The Jewish community is no stranger to conflict. Some controversies, however, transcend their local concern and reverberate in ways originally unintended. I believe we have witnessed such an event with the recent controversy surrounding three books about Torah and science by Rabbi Natan (Nosson) Slifkin. The bans promulgated on his books have come to represent more than just disapproval of those specific works; they have come to signify the lack of centralized rabbinic authority in our globalized world and the increased empowerment of the individual afforded by the Internet.
Let me start from the beginning. Rabbi Slifkin has been teaching about Torah and animals for a number of years and has written prolifically on these subjects. These issues led him to topics regarding Torah and science in general, and after careful research he published three books about the subject.
His first book in this genre was titled The Science of Torah and discussed the age of the universe and evolution. His next was Mysterious Creatures and addressed the seemingly mythical creatures mentioned in rabbinic literature, such as unicorns and dragons, and the general scientific orientation of the Sages. And the last was The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax, which discussed the kosher signs of animals and their relation to current zoological knowledge.
All three books had haskamos (approbations) from English-speaking Torah authorities and were initially well received.
Personally, I became acquainted with Rabbi Slifkin through e-mail and bought The Science of Torah, but was not particularly interested by it. Various theories of reconciling Torah, the age of the universe and evolution were old hat to me. I had already heard and read enough on the subject in my youth to recognize that there is no contradiction between various common scientific theories and the Torah.
I was not even going to buy the second book, Mysterious Creatures, until a number of people told me my name was mentioned in the introduction. It seems some personal exchanges with Rabbi Slifkin were valuable enough to him that he thanked me for my contribution. I did buy that book and greatly enjoyed it. I then rushed to acquire the third book when it became available and was likewise impressed with it. I even wrote a review of it for my blog (TorahMusings.com) and translated into English its laudatory approbation from a respected posek.
You can imagine my surprise when I discovered, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur two years ago, that Rabbi Slifkin’s books had been condemned as heretical. I don’t recall how the grapevine carried the news to me, but looking back I see that I still have my e-mail to him inquiring about it and now realize that I contacted him on the very day that everything started. What follows is based on Rabbi Slifkin’s retelling of the story and my own recollection of the events of which I was aware.
Rabbi Slifkin received a phone call on September 21, 2004, informing him that he would shortly be receiving faxes of letters from rabbis stating that he must retract the three books mentioned above. He would have until the end of that day to do so or face public scandal and humiliation.
Rabbi Slifkin immediately tried to arrange meetings with the rabbis whose letters were faxed to him but they all refused to meet with him (one initially agreed but later changed his mind). Rabbi Slifkin also called the rabbis who had written haskamos for his books to see if they had retracted those approbations, as those condemning his books had claimed. This turned out to be false.
On the advice of his halachic authority, Rabbi Slifkin refused to recant his books until he would be able to meet with the rabbis condemning the books. As he wrote to me in his private e-mail late that night, “If they’ll show me where I wrote something wrong, of course I’ll change it, my website is full of corrections to my books.” But he never had that opportunity.
On September 23, a major rosh yeshiva in America phoned Rabbi Slifkin to offer him encouragement and tell him to keep a low profile and let the whole thing blow over. But it did not subside. The next day, erev Yom Kippur, signs went up in Rabbi Slifkin’s neighborhood declaring that the books are full of heresy and that one is forbidden to own them. The following months saw signs posted in Israel and pamphlets distributed in Israel and the U.S. vilifying Rabbi Slifkin.
In the week of January 2, 2005, the Israeli (Hebrew) Yated Ne’eman published a ban against Rabbi Slifkin’s books signed by some leading rabbis in Israel and in America, including Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg and Rav Dovid Feinstein, along with an accompanying article. The next week, the European (English) Yated Ne’eman published a translation.
That is where my direct involvement began. After the publication of the ban, Rabbi Slifkin’s publisher and distributor decided to cease their involvement with his books. After consultation with a number of rabbis who wanted these books available for their communities, my new publishing house, Yashar Books, agreed to take on the distribution of the books.
As the arrangements were being made and afterward, I obtained support from a number of leading rabbis and roshei yeshiva. My position continues to be that a community whose rabbi rules the books are permissible should have access to them.
Since the original publication of the ban, more rabbis have published letters against Rabbi Slifkin, some denouncing science in eneral while others addressing only the books in question. Due to the immediacy of the Internet, any letter or article condemning Rabbi Slifkin has been quickly disseminated.
In the meantime, Rabbi Slifkin did not simply stand back and allow his books to be denounced. After the ban appeared on Yated Ne’eman’s website, Rabbi Slifkin added a section to his website (ZooTorah.com) to address the controversy. In this section, he calmly and responsibly presented an account of the events, relevant documents, and responses supporting him by various rabbis. He also posted a long list of sources that seem to directly contradict claims that his positions are unacceptable.
In addition to all this, the entire controversy was being carefully covered on various Internet media, most notably blogs. I posted frequently to my blog on this subject. While I tried to restrict my comments to respectful discussion of intellectual subjects, other blogs reflected less discipline, sometimes going well beyond the bounds of decency.
There was a sense of outrage over this ban and, more than that, personal pain. Whether from baalei teshuvah who felt pushed out of the community for which they had sacrificed so much to join, or rabbeim and kiruv workers who had just been informed that they’d been teaching heresy for many years, there was a very loud cry of anguish being voiced on the Internet. It was this new medium that served as the focal point of criticism of the ban and, ironically, the growing crisis of faith it has caused.
Of the three banned books, The Science of Torah had already sold out before the ban, and the other two sold out fairly quickly in the ban’s immediate aftermath. The Science of Torah was recently thoroughly revised, expanded and published under a new title, The Challenge of Creation, with a foreword by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union. Because of the controversy, we have had the book reviewed by a number of knowledgeable rabbis, including an expert on both Torah and science from whom my posek insisted we receive permission before commencing with publication.
It was no surprise to me that a tremendous wave of support for Rabbi Slifkin was forthcoming from the Yeshiva University orbit. Rabbis, professors, students and alumni sent many supportive e-mails, looking for ways to help. The largest Jewish book sale in the country, Yeshiva’s SOY Seforim Sale, stocked the banned books, all of which sold out very quickly.
(To the organizers’ credit, they were hesitant to stock the books until I had them speak to Yeshiva’s mashgiach, who insisted that they sell them. There have since been a number of lectures on this topic, some by roshei yeshiva and rabbeim and others by professors, all generally favoring Rabbi Slifkin’s positions, even if criticizing him on minor points.)
But what surprised me most was the support from the yeshivishe world. I was expecting very little but received, and continue to receive, many letters, e-mails, phone calls, and even random stops on the street in Brooklyn from people who feel very passionately about this subject. Many rabbis and learned laymen seem to have tremendous sympathy for Rabbi Slifkin, both on a personal level for his public humiliation and on an intellectual level for his championing their views.
From the beginning it has never been quite clear what the problems are with the banned books because none of the rabbis involved gave any detailed explanation.
The initial ban quotes Rav Yisroel Weintraub as saying vaguely tht Rabbi Slifkin denigrated our tradition. Rabbi Yitzchak Sheiner is quoted as saying the problem is that Rabbi Slifkin believes that the world is millions of years old. And Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel is quoted as saying the problem is that Rabbi Slifkin claims that the Sages could, on rare occasions, err in scientific matters and any corresponding halachic issues. Rav Moshe Shapiro was unclear but seemed to object specifically to the issue of the Sages and science.
None of them, however, agreed to clarify the matter by meeting with Rabbi Slifkin and explaining their objections. Months after the ban, Rav Aharon Feldman cited as problematic Rabbi Slifkin’s approaches to the age of the universe, the order of Creation, evolution and the Sages’ knowledge of science.
In Rabbi Slifkin’s books, he described the evidence for an ancient universe and discussed the various theories that have been proposed to explain this from a Torah perspective. He then offered his own theory, which follows in the footsteps of the Rambam, Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffmann, Rav Aryeh Kaplan and others, and which takes the “six days” of Creation in a less than literal sense. This, the banners seem to claim, is heretical, while others either support this view or find it hard to condemn considering its respected pedigree.
Following the view of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rav Avraham Kook that if evolution can be demonstrated to be true it is consistent with the Torah, Rabbi Slifkin reviewed the evidence for evolution (as he defines it) and proposed a Torah perspective for understanding it. While it is understandable that people might disagree with his conclusion, the approach in general is not Rabbi Slifkin’s but of those much greater than he. The strong Torah precedents for his views are even clearer in his new book, The Challenge of Creation.
Regarding the Sages and science, Rabbi Slifkin surveyed the many views on how to deal with the apparent discrepancy between current scientific knowledge and various Talmudic statements. He made it clear that he favored the view of the Rambam (most eloquently stated by Rambam’s son), the Gaonim, and many authorities throughout the centuries and up to this day that the Sages sometimes relied on the scientific conclusions of their contemporary experts.
The banners seem to have been particularly disturbed by this position despite its being advocated by such recent luminaries as the Maharam Schick, Rav Hirsch and Rav Yitzchak Herzog. One banner reportedly dismissed Rabbi Slifkin’s precedents among Torah authorities by saying, “They were permitted to hold this opinion; we are not.” My rosh yeshiva hastold me he strongly disagrees with this statement.
I am certain that some readers will be scandalized by Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to these topics and others will wonder what the big deal is. I was among the latter, having heard for many years that Judaism has no problem with such ideas. It is not just the Modern Orthodox world in which these ideas have gained acceptance. The utter shock with which many within the American yeshivishe community reacted to this ban, the stunned expressions of the kiruv professionals, shul rabbis and high school rabbeim when they learned that the approaches they had been taught and were teaching are unacceptable, is testimony to how mainstream these ideas had become. Rav Aryeh Kaplan’s writings certainly reach beyond Modern Orthodoxy.
To this day, I still have trouble understanding the intent of the ban. Were the Torah scholars who signed the ban really ruling that these views are heresy, other sages notwithstanding? Or were they just trying to protect the students in their yeshivas and members of their communities from views they consider dangerous but not heretical?
Rav Chaim Soloveitchik described mussar as a harsh medicine thatcures those who are sick but makes ill those who are healthy. The banners may be concerned that the traditional views cited in Rabbi Slifkin’s books are similar in that they might damage the faith of some readers. But even if true, dispositions and backgrounds vary and these views are essential for the faith of many others. It would therefore seem that this should be a local matter, depending very much on individuals and communities, and addressed by local rabbis and roshei yeshiva, rather than impersonal halachic rulings on posters and in newspapers.
The ban, as it stands, raises many difficult questions for a large segment of the Orthodox community. Ironically, the ban – both in terms of procedures and content – has generated questions of faith that are perhaps greater than those it was supposed to prevent.
We can only hope that in the future the concerns of the greater community will be specifically addressed – along with an explanation of how such a devastating personal blow can be issued without the accused being allowed to defend himself. That’s certainly preferable to a proclamation issued from afar that leaves the public guessing about the rest of the story.
Rabbi Gil Student