[Paleopsych] NYT: Religion and Natural History Clash Among the Ultra-Orthodox
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Religion and Natural History Clash Among the Ultra-Orthodox
March 22, 2005
By ALEX MINDLIN
It was early January when the posters went up in Mea Shearim,
Jerusalem's largest ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, and they signaled the
start of a bad year for Rabbi Nosson Slifkin.
Twenty-three ultra-Orthodox rabbis had signed an open letter
denouncing the books of Rabbi Slifkin, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli
scholar and science writer. The letter read, in part: "He believes
that the world is millions of years old - all nonsense! - and many
other things that should not be heard and certainly not believed. His
books must be kept at a distance and may not be possessed or
distributed." Rabbi Slifkin, the letter-writers continued, should
"burn all his writings."
Fundamentalist Christians have long championed a literal reading of
the Bible that suggests the planet is thousands of years old, rather
than millions. But the denunciation of Rabbi Slifkin has publicized a
parallel strain of thought among ultra-Orthodox Jews, a subset of the
Orthodox Jewish community that is deeply skeptical of modern culture,
avoiding television and the Web and often disdaining college
Rabbi Slifkin has made a career of reconciling Jewish Scripture with
modern natural history. He teaches a course in biblical and talmudic
zoology at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah, near Jerusalem, and gives frequent
lectures, sometimes wearing a boa constrictor along with his black hat
and jacket. With nine books to his name at age 29, he is a young
up-and-comer in the sober world of Jewish scholarship.
The controversy surrounding him has pitted Jews who are skeptical of
science against their more cosmopolitan brethren, who may follow
ultra-Orthodox traditions but hold jobs as doctors or teachers. "My
sense is there are literally tens of thousands of people who are upset
about the ban," said Dr. Andrew Klafter, an assistant professor of
clinical psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati School of
Medicine, who is ultra-Orthodox. "I'm very, very puzzled by it."
In the days after the ban, Rabbi Slifkin's publisher and distributor
dropped the three books mentioned in the open letter. He himself lost
several speaking engagements and saw his own rabbi pressured to expel
him from his synagogue. "He was crushed," said a friend, Rabbi
Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola
Law School in Los Angeles. "Do you know what it's like to walk through
the street and see posters branding you a heretic?"
Three of Rabbi Slifkin's books, published from 2001 to 2004, were
singled out in the letter or in related materials: "Mysterious
Creatures," "The Science of Torah" and "The Camel, the Hare and the
Predictably, the banned books have become hits. A copy of "Science of
Torah" recently sold on eBay for $125, or five times its cover price.
And Rabbi Gil Student, whose company, Yashar Books, has taken over the
distribution of the other two books, said he had done a year's
business in a month selling them.
Rabbi Slifkin's books seek to reconcile, rather than to contrast,
sacred texts with modern knowledge of the natural world.
But in the process, he has sometimes cast a critical eye on those
texts. In "Mysterious Creatures," Rabbi Slifkin discussed fantastic
animals mentioned in the Torah and the Talmud - among them, the
unicorn and the phoenix - and suggested that, in reporting their
existence, Jewish sages might have relied on the erroneous writings of
He gently debunked the claim, found in a medieval text, that geese
grow on trees, explaining that it was "based on the peculiar anatomy
of a certain seashell." And he examined the Talmudic doctrine that
lice, alone of all animals, may be killed on the Sabbath because they
do not sexually reproduce - a premise now known to be false.
In "The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax," Rabbi Slifkin examined the
difficult separation of animals into kosher and nonkosher, and
discussed apparent exceptions and contradictions to the claims of
Jewish law. (The aardvark and the rhinoceros, for example, meet one
test for being kosher but not another.)
And in "The Science of Torah," he took a scientist's eye to the Torah.
Evolution, he wrote, did not disprove God's existence and was
consistent with Jewish thought. He suggested that the Big Bang theory
paralleled the account of the universe's creation given by the
medieval Spanish-Jewish sage Ramban. And Rabbi Slifkin wrote, to quote
his own later paraphrase, that "tree-ring chronology, ice layers and
sediment layers in riverbeds all show clear proof to the naked eye
that the world is much more than 5,765 years old."
The latter statement was particularly galling to the rabbi's critics,
who support a literal reading of Genesis that they say puts the
earth's age at 5,765.
The rabbis who signed the letter denouncing Rabbi Slifkin are widely
respected Torah authorities; one of them, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, 91,
is a leader of Israel's United Torah Judaism Party and one of the most
respected scholars in Orthodox Ashkenazi Judaism. As a result, the
letter has had repercussions far beyond the congregations of those who
signed it. Rabbi Slifkin's publisher, Targum Press, and his
distributor, Feldheim Publishers, have stopped carrying the books.
Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox outreach organization, has removed most of
his articles from its Web site.
Revered though they are, however, most of the rabbis signing the
letter are not known as community leaders or public voices; only one
of the Americans, for example, sits on the eight-member Council of
Torah Sages at the head of Agudath Israel of America, an influential
national Orthodox organization. Rather, they represent the most
unworldly segment of the ultra-Orthodox community, in which learning
is prized and contact with the secular world, including secular
education, is shunned.
The letter against Rabbi Slifkin is not the only recent outburst
against science among the ultra-Orthodox. Last November, during the
annual conference of Agudath Israel, Rabbi Uren Reich, the dean of
Yeshiva of Woodlake Village in New Jersey, said, "These same
scientists who tell you with such clarity what happened 65 million
years ago - ask them what the weather will be like in New York in two
Many science-minded ultra-Orthodox Jews say it is spiritually
wrenching to see leaders they revere endorsing views they oppose.
Rabbi Adlerstein of Loyola said: "I know rabbis, I know teens in
yeshivas who were on the verge of quitting" when the letter first came
out. "They look at themselves in the mirror and they say, 'What have I
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