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Pluto ~ Good or Bad for the Jews?

It would be inaccurate and presumptuous to say that the International Astronomical Union's August 24 vote to demote Pluto from planet to "dwarf planet" was Earth-shaking. But you can't help wondering if, out beyond the orbit of Neptune, Pluto, known to humanity only since 1930, shuddered at the insult thrown its way, then quietly continued its eccentric orbit of 248 years around the sun.

Pluto thus has been banished from the company of what are now referred to as The Eight Classical Planets and joins a growing list of small, weird and marginal distant bodies that are only becoming known to us. So the questions naturally arise: Is this good or bad for the Jews? What is the Jewish Response to Pluto's downgrading? Is there a Jewish Angle to Pluto at all? Well, of course there is, and we have convened a symposium of Noted Jewish Thinkers to provide some answers.

Our Noted Jewish Thinkers include: Dan Brook, a writer, activist and instructor of sociology at San Jose State University; Glenn Hammel, a psychotherapist in Sacramento; Todd Leopold, an editor at and a prime mover behind the Franklin Pierce Pages; Ricky March, stand-up comedian from the funny city of Chicago; Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News; and Larry Yudelson, a writer and editorial director of Ben Yehuda Press,

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A little about Pluto to begin: It was named after the Roman god of the underworld. A day there (on Pluto, not the underworld) is equal to 6.4 Earth days. It has three moons – Charon, discovered in 1978, and Hydra and Nix, both discovered in 2005. Pluto is hard to see – even with a telescope. No spaceship from Earth has ever been to Pluto, but if you were to spend some time there, you'd have to be able to get up to 2,840 mph to get back into space. Pluto is 1,400 miles in diameter, making it smaller than seven of the solar system's moons, including the Earth's moon ~

But somewhat larger than New Jersey ~

Pluto's lack of size and gravitational pull in the corridors of power bring to mind the quotation that has become the catechism of a 20th century cataclysm, a slippery slope that might be adjusted in the following way:
First they came for Pluto. But I said nothing because I do not live on Pluto...
– David Holzel

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Dan Brook

There is clearly a Jewish angle to this whole Pluto thing. Actually, it is not so much angle as orbital. The Torah speaks about the mitzvah of returning something to its rightful place (Deuteronomy 22:1-3). Returning something is related to repentance, teshuvah, returning to yourself. It's a good time, as it always is, to reflect on what it means to be so far from the center, so distant, so cold, so relatively powerless but so well known, to be named and categorized by others.

I think Jews tend to be pro-science because science is rational yet has deep philosophical dimensions, is logical and explanatory yet always leaves room for debate and uncertainty, is finite yet infinite. Scientific knowledge is also very portable, something that comes in handy too often for Jews.

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 Glenn Hammel

I’ve never had a feeling for Pluto one way or another. Saturn might be a little Jewish because it sort of looks like it’s wearing a kippa. The sun always seemed French. Yes, I know that the sun’s name is Sol, but I always see the image of the Sun King. That’s French. The Earth I always associate with anti-Semitism.
And so Pluto? They re-classified it as a “dwarf planet” so they keep the word planet in there. That way nobody feels too guilty. Bottom line, Pluto is basically a nebbishe planet. And that’s basically the image of the Jew.

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What does Pluto care what we piddly little carbon-based life forms call it? It's been here a hell of a lot longer than we have, and it will continue its travels through outer space long after the Earth has been incinerated by the expanding sun. (Indeed, given Pluto's distance from the sun, it may very well survive just fine for many more billions of years.)

Which leads me to thinking about things that exercise force, or impact, despite their small size. You can see where I'm going with this.
Despite the small size of the Jewish community, for some reason other tribes/religious groups/nations have been bothered by its existence. That's become even more true since Jews have had a way – due to education, ostracism, or maybe a sense of nothing to lose – of making themselves known and valued members of the larger community ... making them targets anew.

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Ricky March

Those fershtukiner astronomers. Casting Pluto out from the nine planets that we all grew up knowing. In fact, besides the Earth, it’s the only planet I was sure where it was in “the order.” Well, that’s all feshimmeled now.

Pluto was this little nebbish, never bothering anybody. Sure it was a long distance from home, and it never called, sent a card, or came for Shabbos dinner…but it’s harmless.

Jupiter, now that’s a planet bully. It’s the big man on campus (solar system). It’s not very hospitable (poison atmosphere and cold). It probably doesn’t have Chinese take-out for Sundays.

Jews are always defending the little guy, so why should we stand by and do nothing about the inquisition of Pluto?

We’re not France, after all.

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 Andrew Silow-Carroll

Is Judaism a race, a religion or a nation?

The reason this question is asked so often is that each describes a social construct. There is really no objective, scientific way of determining what we are. And the answer is only significant when you know who’s asking, and why. When the Nazis decided Judaism was a race, it defined the terms of their program for genocide. When a Jew does the same, it can serve the chauvinistic purpose of excluding Jews-by-choice, or, conversely, embracing individuals whose Jewish beliefs and practices are otherwise vestigial.

You can do the same exercise with religion or nationhood. A.B. Yehoshua recently set off a brouhaha by defining Judaism as a nation, and belittling a Diaspora that defines its Jewishness by religious practice, cultural affinity or vicarious Israelism – each of which depends on discreet, and in his view, artificial, cultural or social gestures. By contrast, Yehoshua has said, “I create my identity, my Jewish identity, every moment of my life, with everything that I do.”

As linguist Geoff Nunberg said on Fresh Air, discussing Pluto’s demotion, “After all, language routinely recognizes natural categories that have no good scientific basis. There's no geological reason why we should consider Europe a separate continent from Asia, and no botanical reason why we should refer to tomatoes as vegetables rather than as fruits.” But such nomenclature is useful, in defining a category for a cultural, social or political purpose.

A headline in a New Jersey newspaper suggested that Pluto had “died” as a result of the reclassification. Of course, it’s still there, spinning around the sun – its new name solves an astronomer’s problem, not the universe’s. This may sound like a UJA tag line – but Pluto is us. Call us what you will, but that doesn’t keep us from spinning on, doing our own thing(s), and demanding planet Earth’s attention despite our small size.

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 Larry Yudelson

Isn't this just "Who Is a Jew" all over again? It's bad enough that
we have to be circumcised ... but now to insist that size matters??! 

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* Just as it took astronomers several attempts to arrive at the term "dwarf planet" ("Pluton," "Plutino," "unplanet" and "Hey you" were all considered and rejected), "The Eight Classical Planets" was chosen over the more working-man "Classic Planets."

Adopting "Classic Planets," astronomers feared, would lead to breaking the eight into two subgroups ~ "Classic Rock Planets" and "Classic Gas Giants" ~ and ultimately renaming the planets themselves ~

Mercury Creedence
Venus Clapton
Earth  The Stones
Mars The Doors

Jupiter Led Zeppelin
Saturn Supertramp
Uranus Queen
Neptune Styx