Sefer Ha-Hayim Blog
Friday, January 28, 2005
Of Books and Bannings III
R. Nosson Slifkin, Mysterious Creatures & The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax  buy them now

The question we will address here is not whether there are merits to the theory of evolution, or whether it is appropriate for an Orthodox Jew to adopt that theory. We will only discuss whether it is consistent with Orthodox beliefs, whether someone who believes in the theory of evolution is still within the bounds of Orthodoxy. As before, we will be making the case that even though there is debate on this matter, this is a matter of contemporary debate with scholars on both sides of the issue. For our purposes, we need only demonstrate that there are respected rabbis who adopt or do not object to the theory of evolution.

Over 130 years ago, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch offered his view on this matter. This is of great significance because R. Hirsch was a leader of the opposition to non-Orthodox movements and was very open and direct in his labeling of people and ideas as unacceptable (see volume 5 of his Collected Writings). R. Hirsch wrote:

This will never change, not even if the latest scientific notion that the genesis of all the multitudes of organic forms on earth can be traced back to one single, most primitive, primeval form of life should ever appear to be anything more than what it is today, a vague hypothesis still unsupported by fact. Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that notion, would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus and one single law of "adaptation and heredity" in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures. (Collected Writings, vol. 7 pp. 263-264)
While not adopting the theory of evolution, R. Hirsch is clear that there is no theological problem with it and that Judaism would gladly adopt it were there sufficient scientific proof.

R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook also wrote of the possibility of accepting the theory of evolution. In two letters published in Oros Ha-Kodesh (pp. 559, 565) and translated into English in Challenge, R. Kook discusses the matter:

The evolutionary way of thinking... has caused considerable upheaval among many people whose thought had been wont to run in certain regular, well-defined paths. Not so, however, for the select, hard-thinking few who have always seen a gradual, evolutionary development in the world's most intimate spiritual essence. For them it is not difficult to apply, by analogy, the same principle to the physical development of the visible world.
R. Kook goes on to say that those who are reluctant to accept evolution as a possibility have hesitations but "[t]hese hesitations have nothing to do with any difficulty in reconciling the verses of the Torah or other traditional texts with an evolutionary standpoint. Nothing is easier than this. Everyone knows that here, if anywhere, is the realm of parable, allegory and allusion."

In Iggeros Ra'ayah (91, cited by R. Yitzchok Adlerstein in The Jewish Action Reader, p. 290), R. Kook writes, "[E]ven if it becomes apparent that life came into being through the evolution of one species from another, there is no contradiction [to the Torah]."

If not explicitly supporting evolution, R. Kook is being very clear that he has no theological objections to it.

One of the concepts of evolution that is most difficult to accept is that man, specifically Adam, is descended from lesser creatures. Can one say that Adam had humanoid, biological parents? This is, indeed, very difficult for me, personally, to accept. However, those much greater than I have made precisely that suggestion. In addition to the implicit acceptance of this concept by R. Hirsch and R. Kook above, there are explicit statements of this idea.

R. Menahem Kasher, in Torah Shelemah (Bereshis, ch. no. 738), quotes a responsum from the Geonim in which it is stated that Adam was first created as a speechless creature, like an animal, and only later was given speech. This could certainly be interpreted as a precedent for the claim that Adam was descended from humanoids. R. Kasher suggests that this is a matter of dispute between the Ramban and his student R. Bahya ben Asher, with the Ramban on the side of the Gaon's responsum.

R. Kasher poses a question on the above position from Rosh HaShanah 11a, where the Gemara states that all of Creation was made fully mature. If that is the case, how could Adam have been initially created as a humanoid and only later made into a human? R. Kasher cites midrashim that disagree with this Gemara and leaves it at that. However, R. Yehuda Henkin offers a resolution to the question.

In his Hibah Yeseirah (Bereshis 1:26, printed in the back of Bnei Banim vol. 2), R. Henkin suggests that the Gemara was only referring to the end of the Creation period. At that point, the end of the sixth "day," all of Creation was fully mature. Until that point, however, it is entirely possible that Adam was initially a humanoid and only later became a full human.

R. Henkin writes explicitly that Adam's body was taken from creatures that preceded him and it was only his soul that was created ex nihilo. In other words, Adam evolved from lower creatures and became human when God created and implanted in him a human soul.

Dr. Gerald Schroeder, in his The Science of God (p. 127), writes:

When I was first struggling with the questions of our origins, I steeled my courage to ask the renowned biblical scholar, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, if it was possible that Adam had an ancestor. Not knowing what to expect, I skirted the issue for a few awkward minutes. When I finally presented the question, his matter-of-fact reply almost bowled me over: "The text of Genesis and the ancient commentaries of Nahmanides on that text certainly [certainly, mind you!] leave the door open for that interpretation."
It seems that R. Lichtenstein, whom I would label a talmudic scholar rather than a biblical scholar, accepts R. Kasher's understanding of the Ramban and allows it to serve as a precedent for the idea that Adam was descended from lesser creatures. He certainly did not call it heresy.

In an open letter, R. Ari Kahn relates the following about R. Shmuel Ya'akov Weinberg:

More recently, when Dr. Schroeder cites certain opinions regarding prehistoric man he has given me as his rabbinic source. A few months a go I received a phone call from a friend who would also be happy to be defined as someone who lives in the zealous camp. He heard Dr. Schroeder speak and quote me, my friend was incredulous. I told him of the following conversation which I had with Rav Yaakov Weinberg on another occasion. I asked Rav Yaakov if it was kefira to say that Adam had parents. He responded by saying that as long as you can show a spiritual difference between Adam and those preceding him then in terms of Hashkafa this would be fine. I could not tell if Rav Yaakov Weinberg himself accepted this approach or merely thought it was hashkafically acceptable (I later heard from a very close talmid of Rav Yaakov that he heard Rav Yaakov suggest this 40 years ago and was comfortable with it).
Someone correctly pointed out in the comments that R. Moshe Tendler has written on the subject of evolution (The Torah U-Madda Journal article is not in vol. 4 and does not seem to be posted on the web). Here is what I found on the web, although I know he has written more on the subject:

The gedolei hador at the time of Darwin found little to criticize in the theory or its scientific findings...

Neither the age of the earth, the fossil finds of strange creatures nor the evolution of man, posed any "threat" to Torah truth as understood by the Tifereth Yisroel. Indeed, data from carbon dating lead/uranium, and other radioactive time clocks affirm the great age of the earth...

Did Hashem make this last world in six days and rested on the seventh, or was it six millennia? Either assumption can be correct...

The Talmudic literature refers to prior worlds and earlier men before the present world that is dated 5748 years from the birth of Adam and his wife Eve. Some of our great Torah sages accept this literally and see in it a concurrence with the scientific claim for a very ancient world. No one dare label such a belief heretical, even if personal family tradition is to accept that the world was created ex nihilo 5748 years ago.
In conclusion, is this idea mainstream? I don't think so. Are there scholars who advocate it or at least do not consider it to be heresy? Definitely. Whether or not this is acceptable is clearly a matter of contemporary dispute.

Monday, January 24, 2005
Creation and the Age of the Universe
R. Nosson Slifkin, Mysterious Creatures & The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax  buy them now

A reader was kind enough to scan in and e-mail me the relevant excerpt from Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu (vol. 2 pp. 151-153) by R. Eliyahu Dessler. You can see/download the PDF here.

The following is from R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Collected Writings, vol. 7 p. 265:

Judaism is not frightened even by the hundreds of thousands and millions of years which the geological theory of the earth's development bandies about so freely. Judaism would have nothing to fear from that theory even if it were based on something more than mere hypothesis, on the still unproven presumption that the forces we see at work in our world today are the same as those that were in existence, with the same degree of potency, when the world was first created. Our Rabbis, the Sages of Judaism, discuss (Midrash Rabbah 9; Tractate Hagigah 16a) the possibility that earlier worlds were brought into existence and subsequently destroyed by the Creator before He made our own earth in its present form and order. However, the Rabbis have never made the acceptance or rejection of this and similar possibilites an article of faith binding on all Jews. They were willing to live with any theory that did not reject the basic truth that "every beginning is from God."

Of Books and Bannings II
R. Nosson Slifkin, Mysterious Creatures & The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax  buy them now

I am planning a series of posts to try to demonstrate the premise upon which I am acting, namely that the issues underlying the herem on R. Nosson Slifkin?s books (link) is a matter of contemporary debate, with solid Torah sources on both sides of the debate. This first post is about the age of the universe. Was the universe created in literally six days, i.e. six 24-hour intervals equivalent to the days of any week, and is the universe exactly 5,765 years old? R. Slifkin suggests that it was not and is not.

In the Yated Ne?eman article about the herem (link), R. Yitzchok Sheiner is quoted as saying, "He believes that the world is millions of years old--all nonsense!" The actual Hebrew is "afra le-fumeih" which is more of a "God-forbid to say such a thing" than an "all nonsense!" but the implication is the same. However, this is not the only view voiced by contemporary Torah scholars.

It is unclear to me why R. Sheiner would object less to, say, an interpretation that Creation took one decade than that it took 1 billion years. Either way, it is re-interpreting the simple biblical text of six days of Creation. I, therefore, assume that he would object to any belief that Creation took more than six days (or seven, if you include rest) and that the world is older than 5,765 years.

R. Eliyahu Dessler, in his Michtav Me?Eliyahu (vol. 2 pp. 151-153) -- by now a classic of Jewish thought even though its author only passed away in 1954, addresses the six days of Creation. R. Nosson Slifkin translates a large excerpt from this essay in his The Science of Torah (pp. 120-121) and I quote it partially:

"Because six days did God make Heaven and earth..." The days referred to here relate to the period before the completion of creation, when the concept of time was different from that which applies now. But the Torah was given to us in accordance with our own concepts: "Moshe came and brought it down to earth." This is the meaning of the dictum, "The Torah speaks as if in human language"; it speaks to us in accordance with our own perceptions of matter and our own concepts of space and time...

We see from this that in the simple meaning of the text -- that which is conveyed to us in accordance with our own conceptual capacity -- we are to understand actual days made up of hours and minutes. But in its real essence, that is to say, in its inner meaning, the text has quite a different connotation. It refers to six sefiros, which are modes of revelation of the divine conduct of the world.
In other words, the world was not actually created in six 24-hour days. Rather, the Torah says that it was because that is a way for it to simplify complex concepts in words that we will understand. Elsewhere, R. Dessler writes that "creation does not take place in time" (quoted by R. Slifkin, ibid., p. 128).

R. Dessler, a universally recognized giant of Torah thought, alone, is sufficient support for a claim that the six days of creation need not be understood literally. He was arguably the most influential Jewish thinker (ba?al mahashavah) of the twentieth century and a man whose writings are basic texts in the Orthodox world. It is also noteworthy that R. Dessler?s close student and translator, R. Aryeh Carmell, is a strong and vocal supporter of R. Slifkin.

Rabbi Eli Munk, noted rabbi and thinker from Paris (author of the classic The Call of the Torah), wrote a book titled The Seven Days of the Beginning in which he, too, explains Creation as taking longer than six literal days. Most importantly, he cites as support the great twentieth century German posek R. David Zvi Hoffmann (p. 104, cited by R. Slifkin, ibid., p. 114). Again, we need go no farther than R. David Zvi Hoffmann and R. Eli Munk to be able to accurately state that there is a legitimate difference of opinion among Orthodox thinkers today.

R. Aryeh Kaplan, the brilliant rabbinic scholar and scientist whose early passing in 1983 was mourned by all the great roshei yeshiva, offered very vocally his view on the matter. In The Jewish Action Reader (pp. 287-289), R. Yitzchok Adlerstein summarizes a speech that R. Kaplan delivered at a 1979 conference of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists. Basing himself on his understanding of an obscure thirteenth century kabbalistic text, R. Kaplan suggested that the true Torah view is that the world is fifteen billion years old. This is further explicated in R. Kaplan?s posthumously published Immortality, Resurrection and the Age of the Universe: A Kabbalistic View. R. Kaplan was a serious Torah scholar. He was a preeminent talmid hakham who concluded that the world is older than 5,765 years.

Let me now add the voice of one of the leading American roshei yeshiva of the twentieth century, R. Shmuel Ya?akov Weinberg. The following is a (lightly edited) excerpt from an open letter by R. Ari Kahn of Aish HaTorah and Bar Ilan University about the process of his hiring Dr. Gerald Schroeder who, in his book Genesis and the Big Bang, promotes the view that the six days of Creation were really billions of years long:

Many years ago, in my capacity of educational director of Aleynu (Aish HaTorah's outreach arm), I hired Dr. Gerald (Yaakov, as he prefers to be called) Schroeder. When I first heard his material, I was impressed with the novel approach. He then delivered a lecture to senior staff including myself, Rav Motty Berger and Rav Shmuel Veffer. In order to protect Aish from the type of attack it is experiencing now, I introduced Dr. Shroeder to Rav Yitzchak Berkovitz, and then Rav Noach Weinberg. Neither had objections to his basic approach. Later, when his first book came out, we gave a copy to Rav Yaakov Weinberg, and then arranged a meeting. I was there together with Rav Yaakov Weinberg and Dr. Schroeder. Anticipating that one day people will claim that Rav Yaakov Weinberg never could have approved his approach, I came armed with a tape recorder. Somewhere in my house I have a tape of the meeting.

Rav Yaakov's first concern was that the science was valid -- while he was extremely well read and conversant in science, Rav Yakov was humble enough to feel that he could not judge the book scientifically and wanted to know that the science was indeed acceptable. Dr. Schroeder assured him that the book went through scientific peer review at Bantam books. Rav Yaakov was satisfied. Rav Yaakov then gave some guidelines and advice. A major point was never to teach his approach in yeshiva -- but if yeshiva guys with questions came to Aish he should teach them. Rav Yaakov felt that teaching this approach while valid, would be counter-productive for yeshiva students because it would hurt their emunas hakhamim [faith in the sages]. Secular people, on the other hand, he felt should be taught this material.

A number of years later some of the more zealous elements in Israel decided that they did not like Dr. Schroeder's approach and soon a din torah [religious trial] was setup. Presiding was Rav Moshe Shternbuch, representing Aish HaTorah was Rav Yitzchak Berkovitz -- charges of kefirah [heresy] were hurled. Ultimately Rav Berkovitz asked Rav Shternbuch which ikkar in emunah [principle of faith] was being denied. Rav Shternbuch was silent and then turned to the petitioners -- who also could not articulate the exact kefirah. In the end Rav Shternbuch, who did not like it at all, had to admit that this was not kefirah -- even though he did not like it at all.
Two important figures in the Torah world, R. Shmuel Ya?akov Weinberg and R. Moshe Shternbuch, both found nothing heretical in the idea that Creation took longer than six literal days. R. Weinberg even supported teaching it to non-observant Jews and -- significantly -- yeshiva students who had questions on these matters.

The point of all of the above scholars is what R. Avraham Yitzhak Kook wrote in the following letter (Iggeros Ra'ayah no. 91, translated in Rav A. Y. Kook Selected Letters, cited by R. Adlerstein, loc. cit., p. 290):

Surely all realize that ma-aseh b'reishit [the acts of Creation] are among the "Secrets of the Torah." If those matters were to be understood simply and plainly, what "secrets" would there be?
In conclusion, my purpose here is to show that over the past century there have been significant figures in the Torah world who suggested, advocated, and found no problem with the idea that the world is older than 5,765 years. What R. Sheiner referred to with the derogatory phrase "afra le-fumeih," others of equal or greater stature supported or at least permitted. This is, in other words, a matter of disagreement within the Orthodox world. The many rabbis who are supporting R. Slifkin are merely following acceptable teachings in a subject that is of debate within the Orthodox community.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005
Buy the Books
R. Nosson Slifkin, Mysterious Creatures & The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax  buy them now

Mysterious Creatures and The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax are now available for purchase from Yashar Books.

Go to and scroll down.

Unfortunately, The Science of Torah is entirely out of print.

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.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005
A Pound of Flesh
R. Daniel Z. Feldman, The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations

You might recall from high school that, in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish money-lender Shylock demands a pound of flesh from Antonio for failing to pay his debt. Is this an halakhically acceptable demand and, should two people make such an agreement, would a beis din uphold it? As the expanded edition of R. Daniel Z. Feldman's The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations goes to print, containing countless minor revisions and over 1/8th more material, it is my pleasure to give you a peak at his summary of this topic in one of his footnotes (p. 168 n. 64):

Along the lines of the discussion of the Rivash, R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin takes up the question of how a Jewish Beit Din would address the situation depicted in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (L'Ohr HaHalakhah, pp. 310-336). In that play, Shylock demands a pound of flesh from Antonio, as the latter had agreed to in the event of defaulting on a loan from the former. In his essay, R. Zevin considers the question of whether one may allow another to harm him, the issue of nitzayon/bizayon (see below), and general issues of one's ownership, or lack of ownership, over one's body. R. Zevin observes that although Shylock's wishes have been taken to reflect negatively on Jews, in actuality, a genuine Jewish Beit Din would never have even entertained the positions taken seriously by the [albeit fictional] Venetian court.

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