January 27, 2005

The Zoo Rabbi

Daniel Pipes is known in America as an effective commentator who tries to counterbalance biased reporting on the Middle East. As a result, he is vilified by the alliance of Left Wingers, Islamic lecturers at Columbia University, Israeli Anti-Zionists and Palestinian polemicists alike. He is feted by pro-Israelis, Right Wingers and Jewish fundamentalists. He was actually on Bush’s advisory board on terrorism but was not reappointed because he was considered to be too pro-Israel!

In his January 25th column in The New York Sun (nothing like the English Sun, I assure you), he wrote not about the Middle East, on which he is an expert, but about Judaism, on which he is not. He argued that Orthodox Judaism has come back from the brink. It is expanding exponentially while other areas of Jewish life are shrinking. It is no longer content to leave external matters, politics and lobbying to the non-Orthodox community. It is beginning to flex its muscles. In all probability it will, in due course, once again become the dominant force in Jewish life in the West that it was up until the nineteenth century.

Of course, in one way, I am delighted at this prospect. I do, indeed, believe that without the core of religious commitment Judaism is peripheral or pretty meaningless in this world. And I am delighted at the trends towards more study and practice of Jewish spiritual life, as opposed to the purely social. But then I asked myself, where would I be in this new Orthodox world? And this week I read about the controversy over the "Zoo Rabbi" and I began to get palpitations.

The Zoo Rabbi is a delightful, very Orthodox gentleman called Rabbi Nosson Slifkin. Like me, he was born in Manchester and studied in impeccably Orthodox yeshivas. And like me, he has a secular education, tell it not in Gat! He studied geology and zoology, and has become well known for conducting tours of zoos, looking at the animals through the eyes of traditional Jewish texts and sources, and for writing several books on the topic.

Hitherto, he was regarded with warmth by the Ultra-Orthodox world. Many Ultra-Orthodox families have enjoyed his tours and his teaching. He was considered an ‘acceptable author’ by very successful publishing houses that exclusively produce impeccably Orthodoxly correct books and wouldn’t even look at anything that might be regarded as heterodox. His books were welcomed in yeshivas, and when they were first published they contained warm recommendations from some of the most important rabbis of the generation.

But recently there was panic. Someone discovered that Slifkin had suggested that, geologically speaking, the world was millions of years old. He had combined science with impeccable Torah and Midrashic sources to support his view, but to no avail. This, according to the Inquisition, contradicts the official Torah party line. And the Zoo rabbi is out!

Of course, there is nothing particularly new in trying to get Torah and science to dovetail. Another Orthodox scientist, Gerald Schroeder, published a book some years ago called "Genesis and the Big Bang Theory" in which he uses theory of relativity to establish that the Biblical and the scientific versions of Creation could be reconciled. Personally, I don’t see the point of trying. The Torah is not a science textbook. It is a book of spiritual and religious teaching and laws. Leave science to scientists and religion to the religious.

The trouble, it seems, was that Slifkin’s book was being read voraciously in Black Hat yeshivas. You cannot come up with an idea in such circles if it was not said by eighteenth century rabbis. As a result, the whole galaxy of Torah giants of the Right has come out and condemned his writing as heretical, including those who once recommended him (have they now seen the light, or the dark?). Poor Slifkin is now persona non grata. The religious publishers have withdrawn his titles.

In addition, Aish Hatorah, that evangelical outreach organization that sells itself as being open-minded but is really fundamentalist, has removed Slifkin articles from its web site. Schroeder's articles on the site were also scrutinized and, in at least one case, edited.

Now, I am all for wolves discarding their sheep’s clothing and being honest. Both Aish and, to take another example, Chabad, do great work reaching parts that no other Jewish organisation does. But they are disingenuous in pretending to be intellectually open when they are not. Nice people? Yes. Doing good work? Yes. But open intellectually? Fuggedaboutit! Yet they, together with the galaxy of outstanding rabbis and heads of yeshivas and Hassidic rebbes who ban Slifkin, are all part of this neofundamentalism that is in danger of becoming the orthodox Orthodoxy.

If people who refuse to even look at the suggestion that the world might be millions of years old are to be the only faces left in Judaism, I have a problem with that.

I am totally committed to Jewish law. The Gedolei Hador (the Giants of the Generation) are precisely that, giants in matters of halacha (Jewish Law and learning). Their role is to give moral and ethical guidance and leadership. But when it comes to science or medicine or, indeed, geology, I’d rather rely on people who are professionally trained in those specific areas.

If the Judaism that survives is one that insists on banning ideas it finds challenging, if it insists on claiming that any view to which it has not yet accommodated itself is automatically heretical, then, frankly, we will have two Orthodox Judaisms--the Judaism that keeps halacha and thinks, and the Judaism that keeps halacha and does not think. The Judaism that allows people to enquire and examine other ideas, and the Judaism that is running scared of the unknown, like Medieval Popes. And I know which one I will belong to.

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