The genesis of biblical creatures

Bringing the animals of the Torah to life in Beit Shemesh.

The Biblical Museum of Natural History (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
The Biblical Museum of Natural History
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Located in a tumbledown semi-industrial neighborhood near the railroad tracks behind Beit Shemesh’s newly constructed Big Fashion mall sits the Biblical Museum of Natural History, a pleasant surprise for those who believe that there is little of interest for a visitor in the largely residential bedroom community.
The museum is the brainchild of Natan Slifkin, a controversial British-born rabbi and author known for, as The New York Times put it, “bringing zoology and religion together.”
An immigrant from Manchester, 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. 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.
Dwarfed by a hippopotamus skull on a pedestal behind him, Slifkin says it constantly amazes him that people do not realize that animals such as the hippo, lion and cheetah were extant in biblical Israel.
“Almost nobody ever guesses what it is,” he says, gesturing to the skull. “What blows people away is to realize that these animals were living here,” he added. “The reason I don’t have a picture of it in the promotional material is because people see it and just assume its a dinosaur because it looks so savage and ferocious.”
Dinosaurs are not included in the museum, however.
Neither are any animals that were not present in the Land of Israel during the biblical period, unless they were specifically mentioned in the text, he explained. While this is partially the result of his efforts to create a firewall between his controversial work and his museum, the primary reason is that such ancient creatures bear no relevance to his current work, Slifkin explains.
“People ask me, ‘Why aren’t you including dinosaurs in the museum’ [and I answer that it is] because apart from the fact that it is a controversial topic that will alienate some people, it’s just not relevant – this is a museum about the animals of the Torah. Dinosaurs are not animals of the Torah.”
“I don’t have kangaroos [either],” he adds, calling them “irrelevant to biblical natural history.”
Slifkin has been teaching classes on biblical zoology for years, showing off his extensive collection of artifacts and live animals at his own Ramat Beit Shemesh home, leading tours through zoos and even going on safari in Africa. He is also currently working on a Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, the first volume of which is nearing completion.
His museum is not the first Orthodox institution to try to present the animal kingdom through a Jewish lens, however.
Nearly a year ago Brooklyn’s Torah Animal World, the home of hundreds of stuffed and mounted specimens of animals mentioned in the Bible, announced that it was closing due to lack of funds. The taxidermy museum – which The New York Post dubbed the city’s “weirdest museum” – was located in a townhouse in the heavily hassidic neighborhood of Borough Park.
According to Slifkin, however, the two museums are quite different. While the Brooklyn museum focused quite a bit on archeology, Slifkin’s does not, instead focusing on bringing together a mix of taxidermy and live specimens.
“People love handling live animals,” Slifkin adds, discussing the preparations being made for a petting zoo on the premises and pointing to animal cages spread throughout the museum’s stuffed lions, cheetahs and ibex. While the Brooklyn’s Torah Animal World was geared toward the “Borough Park crowd,” a reference to more extreme elements of the ultra-Orthodox community, Slifkin says his museum is “geared towards a broader audience” and is a “more mainstream institution.”
While the museum has not been “officially” launched – Slifkin says that an official opening is a “publicity stunt” – it is already open for business and groups have been coming through, especially over the Hanukka holiday. Yeshivot, seminaries and schools have brought their students and “they really loved it,” Slifkin said. “It’s a totally new dimension of Judaism that people didn’t think of before. I love it when the curtain opens and people see all the exhibits and they go ‘wow.’” EXHIBITS FOCUS on the various ways in which the Torah identifies and deals with animals, from the rules of purity and impurity to kashrut and the kinds of horns that are permissible for use in a shofar, Slifkin explains.
“At a regular zoo the exhibits are arranged according to either what’s convenient for the various curators or according to what kinds of habitats [are required]. The idea is the whole structure of this institution is according to biblical zoology.”
Slifkin seems to derive special pleasure from discussing the differing interpretations of biblical names for animals, some of which have been misidentified by European commentators unfamiliar with the flora and fauna of Judea. The museum also serves as a springboard for biblical exegesis, with Slifkin explaining the symbolism of the animals he collects, he said.
“In most cases I would say animals appear in Scripture to convey concepts and ideas,” he says.
In explaining the genesis of his institution, Slifkin says that animals “have been my passion for my entire life.”
“For 20 years now I have been studying the connection and the relationship between Judaism and the natural world, then I started running education programs in different zoos about 15 years ago, and I was doing Torah tours of zoos here and across the US but at the same time also always accumulating things in my own home, and it got to the point where I realized I could give a better experience in my own home than a zoo,” he recalls.
In a zoo, he says, you are “shlepping around for hours and there are a lot of distractions and it is hard to be really focused” and “you are always great distance from the animals, whereas what I wanted to offer was a close-up encounter where you can touch things and have a very focused educational experience. I fell into tours in my own home with live animals and artifacts, and as my collection got bigger I realized it would make much more sense to create my own institution.”
His guests seem to agree, with one fan gushing that “the museum brings to life God’s creations” and noting that “examples of the true animals of the Tanach [Bible] are represented here, not the ones assigned biblical names by shtetl folk who never saw animals in the wild of the Middle East.”
Slifkin’s notoriety and expertise with animals have also led to some strange exchanges.
In a recent blog post, he wrote that “being the ‘Zoo Rabbi,’ I receive some unusual questions and requests,” including a “woman who wrote to ask me if she should teach Torah to her dog, because it was the reincarnated spirit of her late husband” and a “man who asked to borrow my chameleon, in order to cure cancer.”
The latest such incident, he recounts, was when his administrator at the museum contacted him to say that “Somebody desperately wants to borrow goat horns to place in her home for a few days, as a segula” or charm.
“There was the new couple who consulted me about their [domestic] problems, relating to the husband not wanting to murder any bugs that were in the house, much to his wife’s distress,” he recalls.
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