Culture, Politics, Religion

Modern Orthodoxy Holds Its Evolutionary Ground

slifkin.jpgRejecting the scope of the ban of Rabbi Eliyashiv and many haredi leaders against Natan Slifkin and his book The Science of Torah, Slifkin launched his “revised edition,” The Challenge of Creation, which seeks to explain why an old earth and evolution is not a contradiction to Orthodox Judaism. 
But this is clearly not meant to appease the haredim, as is demonstrated by the cover, which is graced by the lovely profile of a skeletal Tyrannosaurs Rex.  Rather, Challenge of Creation delves into greater explanation of classic sources useful for allowing reconciliation of an old earth and evolution (not Intelligent Design, which Slifkin rejects) and Orthodox Judaism, including those that will allow a “license for non-literal interpretation (p. 21)” of Torah verses when needed.
At the book launch at the Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills tonight,  Rabbi Dr. Weinreb, who also wrote the foreword for the book, offered three sectors of Orthodox Jews harmed by the ban and contempt for grappling with science: Baalei Tshuvahs (newly Orthodox Jews), alienated youth, and “those educated to the wonders of sciences.”
Rabbi Gil Student offered three reasons (see his site) why he assesses that the ban against Slifkin is not appropriate for Jews with a different ideological orientation than the haredim, and insisted that, “There are communities for which the books are dangerous, and there are communities for which the ban is dangerous.”
Rabbi Slifkin asserted that his biggest complaint about the ban was that the signers and their supporters “didn’t give an alternate explanation” for the “objective physical reality.”
“Dinosaurs were really there!”
What is critical here is that with all the talk of Modern Orthodoxy moving to the right  – on the core area of disagreement between Modern Orthodox and Haredim – the value of secular education, including science, and scientific method – has not changed, and the Modern Orthodox have not budged one iota.
The Orthodox Union may not be willing to officially attach its name to Rabbi Slifkin or his books, but they are quite willing to have a most senior staff member back him in a significant and public way.
This was a critical fight for the future of Modern Orthodoxy (Normative Judaism), and critical players rose to the occasion.  Carefully and thoughtfully, but valiantly.

18 thoughts on “Modern Orthodoxy Holds Its Evolutionary Ground

  1. Rabbi Slifkin will be speaking in Teaneck tonight (Wednesday, July 19th) at the Young Israel ( at 8:45pm (after mincha/ma’ariv).

  2. Good post, DK. But while I favor the Modern Orthodox generally and on this issue particularly, and often criticize the Chareidim, I don’t think it’s accurate to claim that Modern Orthodoxy (exclusively) is “normative Judaism”. If you check the sources from the Talmud through the Rishonim and Acharonim into the modern era, you’ll find plenty to support either approach (the current divide is, in part, a continuation of an old conflict dating back to at least Hellenistic times).

  3. Mark,
    Great finally meeting you, David, and Steve as well.
    You are both correct and not correct. You are correct that there has always been a right-wing that prefers a more intensely insular approach to the world. Where I would disagree with you is the idea that many of the previous sages would still mandate specific principles if our science was accepted in their generation, which is what many of the Haredim are doing in terms of evolution and New Earth.
    For instance, as Slifkin notes, most of our sages held common notion of their generations in a geocentric world view. One could insist and bring sources that this is the normative Jewish outlook.
    But it would be false, as they did not have the information that we have today.
    It is farfetched to assert that if the Rambam or Ramban lived today, they would insist that the Torah mandates a literal geocentric understanding of the universe. Not when they were clearly willing to accept the accepted science of their times as having the final word on how the universe works, such as Ramban’s explanation of the meaning of the rainbow changed, but accepted that the phenomenon of the rainbow itself was not new after the flood (p. 125, Challenge of Creation).
    It is on such issues — the reconciling of the Torah with science, not the rejection of science, more than any other, where I would insist that it is the Modern Orthodox who are normative.
    This of course, does carry over into views of secular education generally.

  4. DK – to expand on your point. much of the science quoted by traditional Jewish sources reflects the mainstream “scientific” opinions of the time at which they were authored.
    So Maimonides was already writing appologia for Talmudic “science” which had already entered the realm of superstition in his culture.
    So the glimpses of science we see in the traditional texts can be read as an indication of each generation’s intense interest in the intellectual life of its time!
    The legal and geographical restrictions upon Jewish life in Eastern Europe are in fact exceptional compared to most of Jewish history. These Jews were uniquely cut off from the general intellectual life of Europe.
    My own feeling is that the current anti-science stance springs from this unique situation, fueled by a series of challenges starting with Sabbateanism and continuing through the Enlightenment – and capped by the one-two punch of the Holocaust and the roaring success of Zionism. This has had the cumulative effect of romanticising that insular, impoverished past in Poland and Russia.
    That’s quite

  5. What is critical here is that with all the talk of Modern Orthodoxy moving to the right – on the core area of disagreement between Modern Orthodox and Haredim – the value of secular education, including science, and scientific method – has not changed, and the Modern Orthodox have not budged one iota.
    Very good point!

  6. DK-
    I agree with pretty much all of your response. I agree that the Chareidim are wrong on this issue (and many others) and are probably not in accordance with what most of the great Rabbis of the past would say if we could bring them to our time. It’s just that I’m not prepared to go so far as to say that the Chareidim are outside of normative Judaism.
    You are correct in making the distinction between greater insularity and response to science (which is why I wrote that “the current divide is, in part, a continuation of an old conflict dating back to at least Hellenistic times”- the “part” arguably doesn’t include consideration of scientific fact). However, there has always been a strain of the tradition which accepted the words of earler Rabbis at face value as much as possible. Also a “Torah only” strain. And certainly a resistance to not accepting a teaching at face value based on a non-Torah source. (And the Kabbalists have certainly reinforced this, but that’s a whole other can of worms.) You and I would say that the evidence of science is so powerful that a face value reading of many items in the sources simply isn’t possible, and I think that’s the right argument. I just don’t think that being on the wrong side throws people outside of normative Judaism.
    Rambam is obviously the champion of the rationalists, and you are right about Ramban, who so often is presented as a champion of the other side. However, these are only two figures (two of the very greatest, but still two). I’m not convinced that they represent a consensus even in their own era, let alone across the last 2,000 years.
    Hey, didn’t the Slifkin book just come out? And your’e quoting page 125? Pretty good. (I’ll wait for my next Amazon shipment, which will also include the Caro’s Power Broker, now the book most recommended to me that I haven’t read. I cave to the peer pressure.)
    Ben David-
    I’m not so sure that the Eastern Europe of the last 500 years is so unique in Jewish history. What about the ghettos of late medieval Western Europe? The late-medieval to modern-era Middle East? Roman Judea? Not really hot spots of cutting-edge culture. And I think we should give special mention to the anti-religious ferocity of the French and German Enlightenments as possibly the major factor influencing the anti-science camp. (Might things have been different had eighteenth and nineteenth century Jews been exposed instead to the gentler, less iconoclastic and more religion-friendly Anglo-American Enlightenment?)

  7. J,
    R. Slifkin brings many commentaries to back his case, only some of whom are controversial. R. Weinreb personally cites the Saadia Goan (there’s a third for you) in the foreward. Having said that, I think you may be right that there were always anti-science reactionaries accepted during their time as part of normative Judaism. For most of us, this is an untenable position. As it should be. I guess I am saying that it isn’t a fitting position or the majority position of the great sages of Judaism, but I guess that is indeed a different argument altogether.
    Please let me know what you think of the Power Broker — I’m very interested to hear your thoughts. Email me or post on one of the posts on the subject, and still email me to make sure I know: [email protected]

  8. Your post seems very intuitive, and thought-out. Over the past couple of years I have experienced conflict relating to our communities and gedolim. This post, and the words of Rabbi Slifkin, Rabbi Weinrib, and Rabbi Student causes me to breathe a huge sigh of relief, as I am again reminded that there is very strong support for normative judaism. I firmly believe that Judaism does and always will promote moderation. I too was at the lecture and was impressed as to how the aforementioned speakers stuck to their guns so passionately. I thought they had a lot of good chutzpah and Torah knowledge behind them. They were basically able to respectfully say, “Whatever!” to the many rabbanim who have made the past two years a challege for so many.

  9. Read “The Science of God” by Gerald Schroeder, and MIT physiicist and Talmud Scholar. He argues beautifully that big bang cosmology and evolutionary biology square perfectly with Bereshit if one understands the difference between the relative passage of 16 billion years in our reference frame, i.e. on earth, vs. the six days in the reference frame of the Observer of the whole universe.
    This is not to say that everything in the Tanach is literally true. In fact, Professor Schroeder begins his book by showing where the Torah itself commands deep analysis to get at the hidden meanings.
    As the Rambam said, “If you fin a conflict between science and scripture, you’ve read one or both of them wrong.”

  10. I enjoyed meeting you and other bloggers at the Book Launch. I also enjoyed the remarks of R Weinreb and R Gil Student but I would have liked to hear more from R Slifkin as well. FWIW, it was important that both R Weinreb and R Student set forth the halachic and hashkafic importance of R Slifkin’s works and the basis for publsihing them, despite the ban issued by a very prominent Gadol.

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