate environmental catastrophe.
Yet Judaism did not die with the planet. In ancient Israel, Sukkot was a harvest holiday that was even more significant than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It regained that importance in the decades following Earth’s demise. The sukkah commemorated wandering in the desert for 40 years, en route to the Promised Land. But Jews and gentiles had been wandering through space for longer than that now.
The power of place in Judaism had evaporated with the Earth’s water supply. But the power of people remained.
“Daniel! Sarah! Solomon!” Itzhik greeted his three children with a smile, as they entered the sukkah. Advancements in genetic engineering and cloning had rendered the Jewish emphasis on matrilineal descent obsolete. Itzhik’s three children had been produced in test tubes, with artificial eggs and no mother. All were deemed halakhically Jewish by the Orthodox rabbinate. But raising them as a single parent had still been a difficult task.
The sukkah was small but impressive, decorated with the exotic fruits and vegetables that are native to Aleph Centauri, as well as schach from the native trees. Fortunately, the climate there was perfectly suitable to grow a lovely lulav and etrog set, as well as dates, oranges and other plants that once grew in the Holy Land. Itzhik said the prayer and shook his lulav and etrog in every direction. “God is truly everywhere,” he said to his children, staring up at their new planet’s three moons.
Itzhik lay down with his children, staring at the flickering lights of the alien moon bases. With the discovery of large populations of extra-terrestrial life, the notion of Jews as a “Chosen People,” a concept that was long discarded by Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, fell by the wayside for most others. The vastness of the universe made chosenness seem silly. The existence of advanced alien civilizations that had been around millennia before human life emerged provided a response to Psalm 8:4’s rhetorical question to God: “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”
Itzhik knew the answer: not so much.
And yet, the friendly relations established with the behemas, as the hyper-intelligent locals of Aleph Centauri called themselves, proved to be a boon to Judaism. Not only did human beings benefit from trade and intellectual exchange with the species, Itzhik had even brought some of the behemas to the mikveh for conversion. Once the rabbis ruled that behemas could count in a minyan, many became Jews by choice. Some even developed their own form of circumcision. Itzhik did not claim any sort of expertise in this matter, but was pleased to have them enter the covenant.
What Itzhik did notice was how the vastness of the universe made him cling to his traditions even more strongly. In the outer reaches of space, time moved differently, but Shabbat still anchored the week, even if it was easier thanks to his trusty Shabbos robot Bezek. Keeping kosher proved difficult, as Earth animals became scarce, but Itzhik still maintained his home, and his sukkah, as a place where Jewish dietary laws applied. The synagogue still stood as the focal point for the community, where all Jews – men and women, human and behema – could pray together.
Continuing to stare at the stars, Itzhik’s mind wandered to the end of the holiday, to his favourite celebration of Simchat Torah. Dancing the hora on Aleph Centauri could prove tricky, but with the right gravitational boots, it was possible. Most congregations these days could only manage one of two Torah scrolls to dance with. Kosher animals to make the scrolls with had become a scarce resource. The Torah, the physical object, had become more precious.
“And after the Jews wandered in the desert, they eventually came to Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the Torah. And that’s the same Torah we start reading again, from the beginning, every year on Simchat Torah,” said Itzhik. As he explained the holiday to his children, he realized something important: As much as his Aleph Centauri congregation prized its Torah scroll, he knew that the scroll itself mattered less than the words written upon it. The words, even more than the scrolls, were portable.
It was with that in mind that the real Simchat Torah celebration would begin. Itzhik had gathered a few other learned Jews to prepare a translation of the Tanakh in the behema’s language. The Talmud would come next. The People of the Book would live on, boldly going where no one had gone before …