Did we come from monkeys? Ask the Zoo Rabbi.
BY EVAN R. GOLDSTEIN
Friday, June 29, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
Last month, 600 people turned out for a Yeshiva University fund-raiser at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The museum, which stands as a monument to science, houses one of the world's most extensive collections of dinosaur fossils. The dinner itself was held in the dramatic Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, which features a massive blue whale that hangs suspended in midair; intricate dioramas modeled on the flora and fauna of the planet's oceans line the walls. Everything about the affair suggested that Yeshiva, the intellectual epicenter of Modern Orthodox Jewish life in America, is very much at ease in the world of secular science.
This impression is confirmed by Carl Feit, who is an ordained rabbi and Talmudic scholar as well as chairman of the science division at Yeshiva College. Prof. Feit says that in nearly a quarter-century of teaching introductory biology, he has always taught evolution--supported by traditional Jewish source material--and that 'there has never been a blip on the radar here.' His assessment echoes the official line of the Modern Orthodox rabbinical association, which states that evolution is entirely consistent with Judaism.
The seeming ease with which this branch of Judaism has embraced science can in large part be credited to the towering intellectual legacy of Moses Maimonides. In his 12th-century masterpiece, "Guide to the Perplexed," Maimonides opened the door to a Judaism unfettered by a literal reading of religious texts. For many Jews the persuasive case for evolution does indeed amount to a crisis of faith, but the Maimonidean precedent of figurative interpretation provides a framework within which conflicts arising between Torah and science can be argued away. To be sure, some arguments are more compelling than others (and a great many are not compelling at all). But in contrast to many observant Christians, there is a greater willingness of these believers to live with such inconsistencies.
This practice has long been on display even in the more rigid Orthodox precincts of the Jewish world, where many prominent rabbis were quick to reconcile the Torah with the truths of science. "It is the power of the Torah that all theories can be included," wrote one Montreal-based Orthodox rabbi in the summer of 1925, at the time of the Scopes trial. A few years earlier, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, chief rabbi of pre-state Palestine, assured his followers that evolution, "more so than all other philosophical theories, conforms to the kabbalistic secrets of the world."
Yet there are important exceptions to this tradition of moderation, and in certain parts of the ultra-Orthodox world, Darwinism has always been denounced as subversive and dangerous. Take the case of Rabbi Natan Slifkin. A boyish-looking ultra-Orthodox Israeli scholar and science writer, Mr. Slifkin, who publishes his books in English, is popularly known as the "Zoo Rabbi" because of his consuming fascination with the animal kingdom and his Steve Irwin-esque pedagogical style. In recent years he has emerged as a central figure in the ultra-Orthodox struggle to define the proper place of science within Judaism.
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