CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts — Mankind’s most ubiquitous tome, the Torah has been read the world over — but only two of the holy scrolls have been brought into outer space and back, and both have an anniversary this year.
In February 1996, Jewish astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman took a Torah with him on the space shuttle Columbia. Hoffman became the first astronaut to read in Hebrew in space when he unrolled the perfectly kosher parchment scroll to reveal the first seven paragraphs of the book of Bereishit (the Book of Genesis), which speaks about the creation of the world.
10 years later, in September 2006, Steve MacLean of Canada brought a Torah aboard the Atlantis when he journeyed to the International Space Station.
Between the dates of these undertakings, there was also a tragedy: Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, and six crewmates perished on the Columbia during reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003. Ramon had brought along a Torah that was saved from Bergen-Belsen, as well as a teenage camp inmate’s drawing of the moon. Both the Torah and the drawing were lost.
But Ramon’s Torah scroll had a “sister Torah” that was also rescued from Bergen-Belsen; this latter Torah was the one MacLean took into space to honor Ramon.
In separate interviews with The Times of Israel, Hoffman and MacLean each discussed bringing a Torah into space.
“I read from Bereishit [the Book of Genesis] since it was the beginning,” Hoffman said. “It was the first reading of the Torah in space. It seemed appropriate.”
Hoffman had discussed taking a Torah into space with Rabbi Shaul Osadchey, who at the time was the rabbi at Hoffman’s congregation, Or Ami in Houston.
“He kept bringing it up, the idea of a Torah in space,” Hoffman recalled. “I thought it was a great idea. I explained that it had to be small and light. It took a long time for him to locate an appropriate Torah. It had to be completely kosher.”
In this case, “kosher” does not mean fit for consumption. A Torah must be the entire five books of Moses, bound in order, with no errors. It must be written by hand, with specially made ink, on parchment made from a kosher animal. There is a special script, certain letters must always have “crowns,” and the lines of text must be straight. All parts that hold or tie pieces of parchment together must also come from a kosher animal. And the scribe needs to know all the rules and have the right intention as the Torah is written, including being ritually pure when the name of God is written.
“Osadchey was in New York and heard a rabbi there had a mini-Torah,” Hoffman said. “The rabbi got it in Jerusalem 25 years ago. It was written by a scribe. He did not want to part with it till Rabbi Osadchey explained that the congregation had an astronaut who wanted to take it into space. The rabbi said, ‘Ah, that’s the special occasion I’ve been saving it for!’ It did come to Houston and we took it up.”
The first English reading of the Book of Genesis took place on Christmas Day, 1968 by the Apollo 8 astronauts.
“I was definitely not unaware,” Hoffman said. “Of course, this is the Hebrew Torah. Nevertheless, I think it was the same feeling, a beginning. [Apollo 8] was the first time humans ever got as far as the moon. They wanted to recognize it. I think it was appropriate. It did not make the Bible or Torah any more special, it made space more special. It humanized it.”
The Torah that Hoffman brought into space now resides at Or Ami. This past February, Or Ami celebrated the 20th anniversary of its “Space Torah.” Hoffman, now a professor at MIT, went back with his wife for the gala.
“There are two little shuttle ornaments” on top of the Torah posts in the ark, Hoffman said. “It’s very popular, particularly with a lot of b’nei mitzvah who like to read from the Torah, especially for little kids.”
And, given its small size, “anybody can do hagbah and g’lilah [lifting and dressing the Torah after the reading],” he noted. “You don’t have to carry a huge, heavy Torah.”
Hoffman had been taking Jewish objects into orbit since his first spaceflight. These included a mezuzah, a menorah and a dreidel. He brought the dreidel with him for Hanukkah in December 1993 during a mission to rescue and repair the Hubble Space Telescope. The dreidel, which never stopped spinning in space, became a media sensation.
“During a visit to Israel the previous year, I met Jewish artists from Jerusalem,” he said. “One gave me an absolutely magnificent silver dreidel and a menorah… Both I took with me [into space]. I was not planning to do anything publicly.”
“After repair work, I took a half-day to rest and relax and clean up the cabin. I took the dreidel out. I was playing and spinning,” said Hoffman. “A crewmate asked what I was doing — ‘No, really, [he said,] the TV camera is live!’ Images [were going] to the ground. A voice from the capsule was coming… ‘Jeff, all of America would like to know what you’re doing.’”
Hoffman explained the story of Hanukkah to his audience and said that the footage received “quite a lot of mileage.” He said that the Jewish artifacts he has brought into space “have many meanings to many different people. I’ve been quite moved over the years, hearing from people that it was such a nice gesture to do this.”
The tragedy of Ilan Ramon
In 2003, however, first Israeli astronaut Ramon’s attempt to bring a Torah into space and back on the Columbia would end tragically.
When Ramon joined the Columbia for its 28th mission, he brought a Torah that belonged to Israeli physics professor Joachim “Yoya” Joseph.
“[Ramon] was having supper with Joseph at his place,” MacLean said. “There was a small Torah on the mantelpiece. They started talking about the Torah [and how] Joseph was a Holocaust survivor. Ilan asked, ‘Can I bring it to space?’”
At Bergen-Belsen, the Torah had been used by a rabbi from Amsterdam to help prepare Joseph, who was 13 years old at the time, for his bar mitzvah.
“It’s difficult to imagine, the horror of all of it,” MacLean said.
On his spaceflight, Ramon also brought “Moon Landscape,” drawn by Petr Ginz, a 14-year-old inmate of Auschwitz.
“[Ginz was] an incredibly talented kid,” MacLean said. “It was quite phenomenal, the perspective of the Earth from the moon [given] our knowledge in those days.”
“Ilan and I had discussed symbols for Israel. ‘Moon Landscape,’ to me, represented the talent lost in Auschwitz. The Torah, for me, kind of is a symbol of hope, from the depths of despair in a place like Auschwitz all the way to the heights of hope,” he added.
‘The Torah kind of is a symbol of hope, from the depths of despair in Auschwitz all the way to the heights’
Yet on February 1, 2003, the world was plunged into despair again when the Columbia disintegrated.
“I was at home, watching the landing with my son on TV, less than three miles from Houston Space Center,” MacLean said. “Before I knew what happened, they had lost control. I headed to the control room to find out what was going on, to support. Everything turned around. They were 16 minutes from home. They didn’t make it.”
MacLean lost not only a fellow astronaut in Ramon, but a close friend.
“Our kids were all the same age, our wives were very good friends immediately,” MacLean said. “My entire training time, we had many Saturday and Sunday dinners, weekends camping in East Texas… It was a privilege to have known this individual.”
As for the Torah that Ramon had brought into space, MacLean said, “That mini-Torah didn’t survive. They never found it in the wreckage, to my understanding.”
After Ramon’s death, his widow, Rona Ramon, contacted MacLean and asked “if I could bring up a sister Torah,” he said.
This Torah belonged to Henry Fenichel, a physics professor at the University of Cincinnati and — like Joseph — a survivor of Bergen-Belsen.
“When Rona learned that there is another little Torah, belonging to another child survivor of Bergen Belsen, who also became a physics professor, she [requested] from me permission to allow my Torah to be sent on a flight into space, in order to bring to some closure to that part of Ilan’s mission,” said Fenichel, who was six years old when he was at the concentration camp.
“Rona asked me if I would take it up,” MacLean said. “Immediately, I said yes… Just having discussions with Ilan, I knew how incredibly important it was. I felt like I was sort of completing Ilan’s mission.”
This mission would be bittersweet in another way.
“We were to be, after the accident, the next flight,” MacLean said.
Instead, it would not be until three years later when MacLean would get a chance to fulfill Ramon’s mission. The Torah was kept in storage aboard the Atlantis.
“I grew up in a Christian environment and understood the strength of the Bible,” MacLean said. “I had a small Bible as a child. Having been with Ilan and other members of the Jewish community in my university years, I think I understand the importance of the Torah to the Jewish religion.”
In late September 2006, MacLean and his crewmates landed safely. MacLean gave the Torah back to Fenichel in a ceremony at Hebrew Union College at the University of Cincinnati with 70 Holocaust survivors present.
A separate “return of the Torah” ceremony was held at the Weizmann Institute. While in Israel, Fenichel met Rafael Ben Zeev, a grandson of the Amsterdam rabbi whose Torah Ramon had taken into space.
“He was not aware at the time that the Torah that Ilan took belonged to his grandfather,” said Fenichel, who is now retired. “He was so moved by the story that it led him to [carve] an Ark out of a piece of olive wood for my Torah.”
For the yizkor (memorial ceremony), Hoffman’s Space Torah at Or Ami in Houston is used to honor the memory of Ramon and his fellow astronauts on the Columbia.
“Of course it was a tragedy — the crew, the shuttle and the Torah with it,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman and MacLean know each other. However, MacLean said, “I didn’t know that he took a Torah into space. I know him well. He’s a generation before me. He never mentioned that to me.”
Heading into the High Holidays this year, Hoffman spoke about his experiences in space to an audience in Newton, Massachusetts in a talk entitled “Big Bang Bereisheet.”
“It’s not a sectarian experience, going up there,” he said afterward. “There are certain spiritual dimensions. It’s a very different perspective — not just the planet, your life, everybody back home, you’re very much removed from it. There’s a sense of the grandeur of the universe. Our part in it is very stark.”
And, he said, “I don’t want to talk miracles, but the Earth is pretty special to be able to support life and us.”