Tuesday, November 29, 2005

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.


At 8:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Slifkin affair is an unfortunate event in our times. I am an Orthodox Jew and wish Rabbi Slifkin and his family no harm. They would be welcome as guests in my house. However, his books are antithetical to Torah. It is a fundamental principle of Torah that the world was created in six days and G-d rested on the seventh. Rabbi Slifkin denies this as he believes that the world is billions of years old. Therefore, it is only natural for the Gedolim to ban his books the same way they ban books from other religions.

Also, have you talked to the rabbis who banned his book? You should get both sides of the story. These rabbis are good people and are not trying to be mean to Rabbi Slifkin.

At 4:58 AM, Blogger DaveScot said...

Your statement

"I may be an atheist, but I am also Jewish."

seems to me the equivalent of saying

"I may be a communist, but I am also American."

It seems to point to philosophically being one thing (atheist/communist) and being another (Jewish/American) by accident of birth.

So Jason, more to the topic, do you advocate banning any mention of ID from public classrooms and if so how does your advocation differ philsophically and materially from the banning advocated by the Orthodox rabbis?

At 5:05 AM, Blogger DaveScot said...

And by the way, I'd have posted this comment to Panda's Thumb if your cohort Wesley Elsberry hadn't banned my comments there. Do you support that banning too?

At 6:53 AM, Blogger LiberPaul said...


Being Jewish and an athiest is the same as saying I am from German heritage but I am american.... I think Jason thinks of Jewish as a heritage not necessarily a religion. Correct me if I am wrong.

At 7:22 AM, Blogger hrun said...

I am sorry to see that you are dissapointed by your fellow Jews. However, this step should really not be a surprise to you or anybody. Anywhere, where people put the ultimate authority into something that was written by man thousands of years in the past, you will find this sort of thing.

Challenging the ultimate authority of said written document, and thereby challenging the ultimate authority of the deity. And this sort of blasphemy must be fought, since it might lure others to abandon the true faith and turn away from said ultimate authority. After all, if there are no mermaids, then why should we not eat a bacon and cheese sandwhich?

I only wonder why anonymous calls this an 'unfortunate event'. Is it because Slifkin is a heretic or is it because Orthodox Rabbis are fighting the heretic with all the means at their disposal?

At 7:42 AM, Blogger RPM said...

DaveScot: I see no contradiction in being a communist and an American or an atheist jew. Judaism (especially in modern times) has become a system of traditions rather than beliefs. It's a cultural thing (like being Irish, German, Italian, etc). Like Jason says, there isn't even a coherent view on the afterlife - my rabbi when I was younger once described it as a dry cleaning service for souls to to go and wait until the messiah comes. I would safely guess that most jew in America are reformed, and are religious in the same sense that a Buddhism or Shinto are religions.

There are a lot of fundamentalist jews in the world, but you don't usually come into contact with them because 1) jews (especially orthodox and hasidic) tend to keep to themselves, and 2) jews make up such a small percentage of the US/world population that the small fraction with a literal reading of the bible are practically insignific.

Protestant fundamentalists have been able to mobilize themselves into a PAC because of their large numbers. That's why they're so visable.

At 8:48 AM, Anonymous Dave Harmon said...

To reprise my comments at Panda's Thumb:

Hisss! These rabbis ought to remember that they are not priests, nor “in charge” of Judaism. Instead of priests, we Jews have scholars who are expected to discuss things civilly, not issue summary demands for an author to “recant or be condemned”.

Like fundamentalists in other faiths, these rabbis have retreated into infantile dualism, where all that is not Good™ is “EEEVIILL”, and they themselves are defined a priori as Good. To their threats against the exploration of science, I say: just ignore the meshuga! I am quite sure that Slifkin can find other publishers.

And to "anonymous", just because the 7-day creation is contained in the Torah, that doesn't make it a "fundamental principle". If it were that easy, we wouldn't have the Midrash et al. And like h*ll they're "not trying to be mean", they're trying to excommunicate the guy!

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Jason said...


As dave-harmon points out, it is wrong to say that a literal six-day creation is fundamental to the Torah. As the article itself observes, our understanding of the Torah comes not just from the text itself, but also from the scholarly traditions contained in the Midrash, the Talmud and other rabbinic writings. And as the article also mentions, Slifkin can cite numerous other famous rabbis throughout history who share his view of things. Like I said, I invite you or any other Jew to make his case against Slifkin's arguments. But rabbis should not be in the business of declaring it heretical to believe certain scientific theories.

The author of the article mentions that none of the rabbis who signed the ban were willing to talk to her. I would very much like to hear their side of the story. Given the facts as I currently understand them, however, it's hard for me to find a charitable interpretation of what they have done.


Like rpm, I do not think your example of being a communist on the one hand and an American on the other is well chosen. But your broader point is correct. When I describe myself as an atheist I am telling you something about what I believe. When I describe myself as Jewish I'm telling you something about my heritage. My heritage is indeed an accident of birth, but it is no less important for that. Being an American is also a major part of how I see myself, even though that is likewise an accident of birth.

I do not favor banning any mention of ID in public schools. What I oppose is presenting false information in any class, and presenting non-scientific ideas in science classes. If teaching ID means instructing students that biological systems meeting Behe's definition of ID pose a theoretical challenge to evolution, then I oppose it on the grounds that Behe's argument is simply wrong. It is a simple statement of fact that the arguments made by Michael Behe and William Dembski are not correct. Therefore, they should not be presented favorably in science classes.

As I recall, you were banned from PT for consistently leaving comments that defied all common sense standards of basic decency and good taste. You are welcome to comment here for as long as you are willing to adhere to those standards.


Your interpretation is correct.


I am not surprised by he behavior of the rabbis. Every religion has its extremists and they show a lot of the same traits. But as rpm points out “fundamentalist Jews” are relatively few in number and they tend to isolate themselves more so than fundamentalist Christians.

I should point out that in talking about Jewish extremists I do not mean Orthodox Jews. I have known quite a few Orthodox Jews in my life, and all of them have been very impressive, honorable people. The extremist Jews I am talking about are often described as ultra-Orthodox (that term is used in the article). They are something different from the mainstream of Orthodox Jewry.

At 9:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to clarify a couple of points. If I remember correctly, DaveScot was banned from Panda's Thumb specifically for threatening to hack the site, not for being wrong, boring, or rude. There are still lots of his fellow creationists with those characteristics who have not been banned at PT.

Secondly, there's a big difference between "banning any mention of ID in public classrooms" and insisting that science classes stick to science.

At 10:40 AM, Blogger Jason said...


Thanks for the clarification.

At 11:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to respond to some comments made:

When Jews keep the Sabbath, they are giving testimony that G-d created the universe in 7 days. This is a fundamental mitzvah of the Torah, one of the ten commandments. You won't find a Midrash or anything in the Talmud that says otherwise. Slifkin's book undermines this Jewish belief; therefore, the Gedolim placed his book in herem.

The Gedolim never tried to excommunicate Rabbi Slifkin nor tried to harm him. Our religion says that the universe is 5766 years old. Scientists say billions of years old. The Gedolim do us all a favor by reiterating this point that modern scientific thought and Torah are incompatible. That way, if anyone has a question as to whether the Torah accepts all of modern scientific thought, they'll know that the answer is "no".

So one sees that he has a choice: Belief in Torah or belief in the scientists. The scientists claim that the universe is billions of years old, yet no scientists have ever traveled back in time to witness these events. They base their belief purely on circumstantial evidence and extrapolation. There is no way to directly test their theory that the universe is billions of years old.

We believe the Torah version of the creation of the universe because it was revealed to be true to the whole Jewish people during the time of Exodus from Egypt on Mt. Sinai. All Jews then perceived G-d and perceived that Moses was His prophet and therefore believed the Torah which G-d gave to Moses on Har Sinai. The Torah has been passed down from generation to generation for over 3000 years. Since there were millions of direct witnesses to the giving of the Torah, we believe the Torah version of creation over the scientists' version of creation in which there are no direct witnesses to how the universe got started.

At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Pierce R. Butler said...

Thanks for bringing this absurd abuse of rabbinical authority to light.

Could you please clean up some of the glitches in the text, such as " NatureÂ?s Song" and "...differences between Jewisforms Protestant froms..."?

At 9:03 PM, Blogger Craig Pennington said...

Your post made me reflect a bit on my own Judaism. I started to post a comment here, but decided to make it my first substantive blog entry when it got too long. Also, it was nice meeting you at the Eugenie Scott talk at the Alliance for Science meeting.

At 11:41 PM, Blogger Godol Hador said...

anonymous presents a very distorted view of reality. This is probably not the right place to get into it, but statements such as 'Our religion says that the universe is 5766 years old' are patently untrue. The fundamentalist ultra-orthodox sects maintain this view, but the moderate and modern orthodox (and of course reform etc) sects do not. In fact there are even famous ultra-orthodox Rabbis who did not hold of this view, and their statements are well known and documented in books. The problem is that the current ultra-orthodox element have become more and more fundamentalist, mostly in reaction to the ongoing secularization of the world around them, and this is the only way they know how to survive. When under attack, they dig their heels in. It has worked for the past 3000 years so its not neccessarily a bad strategy, but it is unfortunate in this case. My blog has discussed this whole matter extensively for about 8 months now.

At 12:46 PM, Blogger sanjait said...

anonymous- religious beliefs are great, and I really mean that, but you don't appear wise when disparaging scientists for contradicting your beliefs. Your claim that scientists rely on "circumstantial evidence and extrapolation" discounts the undeniable predictive power modern science has in the natural world. We can't actually see subatomic particles at all, or even small atoms and molecules well, but notably somehow despite not having a "direct test" we are able to have a conversation on an internet and a message board using technology based on those theories. The fact that you don't understand geology should give you pause when you decide to try and criticize it, just as most scientists would be hesitant to debate your reading of jewish texts.

Similarly, your claim that your beliefs are strong because of "millions of direct witnesses" could be described a different way; hearsay evidence. And in what ancient city were there ever "millions" of people?

At 4:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Since there were millions of direct witnesses to the giving of the Torah"

And you know this how? Certainly not by direct observation.

To me, religious debates are like the two people from Jay Leno's jaywalk all-stars debating about global warming; one thought it would be cool because of all the beach parties, and the other thought we should use rocket ships to move the Earth farther from the Sun. I feel at a loss to understand how people can be that stupid and uninformed.

At 2:21 AM, Blogger Jane Shevtsov said...

Great post, but I must disagree with your statement about Asimov. What he actually wrote, in his autobiography, I. Asimov is:

I remember once a fellow Jew remarking with satisfaction on the high percentage of Nobel prize winners who were Jewish.
I said, "Does that make you feel superior?"
"Of course," he said.
"What if I told you that sixty percent of the pornographers and eighty percent of the crooked Wall Street manipulators were Jewish?"
He was startled. "Is that true?"
"I don't know. I made up the numbers. But what if it were true? Would it make you feel inferior?

(Chapter 105, pp.325-326 of the paperback edition)

At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Johan Richter said...

Every religion has had a fair share of nuts, regardless of what its basic philosophy is.

Even a religion like Buddism has had religious fanatics whom have waged war to convert everyone to the right faith.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Anonymous says that "All [several millions of] Jews then perceived G-d and perceived that Moses was His prophet and therefore believed the Torah which G-d gave to Moses on Har Sinai."

Well, yes; and then again, no.

20:18 And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off.

20:19 And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.

What these hypothetical several millions of Jews percieved, on the evidence of the Pentatauch, was lightning, fire, and smoke, accompanied by the sounds of thunder and trumpets. The watchers then decided that
(a) that was what they would see if G-d was in fact present
(b) that perceptions compatible with the presence of G-d were evidence of the presence of G-d.
As someone who has been around the odd bushfire, my interpretation of the same evidence is otherwise. In any case, though, it's absolutely clear that all interpretation of (let us concede for the sake of argument) the presence of G-d - interpretations dealing with such topics as whether, for example, Moses was the prophet of G-d or merely someone G-d wished to rebuke up close and personal, not to mention the 10 (or 600 odd) commandments) -- all these interpretations avowedly were heard by the Israelites from Moses and from Moses alone.
I really don't see how, even conceding the inerrancy of the events recorded in exodus, the age of the earth can be deduced from the fact that people once saw fire on a hill.

At 7:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I watch this controversy with interest. There are some interesting comments I'd like to point out. First of all, the water from Noah's flood, according to some sources, was what caused the aging processes on the matter and bones used to "prove" that the world is millions-billions of years old. Also the medrash-a commentary on the Torah, states that G-d created several worlds and destroyed them before creating the earth and being satisfied. Also, for those of you who'd like to know what the latest research is in the science world and it actually coincides and validates all that we know already from the Torah, you can check out a fascinating website called www.beyond the ordinary.net and Bruce Lipton, who is a cellular biolgist, and was a medical university professor before he learned the truth beneath the facade, will open your eyes to a lot of FACTS, such as Life doesn't just happen by "accident". You are not here by " chance", etc. I challenge all the atheists to check it out. Life might be much MORE intriguing and positive after you hear what he has to say. Being an Atheist , in essence is being a VICTIM all your life. That's pretty depressing , to say the least.
Hope this helps at least one person ,open their eyes.

At 3:07 PM, Anonymous Historyrabbi said...

Already, I don't like speaking from authority, since I generally do not feel myself to have any, but I should point out that I function in my community as a "rebbe", which is to say Talmud teacher in a local Orthodox school. I can state unequivocally that "anonymous" may reflect a perspective, but it is not a perspective which is to be found in every segment of the Orthodox community. As Godol Hador pointed out, the Orthodox community is far from monolothic on this issue. This does NOT mean that all Orthodox scholars agree in theory but disagree concerning the ban, but rather that Orthodox scholars do not agree in theory either (R. Hirsch, one of the 19th century luminaries was very clear in not seeing Darwinian theory as contrary to the Torah, as was R. Kook). Moreover, Maimonides understanding of Genesis is far from the literal understanding which "anonymous" possesses. I would strongly discourage anyone from taking his words overly seriously (I do not doubt that he is well intentioned, but that does not make him a scholar, and even if he is one--which I think unlikely in his describing the midrash as a commentary, when in fact there is no single work called "The midrash"--this does not make him authoritative, far greater voices disagree).

At 4:38 AM, Blogger Shalom said...

It seems to me that present- day Jewish thinkers need to confront the challenges modern scientific and technological developments present to the Jewish way of seeing and thinking about the world.
Hiding away from scientific evidence seems to me totally in contradiction to the true Jewish desire to know G'd's creation- to understand it. This I believe is the spirit in which the Rambam approached the world of knowledge and learning of his time which were outside of traditional Jewish texts.

At 1:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anyone, you know about this?


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