Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Orthodox Judaism, Science, and Natan Slifkin

Both Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox/Charedi Jews commonly reject many basic parts of the scientific understanding of the world. For example, many Orthodox Jews believe in a global Nocahian deluge some five thousand years ago and reject evolution. In the charedi world, this rejection of science is even broader. The charedi rejection of science is substantially different from that of other branches of Orthodoxy. Rather than simply reject specific theories based on their own theological predilections, charedim, including charedi leaders (called by their followers "Gedolim" which is Hebrew for "great ones") take an actively hostile view of science.

I was unaware of the depth of charedi fear of and disdain for science until I recently began examining the controversy surrounding Natan Slifkin. Slifkin is a charedi Rabbi who wrote a series of books looking at the interplay between Judaism and biology. Slifkin made three primary of arguments: First, he argued that the evidence for evolution was overwhelmimg. Second, he argued that belief in evolution was not incompatible with Judaism. Third, he argued that the Rabbis of the Talmud could be wrong about science. For the charedim, the second two points apparently caused far more concern than the first. In 2005, many of the Gedolim joined to issue a ruling in which Slifkin was labeled a heretic. Possession and reading of his books was banned.

The charedi rejection of science goes far beyond simple opposition to evolution. For example, I was recently disturbed to learn from a conversation with Slifkin that some major charedi Rabbis believe in spontaneous generation of small rodents. I had been aware that such beliefs had survived until the early 1900s, but I was shocked to find out that many prominent charedi rabbis still believe spontaneous generation of small creatures. The charedi attitude towards science is in many ways connected to a deep worry of persecution. Moshe Sternbuch, the current chief Rabbi of the Edah Charedis, a prominent organization of Israeli charedim, stated that scientists say the world is old because "they want to refute the words of our Sages and undermine the faith that exists amongst the Jewish people. Their main concern is to try to shake the faith in G-d — which has been accepted by us generation after generation."

For another example, see these videos of Rabbi Aharon Schechter in which Schechter gets actively angry at the thought of people trying to investigate evolution, the age of the earth and related questions:

This attitude, one of perceived persecution and anger, seems to stem from two sources: First the charedi worldview is very wrapped up in the history of persecution against Jews. Thus, the charedim see any modern event in that light. Second, the charedi worldview is profoundly self-centered. They assume that essentially everyone cares about what they are doing. Thus, if scientists come to a conclusion that clashes with standard charedi beliefs, the charedi infer that the scientists are trying to target them. In this regard, comparison between the charedi leaders and the leaders of fundamentalist Christianity today is not favorable to the charedim. While many evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Christians reject much science, it is rare for their leaders to claim that scientists are trying specifically to destroy their religion.

However, the anti-science beliefs discussed here are not held by just the charedim. The modern Orthodox also have serious problems with much of science. Alexander Nussbaum has examined modern Orthodox attitudes towards science (see his article in Skeptic as well as Nussbaum's article "Creationism and Geocentrism Among Orthodox Jewish Scientists." in the January-April set of Reports of the National Center for Science Education). Nussbaum found that even among orthodox Jews attending secular colleges, a large fraction reject much of biology, astronomy, geology and other branches of science. About three quarters of the respondents when asked about the age of the Earth, said that it was less than 7000 years old. The vast majority (around 90%) believed that all land animals descend from animals on Noah's ark. Possibly most disturbingly, around a quarter of the students believed that evolution was not only false, but that scientists were deliberately concealing this fact.

Nussbaum also found that undergraduates majoring in scientific areas were less likely to accept many aspects of basic science. Nussbaum proposed that:

It seems that the science majors and degree holders — precisely because they were more likely to be exposed to evolution — were subject to additional community influences not to be “taken in” by the “heresy” they would hear, and were even less accepting of evolution. And individuals with a science background from that community have the added responsibility to use their knowledge and standing to promote religious doctrine in scientific matters.

Presumably the science majors would respond that they are more involved in science and so are more able to see the terrible problems with vast swaths of modern science.

While I had seen Nussbaum's work many years ago, I had generally assumed that something was wrong with his work. While these anti-science viewpoints were not unknown among the Orthodox students when I was an undergraduate at Yale, these views were not as popular as they appeared to be in Nussbaum's study. However, I'm now a graduate student interacting with students at Boston University. Here it seems that the profile of the Orthodox beliefs fits Nussbaum's data much better. Indeed, I recently found myself in a situation with six Orthodox students in the room and five out of the six believed in a literal global flood. When a conversation ensued, one student was unwilling to say whether he believed or not some of the more interesting claims in the Talmud such as the aforementioned spontaneous generation or the existence of the phoenix. That may have been in part due to the student not wanting to discuss the matter, but the overall reaction still agrees strongly with Nussbaum.

Why are otherwise moderate theists so willing to disregard large sections of modern understanding of the world? There are a variety of factors at play. However, one factor that is worth considering is the Orthodox attitude towards Talmudic rabbis, Talmud, and associated midrashic texts. While in some respects Jewish willingness to look at associated commentary or to interpret verses using Oral Law allows for moderation and incorporation of new knowledge. That willingness can also backfire. In particular, for many Orthodox Jews, statements made by Talmudic rabbis are by nature intrinsically infallible. Thus, instead of using the Oral Law as a way of reconciling science and religion, it is used to add additional statements that must be taken as literally true. whether they are about mice arising from mud, or birds burning themselves to regenerate for another life.

So far, this anti-scientific attitude does have some limits. I'm not aware of any Orthodox Jews (regardless of type) who believe in a flat earth. But geocentrism does certainly exist among Orthodox Jews. Most disturbingly, however, is that these anti-science views seem to be becoming more common rather than less in the Orthodox world, especially in the charedi world. The charedi world is not disconnected from the rest of the Orthodox world. If the charedi world becomes more extreme, it will likely pull the rest of the Orthodox world in the same direction.

If Modern Orthodox Judaism is to be taken seriously as a reasonable religion, able to survive in the modern world, then these trends need to be countered by responsible Orthodox leadership.


Brian said...

"If Modern Orthodox Judaism is to be taken seriously as a reasonable religion, able to survive in the modern world, then these trends need to be countered by responsible Orthodox leadership."

You would do better to say "Modern Orthodox Judaism can't be taken seriously as a reasonable religion, or be able to survive in the modern world, if these trends are not countered by responsible Orthodox leadership."

Modern Orthodox Judaism is intellectually and theologically problematic for its own reasons.

G*3 said...

I went to chareidi schools from preschool through bais medrash, and what you describe is accurate. We were taught that the world revolves around the Jews, particularly frum Jews, and even more particularly chareidi Jews (though I don’t think the term “chareidi” existed back then). And not just in a theological sense. Everything that anyone did was calculated for its effect on the Jewish people, whether intentionally or because God was manipulating things. Anything that had a negative effect on frum Jews was done deliberately. And science is a conspiracy to delegitimize and lure good frum people away from yiddishkeit. As little kids my classmates and I would laugh at the silly scientists quoted in our textbooks who thought the world was millions of years old. We knew better!

I remember going to a museum with my family when I was in my early twenties. We were looking at the dinosaur exhibit and my sister, who was in high school at the time, commented that they were all fake. (She didn’t mean that the skeletons were plaster. She meant that dinosaurs, as a concept, were faked.) I asked her where the skeletons came from, and she said they were faked by “scientists.” So I asked her if she thought there was a huge conspiracy among paleontologists and museum curators to fool the world into thinking there were dinosaurs. And she said yes. This is what her school had been teaching her.

Faced with overwhelming evidence that the traditional interpretation of the chumash and rabbis of bygone days were mistaken, the chareidi world has chosen to stick its fingers in its ears and go, “Na na na na…”

Stacy S. said...

Sorry - OT -

Hey, I heard you were asking about me. I'm still lurking around!
I put on 20 lbs last year from sitting at my comp is my guess. I thought it would be better for my health to shut down the blog.
I tried to tell as many people as possible before I shut down. I'm sorry I missed you. :-(
I wasn't able to tell Pliney or Seeker either because their e mail addresses were wrong.

I'm keeping in touch with most everyone on fb. Are you on?

Joshua said...

Stacy, thanks for clarifying that. I'll go remove Colloquy from my blog list then. Just happy that everything was ok and something horrible hadn't happened.

Lautreamont said...

I like that the most oft repeated phrase by Rav Schechter is "I refuse to think about it!" How telling. It seems when faced with the almost frightening amount of evidence we have to corroborate both evolution and the big bang that this is the only recourse an intelligent man of deep Abrahamic faith has.

sniffnoy said...

While many evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Christians reject much science, it is rare for their leaders to claim that scientists are trying specifically to destroy their religion.

Hm, is this really true? I guess it might be strictly true as stated, but considering the various people they do claim are out to destroy Christianity, and that they often fail to make a distinction between Christianity and their religion specifically, and that they often don't seem to make much of a distinction among the various types of people who disagree with them, it doesn't really seem right.

Joshua said...

Harry, regardless you won't find these sorts of claims from the same level of leadership. One would not for example fine a Catholic or Orthodox Bishop making such claims. Nor would one find even such claims among Protestants. Even people Jerry Falwell never made such claims and similar remarks would go for most other prominent evangelicals. Sure, there might be individual pastors who make claims like that (one is reminded of Ray Mummerts line during the Dover trial that ""We've been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture") but one doesn't have people in the same degrees of authority making these claims.

MKR said...

I don't come from anything like an Orthodox (much less frum) background, but I can easily imagine that if I had grown up in a community in which the rabbi was revered by all and I heard him denounce those who inquire into forbidden subjects in the way that the rabbi in the video does, it would have a very strong influence on me. That sort of experience would have made me feel that ignoring or, when I could not ignore them, denying the findings of modern science was not just a matter of doctrine but of personal integrity. I wonder to what extent the anti-scientific bias that Nussbaum reports finding even among the modern Orthodox may owe to this kind of personal influence.

cipher said...

If the charedi world becomes more extreme, it will likely pull the rest of the Orthodox world in the same direction.

It's been going on for at least two generations. The Orthodoxy of fifty years ago was completely different. It began to change after WW II. While the Modern Orthodox had fewer children and emphasized secular education for them,the Chareidim were breeding like rabbits. In terms of sheer number, they now are Orthodoxy; they've commandeered the franchise.

An unfortunate part of this has also been that the MO have spent much of that time looking back over their collective shoulder, longing for the Chareidim's approval. They've allowed the Chareidim to convince them that they do, in fact, represent "authentic" Judaism, and the MO have communicated this subliminally to their children. As a result, they're losing them to the black hat world on a daily basis. You may find this interesting: New Vilna Review

Also, Moment Magazine ran an article that presented a pretty decent overview of the Slifkin business about five years ago.

It's probably just as well. The Chareidi world is collapsing, and, when they go, they'll be taking nearly all of Orthodoxy with them.

Anonymous said...

There are many ways to resolve modern scientific issues with "old" Judaic tradition.

The ultra-religious that are shunning modern science that what it offers and how it conflicts with thousands of years of tradition, are doing this for many reason. I think primarily they just don't know. They are not scientists they are Rabbi's. But they know the truth. The Torah is the truth. If it doesn't go well with a scientific theory, well then, it's a problem with the science not the Torah.

I don't know many rabbi's who are scientists or many scientist who are rabbi's. From my experience most scientist mistaken the trees for the forest and the forest for the trees.

To say emphatically that science is wrong or torah is wrong you would have to be a master in both.

Exposure to the outside world influences is a big concern to orthodox communities. This is an issue that has always been prevalent and won't go away. My opinion is that they are unsure in the stability of their own faith, where a little bit of doubt introduced can seriously confuse someone.