Friday, January 14, 2005
Of Books and Bannings
R. Nosson Slifkin, Mysterious Creatures & The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax buy them now
As you may have heard or seen (link, link), three of R. Nosson Slifkin's books have been banned by a number of prominent talmidei hakhamim. The temptation--especially to those outside the Haredi community--is to portray R. Slifkin as a latter-day Galileo. But the issues are far more complex and subtle.
I do not presume to question or debate the authority of esteemed sages to defend the Torah community from actual or suspected heresy. The question of freedom of inquiry is itself an ancient debate. But, with the greatest deference to the defenders of the faith, we respectfully follow those sages and scholars who followed the well-established path of synthesis between Torah and the other, lesser wisdoms.
R. Nosson Slifkin (link) has written many books about science and Torah and deals with some of the hardest theological questions of the age. He is unapologetic in his investigations, and that frequently leads to rejecting some conventional, traditional explanations. His book The Science of Torah deals with issues such as creation, the age of the universe and evolution. In it, he questions some of the common answers and offers some of his own. Most importantly, he takes science seriously as an intellectual power to be reckoned with. He is on a quest for truth, as is clear from his writing. One of his conclusions is that the world is, contrary to a simple understanding of the Jewish tradition, billions of years old. This is nothing that respected scholars have not said many times already. But now, three of his books have become the center of a new controversy over the limits of religious inquiry.
R. Slifkin's book Mysterious Creatures deals with animals mentioned in Tanakh and Hazal that seem mythical, like dragons and unicorns, and tries to understand whether these animals really existed or not. He lays down criteria for verification and applies them critically to his subject matter. Throughout the book, he advocates the stance of Hazal and attempts to identify the animals intended. However, and this seems to be a point of controversy, he adopts the position of R. Sherira Gaon, R. Hai Gaon, Rambam, R. Avraham ben HaRambam, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch and many others that Hazal might have, on occasion, relied on the regnant scientific theories of their time and might have, therefore, been inaccurate on matters of scientific fact. I have written extensively on the subject (link) and was even quoted in the acknowledgments section of R. Slifkin's book. In the most recent issue of Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union, this book was warmly reviewed by R. Dr. Eddie Reichman.
R. Slifkin's most recent book, The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax, takes a critical and informed look at the details of kosher signs in animals and attempts to understand these sacred teachings with what we now know about zoology. This book was mentioned on my blog a number of times already (link, translation of approbation from R. Yisrael Belsky, link). From my own perspective, it is essential reading for a serious Jew in the modern world.
A few months ago, R. Elyah Weintraub, a distinguished talmid hakham in Bnei Brak, signed a statement condemning the ideas in the three books described above. This was particularly significant because one of his students had written an approbation for one of the books. However, that ban did not receive widespread publicity, although I know of at least one scholar in Brooklyn who publicly defended R. Slifkin in response to the condemnation. Additionally, several renowned talmidei hakhamim contacted R. Slifkin to voice their sympathy and support, and to urge him to exercise restraint and refrain from responding contentiously to the condemnation. Responding to a controversy only encourages it and fans the flames.
Still, the controversy smoldered and the Yated Ne'eman had an article accompanying a statement signed by a number of scholars from both Israel and America (link). They include: R. David Feinstein, R. Shmuel Birnbaum, R. Malkiel Kotler, R. Matisyahu Solomon, R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, R. Aharon Leib Steinman and R. Shmuel Auerbach. That is a serious list of esteemed Torah leaders, all of whom declared R. Slifkin's books to be heretical.
On the other hand, I am aware of other gedolim who have voiced private support for R. Slifkin, but who are understandably reluctant to make a public statement. Of the eight approbations his books originally had, only one was revoked.
After the ban, R. Slifkin's distributors, Targum and Feldheim, decided to suspend distribution of his books. By mutual agreement, my company, Yashar Books, will be taking over that position. The Science of Torah is currently out of print. It will be reprinted, possbily under a new title but definitely with significantly more information (already planned before the ban). Mysterious Creatures and The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax are still in print and will be available soon through Yashar Books. I will be trying very hard to get the books to the YU Seforim Sale if at all possible.
There are a number of unsettled questions here. One is whether R. Slifkin's books deserve to be labeled heretical. Those authorities I follow do not think so. As someone who has spoken frankly and extensively with the author on this matter, I believe that if many of the parties involved had read R. Slifkin's books in their entirety--especially The Science of Torah which absolutely must be read without skipping in order to be understood--they might have arrived at different conclusions. This will become more clear now that R. Slifkin is putting online a comprehensive defense of his position (link).
Certainly in the world of Modern Orthodoxy his views are even somewhat bland, but even in much of the yeshiva world his views are fairly accepted. However, there are divisions within the Haredi world itself on these issues.
Another question is whether banning them is an effective measure. I expect that it will have the exact opposite effect of that intended. On the one hand, people who have no doubts about science and Torah might possibly read these books and develop doubts. On the other hand, people who already have doubts, or even just questions aligned with a firm faith, have much to gain from these books. In fact, I understand that R. Slifkin's writings have positively influenced people who were on the verge of rejecting Judaism. Banning the books does not serve anyone's purposes because those who have no questions would not have read them anyway. They were designed primarily for people who struggle with conflicts between Torah and science, which includes a large portion of the English-speaking Orthodox world today. While these books are available to all Haredi Jews, these books would not appeal to anyone not already looking for such a book.
The case can be made that the days of effective banning are long gone. In today's world of individuality, curious people will read what they want regardless of what is labeled "kosher" and "non-kosher." Banning books only serves to make them more appealing to those who are looking for interesting reading.
In my personal opinion, it is time to ban the ban. It has served its purpose but, as history has taught us again and again over the past two hundred years, it does not have much effect in the modern world.