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How are we supposed to treat questions that are, or would be considered by many, to be ridiculous, but which the poster apparently takes very seriously?

I voted to close one such question as too localized to the poster's imagination. But he objected and stated that the probability of the scenario in the question actually happening was greater than 0, and that it therefore was not too localized to his imagination. Furthermore, he objected to another person's closing it at not a real question, since it was not vague or confusing (which is the reason I hadn't chosen that option when I voted to close it). Other people apparently thought it was a decent enough question (probably more for its creativity than its actual merit, IMHO), and it has been voted up several times.

If too localized (to his imagination) doesn't cover it, and it is, in fact, a clearly worded question, and it is (weirdly) about Jewish life in some fantastic sci-fi scenario, what option is there to close? Should I have tagged it as Purim Torah instead?

(Ref. Can an Alien convert to Judaism?)

  • Please reword as a clear question about site policy. – Isaac Moses Jun 18 '12 at 5:33
  • Alright, done. Reopen, please. I'd like to hear what the community has to say. I apologize for being passive aggressive to YYDL. – Seth J Jun 18 '12 at 14:10
  • Thanks very much. I've re-opened. – Isaac Moses Jun 18 '12 at 14:22
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    related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/8496/759 – Double AA Jun 21 '12 at 6:14
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It sounds like "too localized" is the right reason to use on a close vote. However, I don't think such questions should necessarily be closed. Our tradition records arguments and midrashim that have no halachic purpose, yet they are recorded for posterity because someone was curious enough to ask and engage in the discussion. I value that and I don't think all of our questions need to be of the form "I have this specific situation; what should I do?".

That said, the speculative questions do need to be asked well; this isn't a free-for-all. But it's not necessarily purim torah. (Would you also close my question about Shabbat times when not living on Earth, which is not currently a real problem I face but is far from absurd IMO?)

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    Then again, even in the gemara there are limits, such as R' Yirmiyah being thrown out of Beis Medrash for asking a question that was a bit too ridiculous. (BB 23b) – HodofHod Jun 18 '12 at 15:17
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    @HodofHod sure there are limits. The aliens question boils down to "must one be human to convert?", which seems like an interesting question in an age when we're not that far away from manufacturing life in a lab and could conceivably find other intelligent beings out there eventually. – Monica Cellio Jun 18 '12 at 15:23
  • If yydl were in fact a widely regarded Halachic and Midrashic expert, and not an anonymous internet personality, albeit one who has demonstrated some knowledge of Jewish tradition in our little microverse, and if he were asking a question about a scenario that appears possible based on statements originating in our Mesorah and not campy sci-fi novels, I'd agree with you. However, your scenario has already proven to be relevant to some in real life, and it is worthwhile to consider the possibilities of a religious Jew living (even temporarily) in space. – Seth J Jun 18 '12 at 15:25
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    A question about lab-generated life would be far better than the current question, IMHO. Until we hear communication from aliens on other planets, I see no justification for his question. – Seth J Jun 18 '12 at 15:26
  • @MonicaCellio Agreed. Personally, I had my doubts about yydl's question but I have since been convinced (particularly because of the way it boils down). I stand by my (now deleted) answer to SethJ's hypothetical one, though. – HodofHod Jun 18 '12 at 15:41
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    @SethJ, if he were an SF author who wanted to get his details right, instead of just a curious anonymous internet user, would that make a difference? (BTW, I remember finding many of the short stories in Wandering Stars delightful in part because while the science was fantastical, the Judaism was often plausible.) – Monica Cellio Jun 18 '12 at 15:51
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    I think I'd view that as off-topic. – Seth J Jun 18 '12 at 15:52
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    @HodofHod I've heard it said that R' Yirmiyah was thrown out not because his questions were speculative but because they cast doubt on the Torah's/rabbis' authority to draw lines. IOW his questions 40 se'ah and not a drop more? or one foot in the 50 amos and one foot out? etc. etc. were seen as rhetorical and with implications that undermined Chazal. Though Rashi seems to understand it your way, that they'd had enough of his speculative questions. – Dov F Jun 21 '12 at 22:51
  • @DovF Thanks! Where did you see that? – HodofHod Jun 21 '12 at 22:55
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    @HodofHod I heard it from a Rosh Yeshiva once in a speech. I'm not sure if it was his own thought or if he had a source. – Dov F Jun 21 '12 at 23:02
  • @SethJ A question about a fetus jumping out of the womb of one animal and into another (chulin 70a) probably seemed pretty ridiculous until a generation ago when it became one of the important points of discussion in surrogate motherhood. – Y     e     z May 27 '14 at 18:54
  • @YEZ that may be true. It's entirely irrelevant, though. If Ravina and Rav Ashi had asked about aliens, I might agree that you have a point. Does that mean that we should take seriously all seemingly ludicrous questions, like how Bnei Yisrael could have eaten Haman, since he was filled with butter? – Seth J May 27 '14 at 19:06
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    @SethJ There is a difference between misinterpretation and things you aren't (yet) aware of. Thinking of potential nafka minos that are currently impossible but test the limits of a law is standard fare for halachic literature. – Y     e     z May 27 '14 at 19:09
  • @yez how many Shu"Tim were penned about air travel prior to the 20th century? – Seth J May 27 '14 at 19:11
  • @SethJ are you trying to prove that if not every seemingly implausible situation was discussed, then none should be? Logic goes the other way - if I find one case of a "ridiculous" discussion, you cannot say "we don't discuss the seemingly ridiculous." – Y     e     z May 27 '14 at 19:13
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I think "ridiculous" questions can have the productive value of cutting swiftly and deeply into the complicated philosophical structures that underlie Jewish belief.

"Can an alien convert to Judaism" is a very parsimonious way to ask a whole cluster of thorny questions about the nature of man and the nature of Judaism that might otherwise be inexpressible as one question.

Such questions have a great deal of metaphysical value, if not physical value in our times. We must respect this, since Judaism is far from being only about the concrete and easily accessible.

Not that this is true of all ridiculous questions; far from it. But those that provide some grounds for answer or debate from a Jewish-religious perspective may often be worth keeping.

P.S. These questions may also be the ideal use for the "halacha-theory" tag, which does not otherwise seem to have much to do with aliens.

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