Perish the thought

Worried haredi rabbis reject two of their own in the struggle between science and God.

michelangelo adam 88 (photo credit: )
michelangelo adam 88
(photo credit: )
It is uncommon for the People of the Book to ban books - but that is precisely what three prominent rabbis of Bnei Brak have done. The ban was especially surprising considering who was responsible for the ideas in the banned book. Rabbi Gedalia Nadel, who passed away a year and a half ago, was recognized in his lifetime as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, students of the Hazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, the undisputed spiritual leader of haredi Lithuanian Jewry in the Holy Land in the first half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Rabbis Michel Yehuda Lefkovitz, Nissim Karelitz and Chaim Kanyevsky, three of the most respected spiritual leaders in the haredi world, felt the need to issue a warning. "The greatness of Rabbi Gedalia Nadel, may this righteous man's name be a blessing, was known to all," wrote the rabbis. "His genius was incredible and he was an exemplary model of Torah scholarship. As a student of the Hazon Ish he had an unwavering grasp of the truth of the Torah. Yet few could plumb the depths of his thoughts... Therefore we fear that ideas found in unauthorized texts or recordings will be published in his name. We hereby warn not to rely on any book published in his name by any other than Rabbi Nadel's family and students." Betorato shel Rav Gedalia is the name of the book referred to by the Bnei Brak rabbis, which was published posthumously by Rabbi Yitzhak Shilat based on Nadel's taped lectures. Shilat writes in the preface that everything that appears in the book was approved by Nadel himself. The book, banned last December, seeks to resolve apparent contradictions between science and Torah. Offensive ideas include sentences like this: "Regarding his [Rabbi Ovadia Sforno's] approach, that the creation of man in the image of God marked the end of a long process which started with a non-cognizant animal which gradually evolved until this creature was given a human mind... this is an accurate description. Darwin's proofs, and those of geologists, for the existence of early stages of mankind, seem convincing." Nadel sees nothing wrong with accepting Darwin's theory of evolution. Even the proposition that man and ape have a common ancestor presents no theological problem for Nadel. He also rejects biblical literalism in favor of science: "It is a mistake to think that all of science [e.g. carbon dating, geology] is wrong. Regarding issues of life and death - some of the most stringent laws in the Torah - we rely on the scientific method without doubts. When a doctor gives a drug that was produced based on scientific methods of inquiry or when a surgeon operates on the eye or the brain with the aid of sophisticated scientific equipment we rely on science. We do not suspect that these doctors are lying. There is no reason to believe scientists are lying about the age of the world." THE PUBLICATION and subsequent ban of Betorato shel Rav Gedalia was followed just a few months later by another, similar ban. Three books by Rabbi Natan Slifkin - Mysterious Creatures, The Science of Torah and The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax - were declared heretical by many leading haredi halachic authorities and educators, including Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most respected living halachic authority for the Lithuanian haredi community. Like Nadel, Slifkin argues that Judaism does not contradict evolution. But unlike secular scientists, religious Jews believe the evolutionary process is guided by God. What appear to be seemingly random, natural processes are in reality the way God governs the world. "We believe God is behind everything, but that does not mean that there cannot be things that seem superficially random," says Slifkin. The other critical distinction for Slifkin that religious Jews need to make when embracing evolution is that man is fundamentally different from other creatures. "The problem with evolution for many religious Jews is that man is depicted as nothing more than an animal. Judaism believes there is a qualitative difference between man and other living things. "Our soul, our free will to choose between good and evil, make us different. Still, it is not problematic to say that physically we evolved from a common ancestor with apes as long as we believe we have a soul, a spiritual component, which apes lack." Or, as Nadel put it: "Darwin's mistake was in his general perception, which dodged the question of how the stages of evolution were initiated. But with the recognition that the will of God is realized in nature, via God's messengers, there is no need to reject the description of natural history as presented by science." Prominent Orthodox rabbis of the last century or two who affirm that the world is billions of years old, and that life has evolved over time, include Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, author of Tiferet Yisrael on the Mishneh, Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Schwadron [known as the MaHaRSHaM], Rabbi Zvi H. Chajes, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin. Popular books in English such as Challenge: Torah Views on Science edited by Rabbis Aryeh Carmell and Cyril Domb and published by Feldheim back in 1976 made the same point. Slifkin's books received approbation from several mainstream haredi rabbis including Yisroel Belsky, Aryeh Carmell, Yitzchok Adlerstein, Mordechai Kornfeld, Aharon Lopiansky, Chaim Malinowitz, Shmuel Kamenetzky, and Shalom Kamenetzky. In Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox circles in Israel and abroad it is widely accepted that there is no contradiction between science and Torah. Dr. Yitzhak Malka, a religious physicist from Hebron, trains teachers in state religious high schools to reconcile religion with science. Malka laments the lack of thought given to the integration of science with religion in the state religious school system. "I first got started training teachers close to 10 years ago, after I realized that no one was teaching in ways that integrated science with religion. In most schools religious studies and science are taught as if they were two separate, unconnected subjects. "In reality, science often allows room for God, for some form of intelligent design. Many scientists admit that there are no credible scientific theories to explain the origin of universe, that creation was a process not subject to human scientific laws." THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION of Biology Teachers in the US has recently amended its platform to allow for the possibility of a designer at the helm of evolution, as cited by Lippman Bodoff, the modern religious associate editor of Judaism magazine in an essay entitled "Science and Religion: Are They Still Separate Worlds?" The platform now states that "the diversity of life on earth is the outcome of evolution, an unpredictable and natural process." The evolutionary process is no longer described as "unsupervised" or "impersonal," but if Bodoff, Malka, Slifkin, Nadel and the others are right that science and Judaism do not contradict, why all the book banning? One of the rabbis who approved Slifkin's books, but who preferred to remain anonymous, said the rabbis who banned Slifkin's books were concerned about the books' impact on the non-intellectual general public. "I believe Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv makes distinctions between teaching these ideas on an individual basis and making them accessible to the general public," said the anonymous rabbi. "I am sure that if Rabbi Elyashiv were asked if it were permissible to teach these ideas to a newcomer to Orthodox Judaism with a strong background in science to resolve his difficulties with a literal understanding of Judaism, Rabbi Elyashiv would allow it. But to open up the study of evolution to the general public is a dangerous proposition." Dr. Malka agrees that there are certain dangers in the teaching of evolution. "It is not the actual theory of evolution, rather what some people have tried to do with it that can be dangerous. Materialists have tried to prove from evolution that a man is nothing but a body without a soul. Or just a composite of DNA." A senior educator at Machon Lev - the Jerusalem College of Technology, an institute that combines Torah with science - posits that "evolution is a science. It is a religion. Scientists use evolution to reject the existence of God without any empirical proof. In that sense it is a religion." AS THE HARVARD evolutionary biologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in an essay entitled "William Jennings Bryan's Last Campaign" in his Bully for Brontosaurus, Darwinism has been widely portrayed as a defense of war, domination and domestic exploitation. "Scientists would not be to blame for this if we had always maintained proper caution in interpretation and proper humility in resisting the extension of our findings into appropriate domains. But many of these insidious and harmful misinterpretations have been promoted by scientists. One of the saddest chapters in all the history of science involves the extensive misuse of data to support biological determinism, the claim that social equalities based on race, sex or class cannot be altered because they reflect innate and inferior genetic endowments of the disadvantaged." Gould, a secular scientist, recognized evolution had been exploited for the sake of various ignoble causes. Haredi spiritual leaders fear an evolution portrayed as a type of ideology or religion. These spiritual leaders understand that pure science poses no threat to Judaism, but they are unwilling to risk the intellectual fallout that could result from a misunderstanding of evolution. "If I were gadol hador [the leading halachic and spiritual authority of the generation], I might react the same way to Slifkin's books," said the anonymous rabbi who stands behind his rabbinic approbation of Slifkin's books. "The leaders of the generation are tasked with the responsibility of steering the Jewish people clear of spiritual landmines. The majority of people never even have to deal with these questions of science and Torah. That's why it will never become normative Judaism, at least not in the near future. "But it is a shame that people like Slifkin have to suffer so much. They shechted [butchered] the poor guy. There is no justification for that whatesoever." SLIFKIN, A THIN, pale Briton in his early 30s, relates how the ban and its ramifications have affected him. "For the first few months I was a complete wreck. I am a sensitive person. There was a group of zealots behind the campaign who brought my books to the attention of the rabbis. Thank God these people were not physically violent. But nevertheless it was upsetting to be under constant scrutiny and pressure," he said. "At one point I was thrown out of my synagogue in Beit Shemesh temporarily. Nasty rumors circulated that I had been kicked out of yeshiva or that I had withdrawn my children from religious schools." The rabbi who provided Slifkin's books with rabbinic approval said the attack on Slifkin is a tragedy for two reasons. The first is that haredi rabbis ended up looking foolish for banning ideas that have been proved scientifically. "As a result, they lost respect and legitimacy. The next time these rabbis come out with a public decree, some will think twice before listening to them. Besides, Slifkin's books are more in demand than ever before." The other danger is to those religious Jews who are not satisfied with the traditional answers to questions about science and religion. "Some Jews will be scared away from Orthodoxy," said the anonymous rabbi. "I believe people should be allowed to retain their individuality. They should not be asked to behave like robots. I don't expect books like Slifkin's or Nadel's to become part of normative haredi Judaism. But these ideas should be made available to those who ask the questions." The educator at Machon Lev agrees that answers should be provided, but believes the apparent contradiction between science and religion is not a burning issue for most religious youth. "A century ago the contradiction destroyed the spirituality of thousands of Jews. But today there are many religious scientists and professors who have refuted supposed inconsistencies. "I think what truly bothers contemporary religious youth is a much more personal, existential question. The real thinkers are concerned with why they were put on this earth and what they are supposed to do here."