Friday, September 01, 2006
Rabbi Nosson Slifkin – victim of persecution or heretic?
[genealogical tree of life by Ernst Heinrich Haeckel 1874]
First of all, I don’t feel qualified to answer this question. I will merely present the readers with several facts and they are invited to decide for themselves or consult their rabbis.
Yesterday, I read a fascinating post on the blog The Curious Jew. This post relates the content of a speech given several days ago by Rabbi Nosson Slifkin to undergraduate women at Stern College. I don’t know who the blogger is, however she seems to be very careful and precise so I am assuming that her account of the speech is accurate.
As I understand Rabbi Slifkin, he believes that universal common ancestry, from microbe to man, over the past several billion years is an unquestionable scientific fact. This simply cannot be doubted rationally. Common ancestry is proven by 1) homologies, 2) vestigial organs and 3) transitional fossils.
For an Orthodox Jew, a problem arises: How do we then understand the first chapter of the Bible, which states clearly that each kind of plant and animal was created separately by a direct act of God (Genesis 1:12, 1:21, 1:25), as was man (Genesis 1:27)?
Rabbi Slifkin answers that according to Maimonides’ in his Guide for the Perplexed Genesis 1 should not be understood literally. Rather, Genesis chapter 1 is an esoteric allegory. In other words, it is a fictional story intended to convey some, unspecified, spiritual lesson.
Personally, I find two difficulties with Rabbi Slifkin’s opinion.
First of all, I believe that he is giving far to much weight to the scientific evidence in favor of evolution. Regarding homologies, they prove nothing, since there is no way to distinguish between two organisms that are descended from a common ancestor and two organisms that were created by a common designer. Regarding vestigial organs, in the species we are most familiar with, humans, we know today that no organ is useless and the same presumably applies to other species as well. Vestigial organs are merely organs whose purpose we do not yet understand. And to cite the fossil evidence as proof of evolution is almost laughable. In reality, the fossils do not show anything resembling the continuous, infinitely gradual progression from molecules to modern life which Darwin’s theory predicts. Consider for example the Cambrian explosion and the extinction events. One hundred and fifty years of hunting for missing links has done little to close the unexplainable gaps. This article by biologist Jonathan Wells is worth reading, especially pages 3 through 5.
Second of all, I believe that Rabbi Slifkin’s opinions represent appalling Biblical scholarship. To suggest that the first chapter of the Bible was intended by its author to be fictional is ludicrous. No traditional Jewish authority has every suggested this. In the Jewish Observer May 2006 page 18, Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller, dean of the Telshe Yeshiva of Chicago, states that Maimonides means that IN ADDITION to the literal meaning of Genesis 1, there are other meanings as well. Also, obviously this sets a dangerous precedence. If one Biblical story can arbitrarily be declared fictional, then surely any and all others can be as well.
It would seem to me that Rabbi Slifkin’s teachings are reminiscent of the teaching of the infamous Jewish Enlightenment which ravaged 19th century European Jewry.
For my own interpretation of the fossils, see my post.
Posted by jewish philosopher at 12:02 PM