Orthodox Rabbis Launch Book Ban

By Steven I. Weiss

Published January 21, 2005, issue of January 21, 2005.

Dozens of prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis are backing an international effort to ban a fellow rabbi’s books, arguing that the works are heretical because they suggest the earth is much older than a literal reading of Genesis would suggest.

The target of the campaign is Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, an ultra-Orthodox author known as the “Zoo Rabbi,” best known for his books and tours relating to his research on animals in the Bible. He also has written on wider questions regarding science and the Torah. In particular, Slifkin’s critics object to his assertions that “the Sages were mistaken in certain scientific matters” and “that the world is millions of years old.” According to a literal reading of the Bible, Slifkin’s critics argue, the world was created in six days and is only 5,765 years old.

The push to blacklist Slifkin’s books is the broadest and most coordinated example of what have been the increasingly frequent efforts by ultra-Orthodox rabbis to ban books that they find objectionable.

Slifkin’s articles have been pulled from the Web site of Aish HaTorah, a Jerusalem-based ultra-Orthodox outreach organization with dozens of branches across the globe.

The outreach organization appears to be reconsidering its position on the age of the universe. An essay by physicist Gerald Schroeder, titled “The Age of the Universe,” also has been removed from the Aish HaTorah Web site. It was replaced with a note stating: “This article is currently under review, in consultation with today’s leading Torah scholars.”

Schroeder, author of the book “Genesis and the Big Bang Theory,” argues that Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity can be used to reconcile seeming contradictions between the Bible and conventional scientific theories regarding the age of the universe.

Among the targets of other recent high-profile ultra-Orthodox campaigns were “One People, Two Worlds” — a 2002 disputate pitting an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Yosef Reinman, against a Reform rabbi, Ammiel Hirsch — and “The Making of a Godol” (Mesorah, 2003), by Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis objected to the Hirsch-Reinman book on the grounds that it provided a platform for a Reform rabbi to outline his theological views; as for Kamenetsky’s book, a biography of his late father, the revered Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, critics argued that it included unflattering biographical details that should not be shared with the public.

The list of rabbis who have signed on to the Slifkin ban — publicized most prominently in a letter that appeared in the January 7 edition of the ultra-Orthodox daily Yated Ne’eman — is a partial “Who’s Who” of ultra-Orthodox leadership, including Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon of the highly respected yeshiva Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., and Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, the Israeli-based sage who is seen by much of the Ashkenazic Orthodox world as the final authority on rabbinic law. The ban was in large part the product of protests from lay people, who circulated excerpts of Slifkin’s work across the world and brought the offending passages to the attention of their rabbis.

Slifkin’s works were dropped by his orginal distributor, Feldheim Publishers, but picked up by a new company, Yashar Books. He plans to remove the eight rabbinic endorsements that have appeared in his books.

For his part, Slifkin says that his work is not heretical, and is actually comparable to the works of many traditional Jewish scholars, including Maimonides and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. While Slifkin would not comment for this article, he has used his Web site (www.zootorah.org) to document allegations and present his responses.

“If I am a heretic, Heaven forbid, then I take my place among the thousands of other such ‘heretics’ in the Torah community,” Slifkin wrote on his site. “They are the vast majority of those who toil in the physical and biological sciences as God-fearing Jews, of outreach workers, of those who for various reasons have encountered parts of secular culture, and all of whom have used the sources and the approach of my books for many decades, if not for hundreds of years.”

Several Modern Orthodox rabbis are defending Slifkin.

In an interview with the Forward, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, said that he had reviewed some of Slifkin’s work last weekend, after hearing of the ban; from what he read, he said, Slifkin appears to have “impeccable traditional Jewish sources to back up his views on these things.”

Weinreb said that while his organization has “no position” on the age of the universe, it maintains that “a person is entitled to draw from traditional Jewish literature, even minority opinion.” He added, “We’re certainly allied with that point of view that science and Orthodox Judaism complement each other and are harmonious.”

Rabbi Yosef Blau, a top Talmud instructor and religious adviser to students at Yeshiva University, also defended Slifkin. In a letter being circulated on the Internet, Blau argued: “Rabbi Slifkin’s basic approach of integrating the insights of modern science into our understanding of Torah is consistent with the approach of many [Torah scholars] throughout the generations.” Blau also criticized the decision of rabbinic authorities to act without having met with Slifkin.

Schroeder, who wrote the article being reviewed by Aish HaTorah, said he did not know that his writings were being used on the organization’s Web site and that he was surprised they would have been removed.

“Just yesterday, I gave four hours of classes on the age of the universe, in Discovery,” he said, referring to the organization’s in-depth seminar program. Of the site’s notice that the article was “under review, in consultation with today’s leading Torah scholars,” Schroeder asked, “Why would a Torah scholar know relativity, unless he’s studied relativity?”



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