My 300-page book: the NY Times and the Yated

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17 Responses

  1. Michoel says:

    Mrs. Katz,
    “He doesn’t accept a literal understanding of Bereshis that Yated considers the sine qua non of a religious mind.”
    This one line greatly diminishes the power of a very good post. It is simply a straw man. All frum Jews understnad that maaseh breishis is too be understood in light of the m’drashim and m’forshim. Certainly the g’dolim that signed the ban are aware of that. The discussion is over whether Rabbi Slifkin’s approach is within the bounds of acceptable p’shat. The discussion is NOT over literalism.

  2. Yaakov Rosenblatt says:

    Your approach is wonderful. Keep writing. Any difference between Yated and Hamodia on this issue? If so, why?

  3. David Brand says:

    Mrs. Katz,
    While this chapter focused on the issue of bannning, I think you pretty much hit the nub of the matter toward the end. That is, that Slifkin’s books seem to be a perspective of accepting science and trying to square the known, “truth” of science with apparant “difficulties” in the Torah, as opposed to the other way around. At the same time, many of us feel badly for Slifkin on a personal level, knowing that a certain tone in some books that will never be read anyway by non-English speaking Israeli charedim does not seem to be justification for making the authors life extremely difficult. Perhaps the reason for the Israeli-American split that you describe is because we Americans are generally (as a result of the American culture) live-and-let-live types. For the most part, nobody tells me what to do. There are notable exceptions, but those are for a later time. At the same time, I don’t imagine myself as going to someone else and telling them what to do, with their religiosity or otherwise. For some reason, that independence, the “don’t tread on me” individualism just isn’t part of Israeli culture. Perhaps it was the socialistic beginnings of the State. In any case, the notion of communal pressure on an individual is not nearly as foreign a concept, and is therefore tolerated much more by the public.

  4. Seth Gordon says:

    Your parallels between the NYT and the Yated would be justified (a) if the gedolim quoted in the Yated had simply declared: “We believe that Rabbi Slifkin has interpreted his sources incorrectly, and his books should not be taught in the yeshivas”, rather than declaring his work to be outright heresy, and (b) if virtually all talmidei chochomim disagreed with Slifkin, in the same way that virtually all biologists believe that evolution is a scientific fact.

  5. Fred says:

    very good.

  6. Joel Shurkin says:

    Much of your premise is false, and I write this as a science writer for the mainstream media for 30 years. The Times most certainly would not consider Rabbi Slifkin a heretic and I can’t imagine where you got that idea. Many if not most scientists are religious in varing degrees and most if not all scientists find absolutely no conradiction between the two worlds. There are even a good number of Othodox scientists who find no problems with the scientific method in a world of Torah. Evolution does not preclude a creator and no one who understands it can even imagine why anyone would think so. No one at the Times (and it is certainly true of the science writers, most of whom I have known for years) would consider Rabbi Slifkin a heretic. They would think he is a somewhat unusual version of how things are. It is true that Sagan and Gould were agnostic or atheistic (Carl Sagan, whom I also knew, never quite made up his mind which he was but eventually settled on the latter). So what? It had nothing to do with their prominence or their appearances in the Times.
    The point is that in so far as science is able to establish the truth—and it is the best we mortals can do—Rabbi Slifkin is correct and nothing he wrote impunes the veracity of Torah. His science is impeccable (I’m reading him now—BECAUSE he is banned, incidentally) and the No-Nothings bring ridicule to the Jewish people.

  7. GH says:

    There is a huge difference between the two stories, one which have you failed to notice. The scientific authorities provide a vast amount of detailed explanations as to why the claims of the Intelligent Design theorists are false. They are quite willing to debate the subject, and have done so many times at length. The rabbinic authorities have not provided any detailed explanations of why Rabbi Slifkin’s books are flawed, and refused to discuss the subject with him at all.

  8. zalmen fishman says:

    Most in the charedi community accept the concept of kol asher yorucha afilo al yomin sheo smol, and we submit to the gedolim and their opinion. it would seem to be that the majority of the gedolim and those on the moetzes gedolei hatorah have signed the letter. to argue the merits of it has a whiff of questioning gedolim and that is where charedism and modern orthodoxy differ. my personal feelings may or may not differ from your views, but i will accept the daas torah without questioning.

  9. Elitzur says:

    Slifkin would be a hero in the NYTimes for taking on the Orthodox Ayatolla just as he is now a hero in the Forward…
    Also, I (at one point in my life before I grew wiser) expect more from great rabbis than scientists of journalists…

  10. dilbert says:

    Joel Shurkin is right on. You are comparing apples to oranges. Science is taught in schools. Evolution is a scientific theory that has utility in explaining the evidence and predicting new evidence. While many scientists believe in G-d, and in creation, that belief does not belong in science class, it belongs in religion class, or philosophy class. Therefore, the parallels you draw between the NYT and Yated are not apt, because the situations are not equivalent.

  11. Ilana says:

    Great piece.
    The basic parallel – Intelligent Design advocates are accused of presenting religious viewpoints thinly disguised as science. Rabbi Slifkin is accused of presenting a scientific worldview masquerading as Torah.
    As you point out, neither accusation is valid. In both cases, the accused are attempting to take a critical and intellectually honest look at the prevailing theory and point out some difficulties and possible resolutions.
    The parallel is not coincidental. K’mayim hapanim el panim (I might be quoting that wrong). If Science views Torah as the enemy, Torah will view Science as the enemy. And vice versa. Those who see the other side as a potential ally – worse yet, as superior – are unfortunately treated as traitors.

  12. Zev says:

    A number of commenters have protested Mrs. Katz’s characterization of modern science as a religion of sorts, with its own heretics, among whom N. Slifkin would surely be numbered. How serendipitous, then, is David Klinghoffer’s op-ed piece in the WSJ, published the past Friday, about just such an occurrence! I am attaching the link, but b/c WSJ’s links expire rather quickly, I take the liberty of copying the entire article as well.



    The Branding of a Heretic
    Are religious scientists unwelcome at the Smithsonian?

    Friday, January 28, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST

    The question of whether Intelligent Design (ID) may be presented to public-school students alongside neo-Darwinian evolution has roiled parents and teachers in various communities lately. Whether ID may be presented to adult scientific professionals is another question altogether but also controversial. It is now roiling the government-supported Smithsonian Institution, where one scientist has had his career all but ruined over it.

    The scientist is Richard Sternberg, a research associate at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The holder of two Ph.D.s in biology, Mr. Sternberg was until recently the managing editor of a nominally independent journal published at the museum, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, where he exercised final editorial authority. The August issue included typical articles on taxonomical topics–e.g., on a new species of hermit crab. It also included an atypical article, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories.” Here was trouble.

    The piece happened to be the first peer-reviewed article to appear in a technical biology journal laying out the evidential case for Intelligent Design. According to ID theory, certain features of living organisms–such as the miniature machines and complex circuits within cells–are better explained by an unspecified designing intelligence than by an undirected natural process like random mutation and natural selection.

    Mr. Sternberg’s editorship has since expired, as it was scheduled to anyway, but his future as a researcher is in jeopardy–and that he had not planned on at all. He has been penalized by the museum’s Department of Zoology, his religious and political beliefs questioned. He now rests his hope for vindication on his complaint filed with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) that he was subjected to discrimination on the basis of perceived religious beliefs. A museum spokesman confirms that the OSC is investigating. Says Mr. Sternberg: “I’m spending my time trying to figure out how to salvage a scientific career.”

    The offending review-essay was written by Stephen Meyer, who holds a Cambridge University doctorate in the philosophy of biology. In the article, he cites biologists and paleontologists critical of certain aspects of Darwinism–mainstream scientists at places like the University of Chicago, Yale, Cambridge and Oxford. Mr. Meyer gathers the threads of their comments to make his own case. He points, for example, to the Cambrian explosion 530 million years ago, when between 19 and 34 animal phyla (body plans) sprang into existence. He argues that, relying on only the Darwinian mechanism, there was not enough time for the necessary genetic “information” to be generated. ID, he believes, offers a better explanation.
    Whatever the article’s ultimate merits–beyond the judgment of a layman–it was indeed subject to peer review, the gold standard of academic science. Not that such review saved Mr. Sternberg from infamy. Soon after the article appeared, Hans Sues–the museum’s No. 2 senior scientist–denounced it to colleagues and then sent a widely forwarded e-mail calling it “unscientific garbage.”

    Meanwhile, the chairman of the Zoology Department, Jonathan Coddington, called Mr. Sternberg’s supervisor. According to Mr. Sternberg’s OSC complaint: “First, he asked whether Sternberg was a religious fundamentalist. She told him no. Coddington then asked if Sternberg was affiliated with or belonged to any religious organization. . . . He then asked where Sternberg stood politically; . . . he asked, ‘Is he a right-winger? What is his political affiliation?’ ” The supervisor (who did not return my phone messages) recounted the conversation to Mr. Sternberg, who also quotes her observing: “There are Christians here, but they keep their heads down.”

    Worries about being perceived as “religious” spread at the museum. One curator, who generally confirmed the conversation when I spoke to him, told Mr. Sternberg about a gathering where he offered a Jewish prayer for a colleague about to retire. The curator fretted: “So now they’re going to think that I’m a religious person, and that’s not a good thing at the museum.”

    In October, as the OSC complaint recounts, Mr. Coddington told Mr. Sternberg to give up his office and turn in his keys to the departmental floor, thus denying him access to the specimen collections he needs. Mr. Sternberg was also assigned to the close oversight of a curator with whom he had professional disagreements unrelated to evolution. “I’m going to be straightforward with you,” said Mr. Coddington, according to the complaint. “Yes, you are being singled out.” Neither Mr. Coddington nor Mr. Sues returned repeated phone messages asking for their version of events.
    Mr. Sternberg begged a friendly curator for alternative research space, and he still works at the museum. But many colleagues now ignore him when he greets them in the hall, and his office sits empty as “unclaimed space.” Old colleagues at other institutions now refuse to work with him on publication projects, citing the Meyer episode. The Biological Society of Washington released a vaguely ecclesiastical statement regretting its association with the article. It did not address its arguments but denied its orthodoxy, citing a resolution of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that defined ID as, by its very nature, unscientific.

    It may or may not be, but surely the matter can be debated on scientific grounds, responded to with argument instead of invective and stigma. Note the circularity: Critics of ID have long argued that the theory was unscientific because it had not been put forward in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Now that it has, they argue that it shouldn’t have been because it’s unscientific. They banish certain ideas from certain venues as if by holy writ, and brand heretics too. In any case, the heretic here is Mr. Meyer, a fellow at Seattle’s Discovery Institute, not Mr. Sternberg, who isn’t himself an advocate of Intelligent Design.

    According to the OSC complaint, one museum specialist chided him by saying: “I think you are a religiously motivated person and you have dragged down the Proceedings because of your religiously motivated agenda.” Definitely not, says Mr. Sternberg. He is a Catholic who attends Mass but notes: “I would call myself a believer with a lot of questions, about everything. I’m in the postmodern predicament.”

    Intelligent Design, in any event, is hardly a made-to-order prop for any particular religion. When the British atheist philosopher Antony Flew made news this winter by declaring that he had become a deist–a believer in an unbiblical “god of the philosophers” who takes no notice of our lives–he pointed to the plausibility of ID theory.

    Darwinism, by contrast, is an essential ingredient in secularism, that aggressive, quasi-religious faith without a deity. The Sternberg case seems, in many ways, an instance of one religion persecuting a rival, demanding loyalty from anyone who enters one of its churches–like the National Museum of Natural History.

  13. Ilana says:

    One difference between the NYTimes and Yated (or is it a similarity in disguise?):
    In science, critical thinking and free inquiry are considered the paramount intellectual virtues. Rejecting Intelligent Design theorists and others whose criticism of evolutionary theory is based on weaknesses in that theory is fundamentally unscientific.
    In Torah, on the other hand, Emunah is the paramount intellectual virtue. Thus, one can legitmately adopt the position that emunah peshutah should override critical thinking, and there is a legitimate Torah-based critique of Rabbi Slifkin’s work (which is very far from calling it heresy – there is more than one legitimate, Torah approach). However, the Torah also has a great deal to say about bein adam l’chaveiro, e.g., causing significant harm to another person’s livelihood, reputation, and peace of mind (considerations which are secondary to science – it’s unfortunately possible to be a great scientist and do awful things to one’s colleagues).

  14. Sholom says:

    Intersting that you noted the difference between the consideration that the Torah would give to not harming a person’s reputation and well-being as compared to scientific publications and the NYT.
    Could you give us an example of where the NYT or a scientific publication attacked an individual in a way that’s comaparable to the article in the Yated?

  15. WH says:

    “The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry”–Richard Dawkins, Zoologist

  16. Zev says:

    Pace those who claim that “the paramount intellectual virtues” in science are “critical thinking and free inquiry,” here is a link to a highly relevant article by David Klinghoffer in the WSJ, which describes a contemporary case of “religious” orthodoxy in science, and shows how scientists treat their “heretics.”

    WSJ links decay quickly, so don’t waste time checking it out.

  1. February 10, 2005

    […] ds?
    Filed by Toby Katz @ 1:40 am under Jewish World  

    In my 300-page book about the Slifkin affair, of which only a fe […]

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