[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


    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
    ancient naturalists.

    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
    weeks' time."

    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
    been representing?'"

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