The Rabbi Who Wrestles With Crocodiles

As long as he called himself the Biblical Zoo rabbi and ate grasshoppers, Rabbi Natan Slifkin was considered a curiosity. But when he started publishing books that try to reconcile the theory of evolution with the Torah, his troubles began.

His first sin was that from childhood he loved lions, bears and elephants. In a culture in which nature is not considered a legitimate interest and curiosity and a yen for general knowledge can turn out to be a mine- field, Rabbi Natan (Nosson) Slifkin marked himself out as an oddball.

Born in Britain, Slifkin, 29, who is an ordained rabbi and an autodidact in the natural sciences and zoology, was considered a curiosity at the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem where he studied in his youth. But as long as he was only that - for example, when he wrestled with crocodiles and ate grasshoppers for his pleasure (definite proof that they are kosher), as described in the articles on his Internet site www.zootorah.org - nobody bothered him. As long as he called himself the zoo rabbi and guided visiting Jewish tourists along the paths of the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem, no one ever heard about him.

But when he dared to publish a series of books (in English) trying to reconcile the contradictions between science and the Torah, his troubles began. Slifkin did go to the trouble of obtaining the agreement of important ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the United States whom he cited in his books, such as Rabbi Shmuel Kamanetsky, the head of the Philadelphia Yeshiva, and the son of one of the greatest American rabbis of the previous generation, Rabbi Yaakov Kamanetsky. But when the books become popular among ultra- Orthodox readers, especially Anglophones, they made the rabbis see red.

Slifkin, who lectures around the world on science and Judaism (in Israel he lectures at Midreshet Moriah and the Lev Hatorah Yeshiva in Jerusalem), openly questions the most sacrosanct taboo in the ultra-Orthodox outlook, namely, that the theory of evolution is heresy and the story of Creation is the only official version. He presents the possibility that the two versions can exist side by side. In his book "The Science of Torah," he explains, for example, that the description of Creation can include or exist in parallel to the big bang theory in evolution. Elsewhere, he says that the age of the world as determined by tree rings or ice strata clearly indicates that the world is more than 5,765 years old.

Contrary to the image of the nature-lover as a colorful type, Rabbi Slifkin is a skinny fellow who looks like a typical yeshiva student, with a small beard. He lives in Beit Shemesh, where he belongs to the English-speaking ultra-Orthodox community. The father of two children (the younger of whom was born this week), he was born and raised in Manchester, England, in a family that could be defined as modern Orthodox. In 1996 he came to Israel and studied at the Midrash Shmuel Yeshiva in the Sha'arei Hessed neighborhood of Jerusalem. Later, he immigrated to Israel.

An acquaintance from Beit Shemesh relates that at Midrash Shmuel, which is aimed at youngsters from abroad ("hutznikim" in the ultra-Orthodox jargon) with the aim of strengthening them in their Judaism, he was considered a strange bird because of his interest in nature.

Around the high holidays last year, Rabbi Slifkin was shocked to discover, from pasted-up notices bearing his name in huge letters, that he had become the target of an attack by fanatics as a writer of heresies. Later, the head of the ultra-Orthodox community's religious court, Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, condemned the books in a letter and accused the scientists of wanting to replace the miracles that were performed in the six days of Creation with a natural and random process that casts doubt on the Creator's powers. "Every man, woman and child knows that the world was created 5,765 years ago," he wrote.

During the weeks that followed, Slifkin was attacked from every side in the ultra-Orthodox community. About 20 important rabbis from abroad and from Israel, among them the leader of the Lithuanians, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, whose opinion is the most highly esteemed, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Steinman and Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, declared that they see his books as apostasy and heresy, and banned them. In November his books were also condemned at the Agudat Yisrael convention in the United States.

Finally, in January, the organ of the Degel Hatorah movement, Yated Neeman, came out against the books. This attack was especially harsh as Slifkin was given no opportunity to defend himself; apparently, the intention was to cut him off from the sources of his livelihood. As a result of the ban, say residents of Beit Shemesh, the rabbi of his synagogue received a demand to banish him from the congregation. According to his friends, he was destroyed by this and perhaps even more by the fact that the Targum publishing house and the Feldheim book distribution company stopped working with him. The Aish HaTorah Internet site erased all his articles.

But a person like Slifkin will not give up. He transferred the marketing of his books to a small, young U.S. publishing house called Yashar Books, and within a short time, the banned volumes became a hit. Two of the books - "The Science of Torah" and "The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax" - sold out and have become collectors' items. On Internet auction sites, the prices of his other books have doubled and tripled and more.

As the discussion of the "Slifkin affair" in Jewish forums on the Internet became stormier, reverberations came to the attention of The New York Times. In an article published toward the end of March, Slifkin refrained from giving an interview, just as he had in other media outlets, so as not to come out directly against the Torah sages. However, he has used his Internet site to explain himself and voice his opinion.

In an article in Hatzofeh, about a month ago, Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, a U.S.-born rabbi who lives in Jerusalem's Kiryat Moshe neighborhood and who has been following the affair on the Internet, said that the controversy has "engaged thousands." He believes that the affair is unprecedented: "Books have been banned and taken off the shelves, and who cared? ... This time the person whose books were prohibited did not accept the rabbis' verdict," he writes.

There is no doubt that the affair once again reflects the power of the Internet as a a tool for transmitting subversive opinions. Rabbi Gil Student, a Yeshiva University graduate who owns Yashar Books, which focuses on books about Jewish law and nature in the spirit of Judaism, said in a telephone interview that the ban has harmed thousands of ultra-Orthodox readers who are doctors and professionals.

"Compared to rabbis in Israel, who are simply lacking in knowledge, these ultra-Orthodox Jews have knowledge of the sciences," he says. "The [Israeli] rabbis are being self-defensive. Most of them have not read the books at all; they don't know English." Among educated religious and ultra-Orthodox people in the United States, Student says, the generally accepted scientific theories are standard and no one questions them. To the question of why the American rabbis who had initially given their agreement are not standing up for the book, he gives an unsatisfactory answer: "They don't want to start a civil war."

Henkin, formerly the regional rabbi of the Beit She'an Valley and the author of a book of responses on Jewish law considered authoritative among religious Zionists, agrees with Student. He believes that the Slifkin affair is drawing a new map of the streams and coalitions within American and Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy.

Compared to most of the ultra- Orthodox in Israel, who are suspicious of science and scientists, many American ultra-Orthodox do not feel themselves threatened by science and are not even shocked by the most daring chapters in Slifkin's writing that try to reconcile the theory of evolution with the story of the Creation of the world or by his attempt to discuss seriously the question of the age of the world.

"After all, these are not new opinions at all," says Rabbi Henkin. "Slifkin quotes from the criticism of the Rishonim (commentators on the Talmud who were active in the 11th to 15th centuries) on the sayings of the Sages. Among the Rishonim it was agreed that in the Talmud, there are things incongruent with what happens in nature." For example, he explains that the Sages permit killing fleas on the Sabbath because the flea does not mate - which is contrary to the facts of nature. Similarly, he notes, there are texts dealing with various problems of the division of animals into clean (kosher) and unclean beasts that discuss mythological creatures like the mermaid and the unicorn.

"Among the ultra-Orthodox public, it is not acceptable to criticize and compare the wisdom of the Sages, and the attempt to do this incensed the rabbis," Henkin notes. The classical view of the ultra- Orthodox, he explains, is that all the knowledge in the world already exists in the Torah and the sages of the generation can be knowledgeable about science and medicine through their knowledge of Torah. Rabbinical folklore is full of stories that come up again and again - among them famous stories about the Hazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, 1878-1953) - about rabbis who look at X-rays and make diagnoses, to the astonishment of medical specialists.

The only thing that the ultra-Orthodox agree about, says Henkin, concerns certain medical matters. "The Sages mention cures for certain illnesses that by the time of the Gaonim 200 or 300 years later, they saw did not exist in nature. In this case the ultra-Orthodox are prepared to admit that, as they put it, `nature changed.'" Henkin, too, criticizes the ultra-Orthodox rabbis for having passed sentence without having read the books.

Rabbi Henkin believes that the rabbis will not succeed in their attempt to stop the infiltration of more liberal ideas into the ultra-Orthodox public discourse. He says that this attempt will erode their status even more, like other affairs such as the wigs made of hair imported from Indian temples, or the banning of another book in English, "The Making of a Gadol" by Nathan Kamanetsky (the brother of Rabbi Shmuel Kamanetsky). That book depicts the Gedolim (great Jewish leaders) as human beings and not as angels, which also caused a scandal in its day. In both the wig and the book controversies, the rabbinical prohibition was only temporary.

The Slifkin affair is about an individual who did not toe the line and was punished, but stood his own. It is also about the power of the Internet as a subversive tool that transmits information and opinions over the walls and between the cracks. In the main Israeli ultra-Orthodox forums, B'Hadrei Haredim and Atzor Kan Hoshvim, there have been mentions of the affair but not with the same heat as in the forums in the United States. "There is no doubt that the opinions that Slifkin expresses are infiltrating the ultra- Orthodox public," says a friend of Slifkin's from Beit Shemesh. "These opinions are not expressed out loud in public, but only within certain very specific circles. Even if people don't read his books, now, because of the ban, the information is flowing."