As Rabbi Natan Slifkin walks around the converted warehouse, a diverse group of national-religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews follow attentively. As they wend their way through the various exhibits from taxidermy animals to shelves of shofars, Slifkin maintains a steady discourse on the roles the biblical animals in his collection play in Jewish tradition.
Hidden in a dilapidated building in Beit Shemesh’s industrial zone blocks from the city’s gleaming new mall, the just opened Biblical Museum of Natural History represents years of work by a controversial thinker known popularly as the “Zoo Rabbi.”
“For many years, I have been teaching about animals in the Torah and leading tours of zoos, and this I found would be the best way to present the material, with the animals actually present,” Slifkin tells The Jerusalem Post. “You can see them in front of you, people can touch many of them. This is the way to give the most powerful experience.”
With its mixture of live animals, skeletons and taxidermy exhibits, the museum is the culmination of a lifetime’s work for the rabbi. Holding court before a wall lined with shelves of skulls and hooves, as he explains the various signs by which an animal can be considered kosher and segues to a discussion of the role of the snake in the Garden of Eden, the bespectacled, red-bearded rabbi pulls out an enormous python that he encourages his guests to stroke.
The museum is obviously not finished, and Slifkin admits he opened it only for tour groups over the holiday because of the overwhelming interest in his project even though the official launch is still weeks away.
The reaction thus far has been encouraging, he says, noting that “people are so amazed to see that these animals are part of the Torah, part of the Land of Israel and used to live here.”
An immigrant from Manchester, England, Slifkin first came to prominence over the controversy generated by his attempts to harmonize modern science and the Bible, especially the creation narrative and theory of evolution, in a series of books. His outspoken view that the sages of the Talmud were fallible in matters of science further inflamed his critics who accused him of heresy.
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The subsequent banning of his books by the ultra-Orthodox community triggered a surge of interest in his work, with his books selling for highly inflated prices and news media around the world reporting on his impact within the closed religious world in which he grew up.
Slifkin continued making waves through his blog Rationalist Judaism, in which he advocates a rationalist, rather than mystical, form of Orthodox Judaism in line with leading medieval Jewish thinkers.
In a recent post on the blog announcing the imminent opening of the museum, Slifkin said he wanted it “to be clear that I am making a fundamental bifurcation in my career” and that “the museum will be entirely noncontroversial.”
Walking through the museum you see no indications of the controversies that have made its founder famous (or infamous, depending on your ideological affiliation).
Asked about his desire to place a firewall between his various projects, Slifkin explains that there are no dinosaurs or mentions of evolution for two reasons.
This is “partly because this is something that is supposed to be for everyone, for all sectors in the community, but also because that stuff has no role here,” he says.
“This museum is about the animals of the Torah. Dinosaurs are not one of the animals of the Torah, so it’s just not relevant to this. The idea is to create an educational experience that is equally beneficial no matter what kind of background a person has.”
Slifkin believes the controversies of his past will have little impact on the museum and he does not believe the ultra-Orthodox community will stay away, because “the ban was never on me as a person.
It was only on certain ideas, certain approaches I was presenting which I acknowledged are not suitable for the haredi community and which none of that stuff is going to be taught here.”
Indeed, other works he has produced have continued to be used by individuals affiliated with those who banned his earlier works, and Slifkin himself has accepted the events of the past decade with equanimity, even, as he wrote on his blog, accepting “that the ban, if interpreted as a sort of social policy, should be understood and respected.”
Collecting all of the specimens in his museum has taken years, Slifkin notes, especially the collection of shofars.
An opponent of hunting, on religious grounds, he grinned self-deprecatingly when admitting that one of the final horns in his collection was the gift from one of the rarest specimens of all, an Orthodox big-game hunter.
Passing the shofars on their way out, the guests laugh and chat as their children jump and dance through the crowds – ultra-Orthodox and modern together with nary a sign of dispute. It appears that, indeed, the rabbi has made a clean break from the controversies of his past and created something that can serve to unify Jews through the study of Torah.
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