The Jewish Chronicle - London, UK

21-Jan-2005

'Zoo Rabbi' accused of heresy

by SIMON ROCKER

A Manchester-born Orthodox rabbi is at the centre of a controversy over Torah and science after his books were branded as "heresy" by some of the world's most influential rabbis.

Former Manchester Jewish Grammar School pupil Natan Slifkin, widely known as "the Zoo Rabbi" because of his love of animals, has fallen foul of the rabbinical right-wing for believing the world is millions of years old and that the talmudic rabbis held sometimes scientifically inaccurate views.

In a statement published in the religious newspaper Yated Ne'eman, his strictly Orthodox accusers called on him to burn two of his books, "The Science of Torah" and "Mysterious Creatures," describing them as "full of heresy and apostasy."

Rabbi Slifkin, who lives in Israel, declined comment but, defending his writings in a long essay on his "zootorah" website, he called the charge of heresy, "hurtful."

His critics include powerful Orthodox figures such as Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman from Israel and Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon of America's Lakewood Yeshivah. One Israeli yeshivah head is quoted as saying that the books were "hair-raising to readů He believes that the world is millions of years old - all nonsense!"

But, on his website, Rabbi Slifkin cites 19th- and 20th-century Orthodox authorities such as Rabbis Avraham Kook and Samson Raphael Hirsch to support the compatibility of evolution with traditional Judaism.

He also quotes rabbinic precedents for believing that the talmudic sages were "mistaken in certain scientific matters" - for instance that lice bred by "spontaneous generation."

One supporter - Rabbi Rashi Simon, director of the Kesher Centre in London - commented: "It is unfortunate that a reactionary tendency has gripped so much of the Torah world in recent years. His detractors for the most part have not read his books, only a few extracts taken out of context and viewed from the narrow perspective of those who don't have any appreciation or understanding of the role of science in the world. There's a kind of McCarthyism at work.

"The climate is such that many of his supporters defend him quietly while his detractors denounce him loudly and publicly."

Yehudah Horovitz, an Israeli book-exporter who has catalogued the books, said that he was "shocked" by the picture of a dinosaur on the cover of one. "Saying the word 'dinosaur,' let alone picturing one, is for the Charedi world like saying 'sex.' It sets off a whole set of associations they are opposed to. Still, I do not understand how they can ban his books."

A product of Manchester's Shaarei Torah and Israeli yeshivot, Rabbi Slifkin, who is 29, has published seven books exploring Judaism's relationship with nature and the animal kingdom. He has kept iguanas and tarantulas as pets, scuba-dived in coral reefs and run courses on Torah and zoology.

(Picture: "Lions can prove friendlier than some other rabbis for 'the Zoo Rabbi,' Natan Slifkin.")

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