The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Monday, February 28, 2005

Evolution and the Zoo Rabbi

The People of the Book ban a book
Feb. 28, 2005

By Joel N. Shurkin

Literalist Christians are not the only ones who have trouble with cosmology and evolution. Everyone who thinks the Bible is to be taken literally does as well, including the Haredi, the most fervently observant Jews.

A month ago, a group of the most esteemed Haredi rabbis, both in Israel and in the U.S., banned three books written by a well-known Orthodox rabbi because the books assert the world was not created in six days 5765 years ago, and because it accepts Darwinian evolution as the accepted scientific theory.

The books were, they said, unfit for Jewish homes.

The banning caused a furor in the usually private and quiet world of the Orthodox Jewish community, prompting a prominent head of a rabbinic school (or yeshiva) to fly to Israel to try to get them to back down. He only partially succeeded.

The author of the books, Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, the so-called “Zoo Rabbi” was accused of being a heretic and of writing books containing heresy because they contradicted a literal reading of Genesis. He made the situation even more contentious by suggesting that perhaps some of the great rabbis who commented on the Bible (the Jewish Torah) in the Talmud, got their science wrong, based as it was on the knowledge of the time. Having serious support from some of the most famous Talmudic scholars in history did him little good.

Rabbi Aharon Feldman, head of Ner Israel in Baltimore, the second largest yeshiva in North America, flew to Israel two weeks ago to “end the confusion,” and managed to get at least one of the rabbis attacking Rabbi Slifkin to agree that he was not himself a heretic. However, what he wrote still was verboten.

The Haredi community, distinguished often by their attire and disregard for the outside world, represent only a small part of Orthodox Judaism, itself a minority within world Jewry. Most Orthodox Jews, many of who are scientists and physicians, reject their position.

The banning caused a blistering debate on the Internet and in Orthodox publications.

It was the only topic of discussion on various Orthodox web sites but after two days the conversation was replaced with what one web site editor called “stunned silence.”
“The prestige of the rabbis is so high, we don’t know what to say and we are waiting for clarification,” he said

That may have been the reason Rabbi Feldman went to Israel.

The rabbis involved in the banning are among the most prominent in the ultra-Orthodox world, called gedolim, or giants. Most are Israeli, but Rabbi Uren Reich, head of the huge yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., joined in the attack.

“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,” he scoffed.

Born in Manchester, England, Rabbi Slifkin, 29, is yeshiva trained and now lives in Israel. A self-taught zoologist, he lectures around Israel and elsewhere on the animals of the Torah, “The Jewish Approach to Zoology,” and on science and religion. He is an advisor to the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem and often lectures to children with a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck, which he cheerfully asserts, is not the usual image of an Orthodox rabbi.

The books that upset the rabbis include The Camel, the Hare & the Hyrax, The Science of Torah, and Mysterious Creatures.

Announcement of the ban was published in a letter to a Haredi daily newspaper in Israel. In explaining their decision, a Haredi web site quoted the rabbinate as saying the books were “filled with heretical ideas.”

“When these books reached the hands of English-speaking [observant readers] they were shocked and dismayed at the contents,” it continued. It quoted Rabbi Yitzchok Sheiner as calling the contents “hair-raising.”

“He [Rabbi Slifkin] believes that the world is millions of years old—all nonsense—many other things that should not be heard and certainly not believed. In short, these books cannot be brought into the home of one who believes in Hashem [God] and His Torah,” Rabbi Sheiner said.

Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch wrote: “I do not know whether all those who accept the view of the scientists — that the world is very ancient — are heretics. However, I do know that only heretics have such views against our Sages.”

Rabbi Sternbuch has written extensively that scientists minimize miracles, therefore commit a form of heresy.

After the ban, one publisher dropped one of Rabbi Slifkin’s books, but the publicity caused a run on the remaining copies, with one going for at least $100 on E-Bay.
Rabbi Slifkin declines interviews, but in a lengthy defense posted on his website, www.zootorah.com/controversy (which he took down later in an effort to calm the situation), he wrote: “It goes without saying that if there is anything that is shown to be incorrect or, God forbid, heretical, I will remove it in future editions of the book. But, as far as I am aware, all the significant points in all three books are solidly grounded in reliable sources. In addition, I carefully followed proper procedure in having everything checked by many Torah scholars of high standing and possessing familiarity with these topics.”

He pointed out that many of the most prominent Jewish scholars in history support his position that they may have the science wrong, including Maimonides, himself a 12th century physician.

Rabbi Slifkin’s best-known work, The Camel, the Hare & the Hyrax, takes one of the most intriguing and contentious passages in the Torah, and tries to resolve the ancient text with modern science.

The book centers on the passage, repeated twice in the Torah, listing the animals that can be eaten under the laws of kashrus, the rules of eating kosher: those animals that chew their cud and have split or cloven hooves—cows, deer, buffalo. The Torah then lists four animals it says have one or the other attribute but not both and are hence forbidden: the camel, the hare and the hyrax (a small Mediterranean-area mammal), which chew their cud but do not have cloven hooves. Most famously, it adds the pig, which has the hooves but doesn’t ruminate.

The Talmud, the authoritative commentary on the Torah, asserts that the list is inclusive—those are all the animals in the world having only one kosher sign.
For centuries, those were indeed the only animals any Jews knew that appeared to have those attributes, a fact often used to prove the divine origin of Torah. If men wrote the Torah, how could they possibly have known that?

(Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was given to the people of Israel through Moses from God and contains His infallible words.)

Modern science, however, has found that the hare and hyrax don’t actually chew cud but use different methods of digestion. Further, the Jews of Babylonia who wrote the most authoritative Talmud—and those wandering in the Sinai—never met a hippopotamus, a llama and its relatives, or any of the mammals of Australia, which use similar methods and should have appeared on any inclusive list. The implication is that if the Torah is accurate, then the Talmud authors are wrong; if the Talmud is accurate, there is an error in the Torah. It then became an argument for proving the fallibility of the scriptures. Didn’t God know about kangaroos?

“The Torah is neither proved nor disproved by the camel, the hare and the hyrax,” Rabbi Slifkin asserts.

As with all his books, this one begins with several approbations (sanctions) by various respected Talmudic scholars. The text itself is supported by frequent quotations in Hebrew and English of Torah sages such as Rashi, the 11th century scholar who is considered the most commanding commentator as well as documentation from accepted scientific experts.

Rabbi Slifkin’s conclusions include the idea—taken partly from Rashi—that the list in Torah wasn’t really intended to be inclusive, but might just be a list of those animals the Israelites might encounter on their sojourn in the desert. Neither they, nor the Talmudic authors were likely to run into a koala. (If Torah was written by humans, even divinely inspired—as most Jews believe—then the authors would never have seen one either.)

It is more complicated than that—involving how the Hebrew words are interpreted and the varied anatomy of the animals, he wrote—but he uses traditional sources and authoritative science to try to reconcile the differences, which appears to be what got him into trouble with literalists.

He is not alone.

Recently, the ultra-Orthodox website, Aish Hatorah, withdrew an essay written by Israeli physicist Gerald Schroeder, an expert on relativity, on the age of the universe. The essay was replaced only after Dr. Schroeder added a disclaimer saying that maybe the world really is only 6,000 years old and God is playing with us by planting distracting evidence.

Dr. Schroeder, author of Genesis and the Big Bang Theory, wondered publicly when the rabbis became experts on Einstein.

One Orthodox rabbi, familiar with the controversy but who asked that his name not be used, said he thought the tone of Rabbi Slifkin’s books was part of the problem. They accept the conventional scientific explanation as an article of faith, “always a dangerous thing to do in the world. Things change,” he said.

“He may realized that now,” the rabbi said.

He also suggested that the ban was really aimed at households with children, that adults would know how to compartmentalize the information but children would not.
His publisher didn’t help things by putting a picture of a dinosaur on the cover of one of the books.

“Dinosaurs make these rabbis crazy,” a bookseller in Jerusalem said.
Posters on Orthodox web logs (blogs) also speculated that the fight was really an internecine battle between Haredi rabbis with one group trying to prove it was stricter than the other. Nevertheless, criticism of the ban on the Internet appeared to have created a backlash, and Rabbi Slifkin was not without passionate defenders.
The dean of a noted graduate school in Jewish studies sent a private e-mail to his colleagues, charging that the critics were shaming Rabbi Slifkin in public, in clear violation of Jewish law and contrary to the rulings of the sages, and that their statement was a disgrace. In words clearly written in fury, he said he would publicly challenge anyone who repeated the slander that Rabbi Slifkin had committed heresy.

That charge may have impelled Rabbi Feldman to fly 8,000 miles to Jerusalem to calm the debate.

Rabbi Feldman got one critic to agree that Rabbi Slifkin isn’t a heretic, but couldn’t get him to budge on the issue of whether what he wrote was acceptable. It wasn’t, he insisted.

Rabbi Charles Arian, a rabbi in the Conservative movement, pointed out that Jews lived behind ghetto walls for more than millennia. The walls were intellectual as well as brick and mortar. Nothing of the outside got in besides oppression and violence, not even the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. In 1789, Napoleon brought the walls down, not just in France, but everywhere Napoleon’s army went.

For most of the Jews of the world, he said, the time of enlightenment came, called the Haskalah. But for a tiny majority, Napoleon and the Haskalah never happened.
So Rabbi Slifkin learned.