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.


Baal Habos said...

My My My, suddenly theres a little wiggle room for evolution. If not, why do you not declare him a heretic. Why do YOU waffle.

Baal Habos said...

> Common ancestry is proven by 1) homologies, 2) vestigial organs and 3) transitional fossils.

Common ancestry is even more proven by Genetics. You can read the Language of God.

Anonymous said...

Like begets like. Faith begets faith and confusion begets confusion. Darwin's theory has always bred confusion and unfortunatley, some people have faith in confusion. Faith, on the other hand, is black and white. You believe because the One you believe is infinatley more wise.

Goatboy said...

"If one Biblical story can arbitrarily be declared fictional, then surely any and all others can be as well."

Yes, so it would seem.

I know my previous comments on your posts have been a tad on the flippant side so I would like to take this opportunity to make amends. I was recently inclined to comment on another blog whose author I may have offended. This chap is a Christian but as my main bugbears are with the OT I think my comments apply equally well in this case. What follows are my comments on his blog. I would value your response.

Ok ******, point taken. My comments were rude and unproductive and I apologise unreservedly. Serious comments from now on, I promise.

Cards on the table time. You are correct in your assumption that I disagree with theism. Indeed I am not religious but I don’t consider myself to be an atheist either.
True, I do lean towards the scientific viewpoint but that is because I lack one thing: Faith.
Faith, I think I’m right in saying, is the cornerstone of any religious belief, and with good reason. I went to Sunday school as a kid, I’ve read the bible (albeit many years ago), but I never felt the fire, I never felt that Christianity or the bible made much sense. Religion appears to be static and out dated. As far as I can tell (and please correct me if I’m wrong) all a Christian has is faith and the word of the bible. Religion by its very nature is not progressive and so any holes and unanswered questions are doomed to stay that way.
Science, on the other hand, appeals to me because it is progressive. Granted evolution, big bang theory etc. is full of holes, it doesn’t have all the answers, but scientists by their very nature are striving to fill those holes and answer those questions.

Does this make me an atheist? No. To this day I find it hard to accept that this is all there is. However, in the absence of anything sensible from the religious camp, I lean towards science.
As for any evidence to back up my arguments, quite frankly I have none. But then again, neither do you.
My comments on your post, rude though they may have been, weren’t directed at religion in general, but more towards the current trend in religious circles for its proponents to knock down the opposition rather than bolster their own position.
Of course it is important to question something that you feel doesn’t quite add up, and perhaps scientists don’t do that often enough. However, even if you could prove unequivocally that evolution is impossible or that big bang theory is nonsense, this would in no way strengthen your own standpoint. Merely knocking down the opposition isn’t enough.
The problem for Christians, as I see it, is that there is no incentive for them to be progressive. As far as they are concerned, they have it all worked out (or rather it has been all worked out for them). It is this implied arrogance that I find distasteful.

I am currently working on a post for my own blog that will hopefully expand on these points. I’ll let you know when it is posted as I would genuinely value your opinion.

LMark said...

"Regarding vestigial organs, in the species we are most familiar with, humans, we know today that no organ is useless..."

O.K. Take the appendix, for instance. This is an organ that has been removed from countless people due to infection. Most of these people haave gone on to live long, healthy lives. Before modern surgery, appendicitis was a major cause of death. The organ is not only "useless," it is actually harmful. Is it easier to believe that

1) The appendix served a purpose for the ancestors of human beings (it does serve a purpose in animals that eat large amounts of cellulose), and exists as a vestigial organ, or

2) Humans were "intelligently designed" with a leftover from "earlier models," that is incompatible with our current digestive needs, and has been responsible for countless deaths.

Choice number 1 sounds much more plausible, and frankly shows more respect for the Creator, if one exists.

Furthermore, you represent a religious tradition that teaches that a certain body part should be removed from all newborn boys. No useless organs?

On another note, I hope your son is doing better.

jewish philosopher said...

Dear Bos, Labeling someone a heretic is a serious step which I am hesitant to do without unquestionable evidence. Perhaps not every error in Biblical interpretation is heresy. It may be a careless mistake or poor judgement. Of course, I don't hesistate to denounce the God damned infernal heretics on the thefrumskepticsgroup.

Genetics proves common descent of all life as much as mechanics proves common descent of all automobiles. Check out the Wells article I cited.

Dear Goat, I am a believing Jew simply because I find the rational arguments in favor of Judaism to be irrefutable. If you can refute them please explain. I see every organelle in every living cell of every organism which has ever lived to be a proof of God. I see Jewish history and tradition to be a proof of divine revelation.

Dear LMark, about the appendix, I’m glad you asked. It may have several functions.
Regarding the human foreskin, its purpose may be simply to make the commandment of circumcision possible. It may therefore be indeed the only useless part of the human body. And thank you, my son is recovering successfully.

LMark said...

That Wikipedia article you linked to suggests that there is no hard evidence of any actual function. And it linked to a talkorigins article, which points out that the appendix does not have much of a function, if any (people have been born without it and suffered no problems as a result), that it is homologous to similar organs in other animals, and that its presence is largely a negative. In other words, even if it has some minor function , it is clearly more of a vestigial organ than anything else.

jewish philosopher said...

This article goes into more detail about the appendix.

I think if you would ask a professor of medicine "If it could be done painlessly, safely and free of charge, which portions of your body would you allow me to remove?" he would probably say "None", except perhaps excess body fat.

LMark said...

That article does not pass the giggle test, it was written by people trying to promote creationism, people with an agenda. besides, it was thoroughly refuted by the talkorigins article, which, i know, also is written by people with an agenda, but which cites numerous scientific articles.
I have a friend who went to Antarctica on a research trip. he had to have his wisdom teeth removed beforehand, even though they weren't bothering him at the time. Keep in mind, this was with the pain and the risk. If you spend the winter down there, you have to have your appendix out prophylactically, as well. 200 years ago, the whole world was like Antarctica in the wintertime (minus the cold and the darkness, of course) in terms of access to modern surgery. There is a 7% lifetime risk of appendicitis, which was a fatal illness before the advent of modern medicine.

jewish philosopher said...

Most probably appendicitis is a result of poor diet, not “poor design”. I myself had my appendix removed at age 18. I suffered from constipation since early childhood and apparently had a very low fiber diet.

No one is claiming that the appendix is a vital organ; it may in fact be the least essential. However it has never been clearly demonstrated that, combined with a healthy diet, its benefits do not outweigh its dangers.

The fact that the appendix is a major proof of evolution I think indicates how flimsy the theory is. The living world is far from being chock full of useless organs “left over” from “past stages”. I think you could call this “atheism of the gaps” – theists cannot explain something so it means God does not exist. However as science advances, the gaps are all closing.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

I heard Slifkin speak several weeks ago, in a shul with a very prominent Posek. He discussed this issue.

Firstly, he never said that the account of creation in Bereishit is "fictional". What he did say is that he believes it is allegorical. There is a large difference. The Torah is no a science book, and the Torah's purpose is not to give scientifically or historically (or even chronologically) acurate information, but to impart moral and ethical lessons. A such, he said, it is really not so relevant as to exactly in what specific timeframe, or by what exact mechanism, the process of creation ocurred; the entire point of creation, and it's acount, was only to get us to the point after creation, which is when we can begin to learn the lessons from the acounts in the Torah.

He spoke about dinosaurs. Much is made of the act that the Torah doesn't mention dinosaurs; well, Slifkin said, the Torah doesn't specifically mention kangaroos or Windows XP either, yet they exist; it's just not relevant to the Torah's purpose.

Basically, and this is something that should be drilled into every Jew's head, the Torah is, again, neither a science nor a history book. It is a moral and ethical religious guide. Where a Torah account runs up against overwhelming historical or medical/scientific fact, we must support history or science. There have been numerious instances where Torah has been dead wrong about science. The Talmud has a discussion where it basically says that the Sun rotates around the Earth. Clearly that is wrong; (Even the Vatican eventually admitted that!)

I don't understand why it is so hard to say that evolution may actually be the process that was set in motion by G-d; His Finger flicking the first domino that set the world in motion. Why must we believe that whole trees and animals winked into full-grown existence in the blink of an eye?

And I also had my appendix out at 15, and I never had GI symptoms as a child. The article on diet you reference actually seems to be about food poisoning; there is also a distinction. Of course bacterial infection can cause inflammation and GI distress, especially if they colonize the narrow dark area of the appendix. We should also distinguish between useless organs and unnecessary organs; there is yet another difference. Every organ can be argued to have a use, but a number of organs are unnecessary.

Sorry, I'm an Observant G-d believing Jew and I also subscribe to evolution.

jewish philosopher said...

In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 10th Edition, allegory is defined as “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about the human existence”. This is essentially the same as a fable.

Since writing this post, I have read Rabbi Slifkin’s book “Challenge of Creation” and I have exchanged about 20 emails with him. To the best of my understanding, he regards the first several chapters of Genesis as fiction, although divinely inspired fiction which contains important lessons. I believe that before Rav Kook about 80 years ago, no Orthodox authority has ever expressed explicitly such an opinion and I believe that most would consider it to be heresy.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

Heresy according to whose definition? I don't believe R. Slifkin's views violat any of Rambams 13 Essentials. Even the Rambam was viewed as a heretic by some.

It doesn't matter what it's viewed as. It's the most reasonable explanation. Religion isn't magic. I ask again, why must we as jews believe that the world winked into existence fully formed in the ascribed Biblical sequence? Has the Torah never spoken in allegory before? Of course it has.

Besides, none of this changes anyone's daily observance of halacha. Just because you believe (as I do) that Genesis 1-11, or at least 1-7 is allegorical, doesn't mean you stop keeping Shabbos or Kosher or davening.

jewish philosopher said...

I think claiming that any significant portion of Jewish tradition is false is probably heresy and forfeits ones portion in the Next World. The idea that Adam and Eve were real people, for example, is surely a significant portion of Jewish tradition.

Honestly, I’m not all that impressed with “Origin of Species”. I own it and I’ve read it however I think Darwin was wrong. I recommend reading Darwin on Trial for an alternative point of view.

Nice Jewish Guy said...

"I think claiming that any significant portion of Jewish tradition is false is probably heresy "

That about sums it up, doesn't it? If you're going to claim something is heresy (a serious charge), you really should be able to sunstantiate it as heresy according to an accepted criterion. Heresy in your opinion doesn't make it so. Rambam has an accepted standard of heresy. Claiming that evolution is the divine mechanism of creation doesn't fit that standard.

Science today acknowledges that Darwin got a certain amount of stuff wrong, but the basic concepts of evolution have stood up to scientific scrutiny.

jewish philosopher said...

Actually I never said Slifkin is a heretic. I believe it's something which needs to be studied. I do think he's just wrong.

You'd be surprised how the most recent books about evolution, for example the just published "Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design" by Michael Shermer, quote pretty much verbatim from "Origin". Not much has really changed since 1859.

Also, check out "Icons of Evolution" by Jonathan Wells.

Anonymous said...

To JP, you have created the web blog I would have wished to create myself and your answers, for the most part, are very similar to my own.

Nonetheless, I am learning from you, I applaud your efforts and I intend to read through the whole blog.

Therefore, I believe you might wish to amend your initial premise to broaden your audience to include believing Jews such as myself who wish to sharpen their own beliefs and counter-arguments to those on the secular Left.

jewish philosopher said...

Thanks, I'm glad you're enjoying it. If people who are involved in kiruv can gain something, that's fantastic. Please spread the word.

By the way, I am researching further the camel and hare question; I may post on it soon.

Anonymous said...

It would be good to hear you comment on the Big Bang theory and the problem concerning the third day and fourth day of creation as stated in Bereshis.

How is it possible that the Earth had fruit trees one day before God "let there be luminaries in the firmament of the heaven..."??

jewish philosopher said...

I have referred to this a little bit in an earlier post, however I can add a little more here.

Basically, my theory is that the first 34 verses of the Bible are describing a cycle of creative energies, which God sends down into this universe. They are not describing a one time historical event. On Sunday, God energizes light, on Monday the heavens, on Tuesday the plants and so on. Finally on Saturday He rests. And the first physical plants were created on a Tuesday, perhaps millions of years ago. The sun was first created on a Wednesday, perhaps billions of years ago and so on. Adam was created on a Friday 5767 years ago.

This is the reason why the Sabbath is so vitally important in Judaism. We must affirm our belief in the Creator by reenacting in our own lives this creative cycle which is continuing right now as well, as it says (Psalms 136:7) “He creates the great lights”. He is still creating them.

This is also the reason why the Jewish calendar begins on the day Adam was created. That day counts as the creation of the world – our world, not previous worlds which have been destroyed.

This is all part of the secrets of creation, about which we can only speculate.

Rabbi Dovid Brown expands upon this concept in his book “The Mysteries of Creation” from Feldheim Publishers.

Zappable said...


the blogs need to discuss Slifkin's books more critically, not just defending it against haredi bans.
I discuss his views on ID and evolution on my blog.