Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Creationism in Israel

If anyone thinks that creationism and anti-science thinking persists only among Christian fundamentalists in the US, Rabbi Nosson Slifkin can argue otherwise. Rabbi Slifkin is an Orthodox Jew, living in Israel, who "teaches a course in biblical and talmudic zoology at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah, near Jerusalem, and gives frequent lectures," in which he tries to reconcile Jewish theology with the findings of modern science. Though only 29, he has already published nine books, including "The Science of Torah" and "The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax." But Rabbi Slifkin's efforts have won him the condemnation of local Orthodox rabbis, who branded him a heretic and have banned his books among their followers.

Twenty-three ultra-Orthodox rabbis had signed an open letter denouncing the books of Rabbi Slifkin, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli scholar and science writer. The letter read, in part: "He believes that the world is millions of years old - all nonsense! - and many other things that should not be heard and certainly not believed. His books must be kept at a distance and may not be possessed or distributed." Rabbi Slifkin, the letter-writers continued, should "burn all his writings."

Fundamentalist Christians have long championed a literal reading of the Bible that suggests the planet is thousands of years old, rather than millions. But the denunciation of Rabbi Slifkin has publicized a parallel strain of thought among ultra-Orthodox Jews, a subset of the Orthodox Jewish community that is deeply skeptical of modern culture, avoiding television and the Web and often disdaining college education.

The Orthodox community in Israel wields considerable social power. The letter's effects were immediate.

In the days after the ban, Rabbi Slifkin's publisher and distributor dropped the three books mentioned in the open letter. He himself lost several speaking engagements and saw his own rabbi pressured to expel him from his synagogue. "He was crushed," said a friend, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "Do you know what it's like to walk through the street and see posters branding you a heretic?"

Of course, the act of banning something merely increases its popularity as certain US "musicians" can readily attest.
Predictably, the banned books have become hits. A copy of "Science of Torah" recently sold on eBay for $125, or five times its cover price. And Rabbi Gil Student, whose company, Yashar Books, has taken over the distribution of the other two books, said he had done a year's business in a month selling them.
And exactly what, you may wonder, provoked the ultra-Orthodox rabbis' wrath?

... in "The Science of Torah," he took a scientist's eye to the Torah. Evolution, he wrote, did not disprove God's existence and was consistent with Jewish thought. He suggested that the Big Bang theory paralleled the account of the universe's creation given by the medieval Spanish-Jewish sage Ramban. And Rabbi Slifkin wrote, to quote his own later paraphrase, that "tree-ring chronology, ice layers and sediment layers in riverbeds all show clear proof to the naked eye that the world is much more than 5,765 years old."

The latter statement was particularly galling to the rabbi's critics, who support a literal reading of Genesis that they say puts the earth's age at 5,765.

Given that the state of Israel's existence depends in large measure on the superiority of its modern military technology, including the shadowy threat of its presumed nuclear arsenal, one might expect that even the most Orthodox Israeli rabbis might grant modern science some deference. But the thing about religious fundamentalism, whether it be Christian, Jewish, Islamic or otherwise, is that no challenge to the inerrancy of sacred texts can be tolerated. Even when the evidence of scriptual error is manifest, that evidence must simply be ignored or suppressed in order to sustain the central mythology. Science can admit error, religion rarely can. The persistence of anti-science sentiments among such an influential component of Israeli society should be of concern to Israelis, since the products of modern science are Israel's only real guarantee of security in the chaotic and violent Middle East. In Israel, as in the US, anything the weakens the national commitment to science, ultimately weakens the nation.


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