The Heresy of Nosson Slifkin
That's the title of the cover story from the October 2005 issue of the Jewish magazine Moment. Nosson Slifkin is an orthodox rabbi living in Israel. His heresy - surprise! - is defending the theory of evolution.
Within Judaism there is no particular tradition of interpreting Genesis literally. And having frequently been part of a despised minority slated for genocide, American Jews have generally been suspicious of attempts to inject religion into the public sphere. For these reasons, among others, the Jewish community has historically provided little support for creationism.
More recently, however, some prominent Jews have shown interest in ID. Most notable in this regard is the willingness of Commentary Magazine, a politically conservative magazine of Jewish thought, to publish the awful diatribes of David Berlinski against evolution and other aspects of modern science.
The Moment article opens with a good summary of this state of affairs:
Although the supporters of intelligent design are overwhelmingly Protestant, the movement has also made inroads in the Catholic Church. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Christoph Schonborn, the Archbishop of Vienna and an influential theologian, declared that evolution should be challenged in schools, alarming the many American Catholic educators who see evolution as the only well-founded theory of how life developed on earth.
American Jewish organizations have traditionally championed Darwinism, but a small group of outspoken Jews, including scholar David Klinghoffer and Rabbi Daniel Lapin are now calling for their coreligionists to take a more serious look at intelligent design. At the same time, a debate over evolution is raging in the ultra-Orthodox world where Darwin's mid-19th century theory has taken center stage at the largest gatherings and become the focus of dozens of blogs.
For the record I'll just mention that I, for one, have taken a serious look indeed at ID. My conclusion is that it is total drivel.
From here the article gives a brief biography of Rabbi Slifkin, describing in particular his presentations at zoos; in which he uses examples from the animal kingdom as a segue into Jewish thought on the natural world. These presentations have led him to acquire the nickname “The Zoo Rabbi”
The article next describes Slifkin's views on biology:
When Nosson Slifkin looks at the animal kingdom, he sees what scientists see: a complex web of life and death governed by seemingly immutable laws. The difference is that Slifkin peers into this world through the lens of religion. Animals, to him, are clues dropped onto earth by a wise Creator; it is up to human beings to uncover what the symbols actually mean.
His study of animals has forced him to confront a number of theological puzzles, not the least of which is the question of how life developed on earth. Persuaded by fossil records which offer straightforward evidence that the world is millions of years old and that simple, primordial creatures evolved into increasingly complex life forms he found evolution to be the most plausible explanation.
Slifkin knew that there were stringent Orthodox rabbis who found the theory unacceptable; it seemed to contradict the biblical pronouncement, “God created man in His image.” But the more Slifkin probed into science and Judaism, the more firmly he believed that there was no contradiction. “When God created man, he did not pull the design out of the hat,” Slifkin writes in NatureÂ?s Song, the second book in his “Torah Universe” series. “He used all the elements that had been created so far as the palette. The spiritual essence of all the stars, plants and animals provided the material for the goal of creation.”
Sounds good to me. I also liked this:
As [19th century Samson Raphael] Hirsch did, Slifkin sees evolution as an elegant theory for describing how the Divine operates in the world. “There's always been a very strong idea in Judaism that God uses miracles as little as possible,” he says. “As much as possible He works through nature.” For this reason, Slifkin rejects intelligent design theory. He offers the analogy of a faulty computer program: “When Microsoft has to issue a patch for an upgrade to Windows, it's because Windows is not good enough. Microsoft has to interfere.”
So what's the problem? Well, let's see:
[The voice on the phone] informed Slifkin that four prestigious rabbis had opened his “Torah Universe” series and found three of its four books to contain heresy. Two of the volumes centered on animal-related issues: The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax discussed the kosher traits of animals that do not appear in the Torah, while Mysterious Creatures debunked the existence of mythical beasts including mermaids, phoenixes and unicorns that are discussed in the Talmud. The rabbis were especially troubled by The Science of Torah, a book that focused on Darwinism and the age of the universe. The man on the phone informed Slifkin that he had until the end of the day to retract his bookdidn'tf he didn't, the charge would be made public and other prominent rabbis would join the campaign against him.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am an atheist who generally has a low opinion of monotheistic religions. However, I am also Jewish, and that fact means something to me.
I have long felt that Judaism has certain big things going for it. The first is that what you believe is almost completely irrelevant to your status as a Jew. I may be a hard-core atheist, but I am not one wit less Jewish than the most orthodox rabbi. I once attended a Bar Mitzvah where the rabbi put it this way: “If you don't commit murder because you believe that human life is sacred and you would never presume to judge who is worthy and who is unworthy of life, that's great! But if you don't commit murder because you are afraid of the electric chair, that's fine too! God'll take that!”
Another thing I like is that Judaism is much more focussed on this life than on the afterlife. In fact, I've gotten so many conflicting answers about the Jewish view of the afterlife that to this day I don't know what that view is. I often tell my non-Jewish friends that to me Judaism has three main components: Following the law, being part of the community, and getting the goyim to leave us alone. It's a very practical religion. I also like the fact that a rabbi derives his authority simply from the fact that he has spent many years educating himself about Jewish history and tradition. You should trust a rabbi on issues related to Judaism for the same reason you trust a physicist on questions of physics. But the rabbi is no closer to God than the rest of us, and you are free to disagree with him without putting your soul in jeopardy.
I feel a certain kinship with other Jews that I do not feel with non-Jews. I recall Isaac Asimov, himself Jewish and an outspoken atheist, describing how though he believed that religion was pretty silly, he nonetheless felt an inexplicable, irrational moment of satisfaction any time a Jew accomplished something great (like, say, a Jewish scientist winning a Nobel Prize). Similarly, he felt a moment of embarrassment any time a Jew was caught doing something bad (say a Jewish politician caught accepting bribes). That is precisely how I feel.
Which brings me back to the article. The whole idea of a rabbi declaring someone else's beliefs to be heretical strikes me as profoundly un-Jewish. Rabbis may not be closer to God than the rest of us, but they are certainly held in high regard by the Jewish community in general.
But things get worse later on:
Within the next few hours, Slifkin received four faxed letters. Their authors represented both the Israeli and American ultra-Orthodox communities: Rabbi Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rabbi Yitzchok Sheiner were yeshiva leaders in New York, while the others, Rabbi Michael Lefkowitz and Rabbi Elya Weintraub, were among the leaders of the Bnai Brak community. Slifkin spent the rest of that day trying to arrange discussions with each of them, hoping to find out exactly which of his statements had caused such fury. None would agree to discuss the matter with him. Three days later, hours before Kol Nidre, the rabbis' condemnations were posted on synagogue walls in Slifkin's neighborhood.
After the High Holidays, the four rabbis launched a full-scale campaign against Slifkin's books, photocopying the pages they found most radical and distributing them to leading Orthodox figures around the world. Some of the recipients were not fluent in English; for their benefit, the Brooklyn-based Rabbi Sheiner wrote a letter in Hebrew confirming that Slifkin's books were “hair-raising to read. He believes that the world is millions of years old-all nonsense!Â?and many other things that should not be heard and certainly not believed.”
By January, 23 rabbis had signed a full-fledged ban, which was pasted on walls throughout the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim. “The books written by Nosson Slifkin present a great stumbling block to the reader,” the ban declared. “They are full of heresy, twist and misrepresent the words of our sages and ridicule the foundations of our emunah [faith]. Heaven forbid!... I therefore declare that these books should be distanced and it is forbidden to read, own or distribute them.”
Kol Nidre, incidentally, refers to the evening portion of the Yom Kippur service.
I've read those paragraphs numerous times and I get a little angrier each time. Rabbis don't have the authority to ban anything. Jews can read whatever they please, thank you very much. It just goes to show that no matter how enlightened Judaism is on a variety of issues, when you examine the lunatic fringe it all comes down to power. If Slifkin's critics want to argue against anything he said then I invite them to do so. Instead they are more interested in showing their power to silence differing opinions. Shame on any Jew who took Slifkin's critics seriously.
The article next describes how Slifkin's publisher immediately halted the publication of his books. Slifkin also lost speaking engagements as a result of the ban, and several Jewish libraries removed his books from their shelves. Happily, many other rabbis came to Slifkin's aid and opposed the ban.
The article contains much more than I have included here, and I recommend the whole thing. There is a particularly good discussion of the differences between Jewisforms Protestant froms of creationism. Let me close with one further excerpt, which sums up the situation perfectly:
In the end, a number of observers agree that the Slifkin controversy has very little to do with science, evolution or the age of the universe. The ban represents a rift between two different factions of ultra-Orthodox Jewry. One looks backward to the days when fatherly rabbis in European shtetls could steer their followers away from troubling foreign ideas. The other resigns itself to a world where floods of information from television and the Internet might seep into even the most insular Orthodox communities. Slifkin's books were written for disoriented Jews who are seeking a new center in an increasingly decentralized world; the rabbis who signed the ban are holding fast to an old center that they believe science and secular society are threatening to pull apart.
Well said. The batlle is not between science and religion. It is between religious extremism on the one hand, and simple rationality on the other.