My 300-page book: the NY Times and the Yated
The other day I promised to write a 300-page book about the Slifkin business. Chapter 1 explained why I have not yet written it and probably never will. However, I will try to write at least a small part of the unfinishable book.
This is Chapter 2.
Today’s lesson, friends, is about one of the questions I posed on Monday: What is the difference between the Yated Ne’eman and the NY Times?
One of those papers is a chareidi newspaper published in Jerusalem and New York. The other could be called the ultimate anti-chareidi paper, although for such a behemoth, chareidim are just barely noticeable mosquitoes, to be flicked away with a finger.
Now, let’s summarize a recent article, and try to guess in which newspaper it appeared. It goes something like this:
A group of experts, scholars in their field, are aghast to discover that someone who talks like them and looks like them is in fact an imposter. Claiming to be a scholar in the same field, he says and writes things that they know to be untrue. They mobilize their forces to prevent him from teaching or writing his heretical views. They are motivated by a deep commitment to truth, and they fight to prevent false and misleading ideas from being disseminated. Their biggest worry is that innocent children may be taken in by the imposter and accept false information — and worse, may lose respect for the genuine scholars and experts in the field.
Maybe you’ve guessed it. BOTH newspapers published almost identical stories in the last couple of weeks. And, fascinatingly, the articles in BOTH papers were about the same subject: evolution.
The gist of the Yated Ne’eman article is that the gedolim (the rabbinic authorities) in Israel and America, or at any rate some of them, have issued a cherem against the writings of Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, on the grounds that his approach to reconciling science and Torah is not in keeping with mainstream understanding of Torah.
He deals seriously with current scientific evidence for an old universe and for evolution, and he interprets parts of Bereishis (Genesis) in a non-literal manner. To those who signed the cherem against him, his views represent a surreptitious way of smuggling current scientific assumptions, which reject the idea of a Creator, into chareidi homes and schools. Even if he personally does believe in a Creator, and even if he seems to have Torah sources for his approach, the “facts” he adduces are no facts at all, and his understanding of Torah is not authentic Torah at all.
The gist of the New York Times article is that the members of the National Academy of Sciences (in other words, the secular gedolim) are seeking a legal ban against pseudo-scientists who are trying, surreptitiously, to smuggle religion into classrooms and science textbooks under the guise of “Intelligent Design.” This pseudo-scientific “theory,” even if it seems to rely on the findings of science, is not really authentic science at all.
Here, from the NY Times of January 23, 2005 (I dispense with ellipses):
Critics of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution become more wily with each passing year. One line of attack is to discredit evolution as little more than a theory that is open to question. Another strategy is to make students aware of an alternative theory called “intelligent design,” without any specific reference to God. These new approaches may seem harmless to a casual observer, but they still constitute an improper effort by religious advocates to impose their own slant on the teaching of evolution.
The Cobb County fight centers on a sticker that the school board inserted into a new biology textbook to placate opponents of evolution:
“This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”
Many readers might think it unexceptional, but it is actually an insidious effort to undermine the science curriculum.
A federal judge in Georgia ruled that the sticker amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. That court decision is being appealed. Supporters of sound science education can only hope that the courts, and school districts, find a way to repel this latest assault on the most well-grounded theory in modern biology.
The Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania became the first in the country to place intelligent design before its students. Last week school administrators read a brief statement to ninth-grade biology classes asserting that evolution was a theory, not a fact, that it had gaps for which there was no evidence, and that intelligent design was a differing explanation of the origin of life. That policy, which is being challenged in the courts, suffers from some of the same defects found in the Georgia sticker.
Before installing intelligent design in the curriculum, school boards and citizens need to be aware that it is not a recognized field of science. It should not be taught or even described as a scientific alternative to one of the crowning theories of modern science.
Here is part of the parallel article in Yated Ne’eman Jan 12, 2005 (again, no ellipses):
“He believes that the world is millions of years old?all nonsense!?and many other things that should not be heard and certainly not believed.”
The books’ publication unleashed a great storm due to the stumbling-block they contain, especially since the author presents them as Torah-based works. Beyond the danger in the actual words is the far greater danger from the spirit that prevails between the lines of the book.
“Since the person in question studied at a holy yeshiva there is a danger his words will be accepted and have a negative influence.”
One lesson to be learned from the juxtaposition of the two articles is that even the most open-minded liberals favor banning, if used appropriately, so let’s not be too quick to condemn “banning” as a tactic. The issue is, when is it appropriate?
Clearly, experts have a right — within their own field — to say, “Such and such a claim is false, and should not be taught.”
They have the right. A different issue is, is it wise, tactically, to attempt to censor false information? And yet another issue is, is this information really false, or is it in fact an issue about which experts are still divided?
These questions can be applied to the scientists and to the gedolim, can be asked of the Times and of the Yated.
If you had to point to the quintessential New York Times heretic, the man that paper would treat with disdain, it would be Nosson Slifkin. He doesn’t accept the purely material and naturalistic assumptions that the NY Times considers the sine qua non of a scientific mind. The moment he accepts the reality of a Creator, they don’t care if he also accepts “millions of years” and “evolution.” He might as well be a fundamentalist, literalist creationist. He is just teaching a more insidious form of the same falsehood.
If you had to point to the quintessential Yated heretic, the man that paper would treat with disdain, it would be Nosson Slifkin. He doesn’t accept a literal understanding of Bereshis that Yated considers the sine qua non of a religious mind. The moment he accepts the reality of an aged universe, they don’t care if he also accepts a “Creator” and “intelligent design.” He might as well be a secular, atheistic evolutionist. He is just teaching a more insidious form of the same falsehood.
For one man to occupy the same position in two universes — the position of heretic, unbeliever, deceiver, imposter — would be a charming, intellectually intriguing and even humorous situation to contemplate. WOULD be — if not for the fact that an actual human being is suffering here.
In the science universe, in the worldview of the NY Times, Slifkin is a “non-believer.” Yes, he respects the findings of modern science. Yes, he respects the assumptions and methods of science. But he rejects the single most fundamental assumption that underlies all the others: that the world just IS. That there is no Creator, no Design.
Reject that, and you cannot claim the mantle of “science.”
Very likely, Slifkin and other religious scientists would say that true science really does point to a Designer. But Modern Science, or let?s call it “Scientism,” is not True Science. Science provides real, usable, valuable knowledge which has tremendously benefited and enriched mankind. Scientism conflates that real knowledge with a naturalist belief system that assumes what it purports to prove.
The crassest anti-religious pontifications are accorded great respect, if uttered by those who have been annointed as “real” scientists. Consider that the atheist views of popularizers like Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan enjoy unearned prestige in the hallowed halls of the NY Times, based on nothing but the penumbra of their “science” credentials.
Slikfin does not share the faith system of the NY Times. In that world, I agree, he is a dangerous heretic who slips religion into science.
What about the Torah world? In that world, I do NOT agree that Slifkin is a heretic. If he were one, the gedolim would be quite justified in rejecting his teachings. But there is genuine disagreement about his approach within the Torah world, among the gedolim themselves.
I do see that Slifkin is at times a bit too reverential to science. He takes as fact items that I consider still to be in the “undecided” column. I do not agree with every jot and tittle of what he writes. His reverence for science has at times led him to adopt a tone that sounds slightly cavalier about the Torah sages of old and of our own time. I can see in places what might have perturbed some of the gedolim.
But having read so much of his writing, I can testify that he is solidly grounded in the world of Torah. His painstaking research in both science and Torah is breathtaking. His work is suffused with love of Torah, as well as a desire for intellectual honesty. He takes the Torah as the ultimate source of truth, while also looking at the world of nature as an objective reality that is just as much the work of G-d?s hands as is the Torah.
The Yated and the Times may both consider him an outsider to their respective world-views, but in my opinion, the Yated is mistaken.
Interestingly, there are two editions of the Yated, published under separate auspices, one in Israel, one in the States. The American Yated has yet to say a word about the whole Slifkin affair, which leads me to suspect that there is a fault line, falling roughly between the American and Israeli chareidi communities, regarding this issue.
Meanwhile, the worlds of Torah and science will both go on protecting their acolytes from each other, while the seekers of truth keep reading both the Yated Ne’eman and the New York Times. Reading them both very carefully–between the lines.
“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.
Your approach is wonderful. Keep writing. Any difference between Yated and Hamodia on this issue? If so, why?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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?
BY DAVID KLINGHOFFER
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.
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).
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?
“The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry”–Richard Dawkins, Zoologist
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.