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Science Meets Settler Theology, or How Frankenstein Embraced Godzilla

Last week, in a blog post about Jewish terrorism and the implicit support of religious nationalist rabbis, I mentioned that Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of Ateret Cohanim yeshiva has a gutsy liberal side and that I would explain it in a later post. Well, here we go.

We’re going to get philosophical here. Aviner is a major intellectual figure on Israel’s political right, an outstanding defender of the theology of Greater Israel. He’s also a leader of the Hardal school of theologically hardline Zionists who move constantly rightward on questions like women’s rights and civil liberties.

So what makes him liberal? Quite simply, his defense of modernity. In an Orthodox world that is moving increasingly toward Haredi fundamentalism, Aviner is a fearless defender of science, rationalism and the rule of law.

Aviner is a major intellectual force in religious Zionism and the settler movement. He is the chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Beit El and dean of Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in East Jerusalem, the Irving Moskowitz-backed institution that won fame in 1990 for taking over a Christian site, St. John’s Hospice, causing an international uproar. Aviner became a focus of international controversy again during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion into Gaza last January, when it was reported that the rabbinate was handing out booklets to soldiers featuring an incendiary passage by Aviner – a warning to soldiers not to show mercy to enemies. (If you’re thinking he was misquoted, here is the full Aviner piece as published by his own yeshiva.) On top of that, last February he wrote that rabbinic law forbids Arab participation in the Knesset.

For all that, he has gained a reputation in much of the settler community as something of a leftist heretic for his opposition to soldiers disobeying orders when commanded to evacuate settlers. Last year he was prevented by right-wing rabbis from speaking in his own settlement. Some far rightists are calling him “the Shabak rabbi,” which is akin to calling someone an informer or turncoat. (Shabak is the Hebrew acronym for General Security Service, or Shin Bet.)

But there is a deeper liberalism in operation, and it’s important to know about it. This past July he was asked by a student at his yeshiva, during a lunchtime discussion that was transcribed, whether dinosaurs actually existed. This is a charged issue on the Orthodox right. Acknowledging that dinosaurs existed implies that the world isn’t 5,770 years old and, by extension, that the Torah isn’t literally true. The issue caused a crisis in Israel following the release of Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” in 1993, when Tene (TEH-neh), one of the country’s largest dairy companies, lost its kosher certification for putting dinosaurs pictures on its flavored yogurt containers.

Aviner’s reply to the question was an eye-opener, and a stark reminder that there is still a difference between Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi or ultra-Orthodoxy, and that the settler movement is, in its own way, on the side of modernity (more on that in another post).

The motto of American Modern Orthodoxy, alert readers recall, is Torah u-Mada, “Torah and Science.” Modern Orthodoxy begins with the insistence that faithfulness to the Torah should not shut one off from the intellectual progress of the modern world.

Well, Aviner’s reply to the question about dinosaurs was, in a word: Hey, we’ve found their bones. We know they’re real. And if the Torah seems to say otherwise, that’s “irrelevant.” Citing the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loewe of Prague (1525-1609), Aviner says “that the purpose of science is to describe reality, while the Torah describes what reality should be, i.e. what is good and what is bad.”

Read Aviner’s words about dinosaurs and Rabbi Loewe, after the jump:

The Torah does not mention dinosaurs. This question is interesting from a scientific perspective but not a Torah perspective. In the book “Netivot Olam” (Netiv Ha-Torah, netiv 14), the Maharal says that the purpose of science is to describe reality, while the Torah describes what reality should be, i.e. what is good and what is bad. What exists is interesting, but it is not Torah, which discusses halachic questions.

When people ask how old is the world, if we came from apes, what happened in the distance past, I generally answer: I don’t know. I wasn’t born and I didn’t see. But in the case of dinosaurs, I saw the skeleton of the largest dinosaur in Europe – 20 meters, so you can’t tell me stories. Some say that the Atheists made dinosaurs from plastic in order to challenge us and claim that they were from long ago. This is nonsense.

Aviner goes on to suggest that the dilemma of finding bones that are millions of years old in a world that the Torah says is only 5,770 years old might be explained by the kabbalistic theory that God created many worlds before this one. But he seems to imply that he doesn’t take the point too seriously, and he doesn’t think the question is important.

He then concludes by citing Maran Ha-Rav Kook, referring to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook (1865-1935), the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Jerusalem and the intellectual father of Religious Zionism, Israel’s version of Modern Orthodoxy. It’s a wonderful, poetic quote, and could stand as a two-sentence summary of the 139-page Dover Intelligent Design ruling from 2005, defending science and church-state separation.

Nonetheless, there is no difference whether there were dinosaurs or not. Maran Ha-Rav Kook said that our subject is not if man came from an animal, our subject is how not to be an animal. The Torah’s purpose is to teach us how to have a gentle soul, and to be a holy and righteous person

The reference to Rabbi Loewe of Prague is intriguing because it reminds us how far back the best minds in Judaism were following and embracing the progress of the modern enlightenment. Loewe’s life overlapped with both Copernicus in the 1500s and Galileo in the 1600s, and he was aware of both. In fact, it’s said that he was a personal friend of Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer whose observations about the movements of the sun and stars were the bridge between Copernicus and Galileo.

Even more intriguing: Loewe himself became a figure of myth as the supposed creator of the Golem, the creature that he created to save the Jews, but which then “turned on its creator” and became a destroyer (Golem she-kam al yotsro, a common expression in everyday modern Hebrew). Remember, too, that the Golem myth inspired Mary Shelley’s novel, “Frankenstein,” one of the first major expressions of the Romantic backlash against uncontrolled science. That, in turn, helped provide fodder for the anti-scientific backlash that led to the Scopes trial, creationism and now Intelligent Design – which Loewe’s disciple Shlomo Aviner has now risen to combat in the name of free inquiry.

If there’s a lesson in all this, I guess it’s that you can’t always tell a person by the company he or she keeps. Sometimes the people you think are your bitter opponents on matters you consider critical can turn out to be your allies on things that might be even more important.

Here’s Rabbi Aviner’s Dinosaur teaching in full. Additional reading: Judge John Jones’s brilliant ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the Intelligent Design case in Pennsylvania in 2005. And if a 139-page ruling is too much to read, here’s my quick summary of Jones’s argument in a Forward editorial at the time.


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