From Moment Magazine:
[A] debate over evolution is raging in the ultra-Orthodox [Jewish] world [. . .]
In the eye of this storm is a popular 30-year-old Orthodox rabbi named Nosson Slifkin. Known to his admirers as the “Zoo Rabbi,” he has a penchant for elucidating the fine points of Torah while wrestling with a crocodile or riding on the back of an African elephant. A serious Torah scholar, he is also the author of “The Torah Universe,” a series of unusually lucid volumes about science and religion. His writings were on the shelves of yeshivas the world over until earlier this year, when observant Jews discovered that his books had been banned.
According to writer Jennie Rothenberg, Rabbi Slifkin's "unique calling" is "teaching Torah in a zoo." Here he is in action:
He cradles a baby alligator in his arms and casually wraps a boa constrictor around his neck. He pauses to discuss a Talmudic teaching that each animal was put on earth to embody a certain primordial trait. “What are we meant to learn from the lion?” he asks. Someone offers, “Courage,” and Slifkin shakes his head. “No, no. That’s The Wizard of Oz. The Talmud says we should be as powerful as a lion to serve God.” Wryly, he asks what this means. “Lift weights, build muscle?”
His playful tone gives way to seriousness as he settles into his moral lesson. “Big cats are aggressive by nature: tigers, leopards, jaguars, lynxes, pumas, cheetahs,” he explains. “They can’t even get along well with each other. Only the lion can control its inclinations and get along well with other lions in the pride. So the Torah shows us that the real test of power is not brute strength. It’s self-control—controlling your emotions, your temper, your unnecessary fear.” [. . .]
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.
Slifkin is one of those who finds no contradiction between religious reverence and evolutionary science. As a scholar of Torah and Talmud, he finds precedent in Jewish tradition for the acceptance of Darwin's theory. This is fascinating:
[T]he 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 Nature’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.”
Looking into Jewish history, Slifkin found that two world-renowned Orthodox rabbis who lived during Darwin’s time also found evolution unobjectionable. Abraham Isaac Kook, who would become the first chief rabbi of Israel, reminded Jews that the Torah was filled with mysteries. The prominent 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch [. . .] wrote in 1873 [that if natural selection were to prove correct,] “Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of ‘adaptation and heredity,’ in order to bring forth, out of what seemed to be chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today.”
As 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.
That's why influential ultra-Orthodox rabbis of Israel and America have condemned and banned his books as heretical. One Brooklyn-based rabbi called his books “hair-raising to read…. He believes that the world is millions of years old—all nonsense!—and many other things that should not be heard and certainly not believed.”
Other Orthodox scholars, meanwhile, have leapt to Slifkin's defense, and the Orthodox world is an an uproar. Slifkin is blamed by some who do not necessarily disagree with him for having touched off a crisis of authority, making revered, deferred-to eminences who are (G-d forgive me) the Jewish world's equivalent of Popes, Ayatollahs and fatwa-issuing Imams look, in the words of one rabbi "like simple-minded fools."
Read this enthralling article! It's a chilling and absurd portrait of the fundamentalist mentality, enlivened by a compare-and-contrast analysis of Jewish vs. Christian creationism and a detailing of some of the amazing intellectual acrobatics more open-minded Talmudic scholars (starting with Moses Maimonides in the 12th century) and observant scientists have employed in attempts to reconcile Torah with growing understanding of the natural world:
Gerald Schroeder, an MIT-trained nuclear physicist, used a complex formula involving relativity, quark confinement and gamma rays to develop the theory that time flowed differently during the six days of creation.
In a particularly interesting passage, a prominent ultra-Orthodox spokesman blames science's increasing association with an antireligious ideology for pious Judaism's recoil from science:
I ask Rabbi Avi Shafran to explain how this aversion to science has crept into a religion that prides itself on endless inquiry. Shafran is the American public relations director for Agudath Israel, the world’s largest ultra-Orthodox coalition. If the vastly divergent ultra-Orthodox community has a spokesperson, Shafran comes closest to filling that role. Shafran responds thoughtfully. In the past, he acknowledges, it was perfectly acceptable for a great rabbi like Samson Raphael Hirsch to embrace science. This approach, he adds, “has generally fallen into disfavor—largely, I think, because science in recent times has become a religion of its own, a secular one.”
Shafran’s words allude to the fact that some of the most visible contemporary scientists, most notably the leading evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, have openly denounced religion. Dawkins has published articles entitled “Religion’s Misguided Missiles” and “The Improbability of God.”
Adds Shafran, “For better or for worse—worse, I’d say—society has set science up as the enemy of religious thought. And so many Orthodox Jewish leaders have deemphasized, if not outright rejected, the study of the sciences as a means of religious devotion.”
The Zoo Rabbi would like to fix that. His last word: "Nature points towards God, not away from Him.”