Friday, November 25, 2005

Animal Instinct
Animal Instinct

Known as the 'Zoo Rabbi,' 30-year-old Natan Slifkin is at the center of a world-wide debate on teaching evolution to Jewish children. Some of his books have even been banned in both Israel and America. We spend a day at the zoo with the revolutionary rabbi.
by Benyamin Cohen

“Did you know pandas don’t have thumbs?”

Actually I didn’t and, to be completely honest, I had never even bothered to think about panda fingers, let alone their apparent lack of thumbs. And yeah, I admit, it’s a strange question. But if you consider who’s asking it, you quickly realize this is just business as usual.

It’s a bright day, sweltering as always, and I’m standing under the shade of some nearby trees by the panda paddocks at Zoo Atlanta with Rabbi Natan Slifkin, a British wunderkind who’s professed panda knowledge is wildly way off the radar.

“Thousands of animals are on the verge of extinction,” he says interjecting his own social commentary, “but when they look cute and cuddly like pandas, people care about them a lot more.”

On the outside, the guy looks extraordinarily ordinary. This day — dressed in charcoal pants, a gray button-down shirt, and a baseball cap — he appears like your typical grad student. Book bag, bottled water, and cell phone in tow he is practically the poster child for normalcy.

But, upon closer examination, you realize that what you’re staring at is an incredibly abnormal creature. In fact, he’s nowhere even near the vicinity of normal. At 22, while most of us were enjoying college, cheap liquor, and sleeping in, Slifkin wrote his first book, a compendium of thoughts on the weekly Torah portion.

He hasn’t stopped putting pen to paper since. Now, at 30, he has written seven books and has numerous more in the works — including a multi-volume encyclopedia on the Jewish view of the animal kingdom. The youngest of five siblings, he makes the underachiever in all of us cringe.

What makes Slifkin more extraordinary is his bizarre area of expertise. At his young age, he is already a widely-respected authority in the arcane field of Biblical zoology. Jewish communities the world over have invited Slifkin to give zoo tours in their towns in which he relates Biblical and Midrashic lessons about animals. Here’s a guy who, at a moment’s notice, can whip out an offbeat Talmudic reference to unicorns while explaining why the most dangerous job in America is that of the elephant keeper. Visitors to his Web site, located at, can take a virtual tour of the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem and see videos of Slifkin wrestling a crocodile.

And in typical bookish manner, all he can say is, “I’m uncomfortable with fame,” as he shrugs.

* * *

On a recent overcast morning, Slifkin is flying solo, taking in the Atlanta zoo to do some research. I ask if I can tag along, perhaps, to get some idea of who this guy really is; to study the man in his natural habitat. He obliges my request and we head out to the zoo, somewhere, admittedly, I haven’t been since a fourth-grade field trip.

Once we arrive, the surprisingly shy Slifkin seems to come into his own skin. It’s his natural environment, you can tell, and he feels quite comfortable there. Once through the entrance turnstile, Slifkin makes a metamorphosis — from shy kid to wise-beyond-his-years adult.

On the surface, Slifkin doesn’t come across as a world-renowned lecturer in Biblical zoology. But when he opens his mouth to speak, it soon becomes abundantly clear that looks can be deceiving — and the hoity-toity British accent doesn’t hurt. (He grew up in the densely-populated Jewish community of Manchester, England but now resides in Israel.) But obviously, more than that, it’s the content that makes it quality.

As we meander through the gorilla exhibit, Slifkin slips into his views on evolution, specifically that it’s not as incompatible with religion as some people might think. An Orthodox rabbi, Slifkin enjoys debunking the centuries-old myth that evolution and Judaism don’t jive. He says that with certain key modifications, evolution is an acceptable method of understanding how God might have created the world. “Evolution is a very elegant way of creating an incredibly diverse animal world,” he says. The issue is so important to him that he’s written an entire book on the subject, aptly entitled The Science of Torah. And it’s that book that will change Slifkin’s life forever.

* * *

It was just a day shy of Yom Kippur 2004 when the posters were plastered up in synagogues and on telephone poles in Jerusalem’s observant neighborhoods of Mea Shearim and Bayit Vegan. Billed as a “Public Notice” three respected Israeli rabbis (one of which couldn’t even read English) were publicly bashing Slifkin, asking him to “burn all his writings.” The rabbis cited three books in particular (The Science of Torah, Mysterious Creatures, and The Camel, the Hare and the Hyrax) that dealt with, among other interesting topics, the theory of evolution. Not only were they placing a ban on the sale and purchase of the books, but they were calling Slifkin a heretic and asked him to apologize.

The ban surprised the affable Slifkin who had already gone to the trouble of finding a number of respected fellow rabbis to write letters of approbation at the beginning of the books, a kind of kosher seal of approval to anyone who may come down the line and question the books’ veracity.

And so, despite the best efforts of those against Slifkin, the ban gained little traction. That is until this January when they got 21 more rabbinic authorities (from both Israel and America) to join in on the ban of Slifkin’s books.

Calling the contents of the books “hair raising,” the right-wing Hebrew newspaper Ya’ated Ne’eman picked up on the story and created a frenzy. You couldn’t surf the Internet without stumbling upon a Jewish blog that wasn’t covering the controversy. Newspapers covering the ban — including the Forward and even the New York Times — portrayed Slifkin, for better or for worse, to a latter-day Galileo.

Under pressure from the religious right, Targum Press stopped printing Slifkin’s books. And, not surprisingly, copies showed up on eBay for upwards of $300.

As for Slifkin himself, well, the ban hit him pretty hard. A bright and optimistic Gen-Xer, Slifkin was shocked at the outrage and sheer vitriol to his work. He was worried what the effect would be on his wife and two small children. And after one of the Israeli seminaries in which he lectured refused to keep him on staff, he began to wonder if he would be blackballed in the Orthodox community.

Not interested in becoming the poster child for evolution education, Slifkin tries to sidestep out of the spotlight and rarely speaks about the ban. “I was astonished and shaken,” is all Slifkin will say of those painful months earlier this year.

What Slifkin may lack in PR damage control is more than made up for by Yitzchok Adlerstein, a Los Angeles rabbi who’s become the go-to-guy for the media when it’s looking for a sane Orthodox voice for comment. (He was the one rabbi who spoke out against the cult-like actions of the Kabbalah Centre in a recent 20/20 segment.) “My reaction to the ban was that of disappointment, disbelief, and bewilderment,” says Adlerstein, the Chair of Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School and one of eight Torah authorities who signed off on Slifkin’s books before they were published. “I seriously believed the book to be one of the finest tools available to calm the increasingly troubled waters by thinking people within the Orthodox community, a community I inhabit myself.”

Adlerstein is also quick to point out that the impetus for the ban came from outside of America. “Their reaction was a way to protect the gorgeously beautiful complete faith of a community in Israel that serves God without the static of cultural interference,” he explains. “It is a community that is not used to answering questions from the outside.

* * *

Slifkin’s discussion of evolution was, quite obviously, not the first time the concept caused a stir. It would seem that ever since the beginning of time, whenever you personally believe that actually may be, people have had problems coming to grips with the theory of evolution. Less than a century after Charles Darwin published his seminal work on evolution, The Origin of Species, evolution walked out on the main stage of the American political consciousness. On a broiling summer day in 1925, inside a small Tennessee courtroom (and outside of it, when the judge moved the whole trial outdoors to accommodate the large crowds and sweltering heat inside), that William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow judicially duked it out over whether you could ban the teaching of evolution in schools.

Believe it or not, the whole scene was a well-orchestrated publicity stunt. Bryan had successfully lobbied for the passage of a law banning the teaching of evolution. The American Civil Liberties Union promptly placed an ad in Tennessee newspapers, offering to pay the legal fees of the first teacher willing to flaunt the law. Looking for a little publicity, the residents of Dayton, Tennessee convinced John T. Scopes (who was not, as it turns out, a science teacher — he was the high school football coach) to take up the offer.

In the 80 years since Scopes was convicted (his conviction was later set aside on a technicality — the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law itself), the tightly orchestrated show trial in Dayton has, pardon the phrase, evolved into a chaotic mess of lawsuits from one side of the country to the other. Arguably the highest profile case in recent memory involved the school system of Kansas deleting evolution from its curriculum. That invited a hailstorm of criticism, got several school board members booted out of office and, in the words of some, made Kansas an educational laughing stock.

The maelstrom finally found its way into Georgia when Cobb County, the conservative metro area that sent Newt Gingrich to be Speaker of the House, entered the evolution debate. Some 2,300 of its parents muscled a sticker onto the textbooks of its school system.

“This textbook contains material on evolution,” read the disclaimer affixed to each science book. “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.”

Though it was drafted in consultation with the school board’s lawyers, it sparked protests from parents opposed to public schools “promoting religious dogma,” in the words of attorney Michael Manley, who represented anti-sticker parents. They filed suit against the county.

In January, a federal judge agreed that the stickers were unconstitutional. In his opinion, Judge Clarence Cooper wrote, “An informed, reasonable observer would interpret the sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion. It sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community ... and to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders.”

Having already spent $74,000 to defend the case, Cobb County nevertheless has chosen to appeal the ruling with their attorney working pro bono from here on out. Calling the decision an “unnecessary judicial intrusion into local control of schools,” the board voted 5-2 to appeal. That surprised the lead plaintiff, parent Jeffrey Selman. “They’re ludicrous,” says Selman. “They’re ignoring the ruling.”

Unaffiliated with any local synagogue, Selman has endured critics who’ve called him anti-religious. “I’m not against anybody’s religion,” argues Selman, himself Jewish. “I want everybody to practice what they believe. I practice [Judaism] the way I want to.”

Emily Cohen, a student at Campbell High in Cobb County, called the whole affair “somewhat offensive,” adding, “They kind of say, ‘consider it critically,’ as if we wouldn’t have.”

And while the ongoing controversy in Cobb County has attracted national attention and polarized forces on both sides (a squadron of Jewish groups filed “friend of the court” briefs in the case, most arguing against the stickers), elsewhere in Atlanta there are Jews saying that we can all just get along — sort of.

Rabbi Kalmen Rosenbaum, principal of Torah Day School of Atlanta, doesn’t have a problem with evolution being taught at his school. He doesn’t have a problem, that is, as long as it is taught within the framework of Torah. “At our school we give the students the opportunity to view both ends of the spectrum,” he says. “Evolution is taught as a theory. The Torah teaches us ‘who’ and science attempts to teach the theories of ‘how’. There’s not necessarily a conflict per se.”

Indeed, Slifkin was not the first religious Jew to suggest the 33 Biblical verses on creation and the concept of evolution can coexist. Numerous books have already been written on the subject of harmonizing Jewish beliefs with evolution: Yeah, God created the world in seven days but a Biblical “day” doesn’t necessarily translate to what we know as a 24 hour period. Each day could’ve been a million years. Another common approach: The Torah says that humans have been around on planet earth for 5765 years. But maybe there were other “planets” with other creatures that existed.

But not everyone sees it like Rosenbaum. “All people who possess the conviction that it is wrong to steal, or to murder, or to mate with close relatives, or to cheat on one’s spouse; all who see virtue in generosity, civility, altruism or kindness; all, for that matter, who choose to wear clothes, believe — against the dictates of Darwinism — that the human realm is qualitatively different from the animal,” says Rabbi Avi Shafran from the Agudath Israel, a right wing Jewish lobbying group.

“Either we humans are just another evolutionary development, leaving words like ‘right,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘good’ and ‘bad’ without any real meaning, or we are answerable, as most of us feel deeply we are, to something higher.”

Shafran’s lobbying efforts may actually be working. In August, President Bush essentially endorsed what Shafran and, for that matter, Christian conservatives have been asking him to do for a long time: to give equal standing in the nation’s schools to the theory of “intelligent design,” the belief that life forms are so complex that their creation can’t be explained by Darwinian evolutionary theory alone, but rather points to intentional creation, presumably divine.

* * *

As we leave the ape area of the zoo, Slifkin tells me about an absurd movement on the rise to give equal rights for gorillas. As he explains it, this group wants gorillas to have the same inalienable rights as humans, claiming that if given free choice that’s what the animals would want. Slifkin immediately casts aside the odd theory which would include allowing gorillas to vote in our elections. “We should be kind to animals not because of animal rights, but because we have a moral responsibility to take care of them,” he explains. “What makes us unique from animals is our souls, not our bodies. A gorilla doesn’t make moral choices between good and evil.”

Slifkin leads me around the zoo like a kid in a candy store. Yet, all the while, he regales me in stories like a war veteran just back from the battlefield. “When I was in Kenya, I rode on the back of a big 150-year-old turtle.”

As we meander around the reptile room, Slifkin spots a tarantula and smiles fondly. “I used to have a tarantula named Big Bob,” he says, almost like he was catching a glimpse of an old friend.

When I ask him how he got one, he looks at me quizzically, as if the answer is blatantly obvious. “At a pet store, of course,” he replies.

As if a tarantula isn’t enough, he then informs me of another exotic species-turned-pet. “I used to keep pet iguanas in yeshiva,” he says straight-faced, assuming that the sheer commonality of it is boring. “I used to walk around with it on my head.”

Dangerous reptile as head-covering aside, Slifkin is literally a walking encyclopedia of the animal kingdom. It’s as if he’s applying to be a contestant on an animal trivia game show, eager to show off his wide-ranging knowledge of the strangest things.

“Did you know that salamanders can survive a fire?” he asks as we pass by the reptile. He then goes into a classic Slifkin riff — one where he references a Harry Potter book that talks about a fire-surviving amphibian. It’s his vast cache of pop-culture references that make you wonder if he’s a rabbi or a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Shortly after telling me that his favorite movie is Jurassic Park, he laments the warped vision of animals in modern cinema. “We have a skewed version of hippopotami ever since Disney had dancing hippos in Fantasia.”

As we leave the zoo, Slifkin reaches into his backpack for a snack. He says he recently partook of a dinner where pheasants and locusts were part of the menu. It was a bizarre evening where other animal-obsessed rabbis like Slifkin were served odd creatures that the Torah considers kosher, but most people still don’t eat. To a guest, it appeared more like an episode of Fear Factor than an educational outing.

It was a fun occasion, something Slifkin is having more of these days. Time has begun to heal some of his wounds. Since the ban earlier this year, a new publisher has stepped up and decided to distribute the controversial books. “The case can be made that the days of effective banning are long gone,” explains Gil Student, who spearheaded Slifkin’s new publishing effort. “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.” The company estimates they have already done a year’s worth of business in just the first month.

* * *

Later that day, after the field trip to the zoo, Slifkin is speaking at a local synagogue to a group of about 50 who’ve come to hear the boy genius. In front of the audience, you can tell Slifkin feels comfortable in his skin. Quoting Biblical verses by heart, he exudes surprising confidence behind the pulpit. He has professor-like tendencies, asking the group questions and peppering his lecture with jokes and stories.

Throughout, he draws inspiration for life lessons from the animal kingdom. “The power of the lion described in Scripture does not only refer to its brute force, but, more importantly to control its aggression and live in groups.” Slifkin uses this bit of arcane information to teach us that, as humans, we should try to harness our own wild emotions.

Slifkin spends much of the lecture debunking Biblical myths — he contends the flood, for example, did not encompass the whole earth; that Aaron’s staff turned into a crocodile, not a snake.

He goes on to use ants to illustrate the wonders of God’s creation. “Each ant in a colony serves a different function,” he explains. “There are even ants that are suicide bombers, killing themselves to save the colony.” He pauses for effect. “Socialism really does work. Marx just had the wrong species.”

As the lecture comes to a close and people exit, Slifkin shows me a copy of his latest work, an intricate and complex book about evolution and mysterious creatures mentioned in the Talmud. It’s one of his banned books that’s now selling like hot-cakes. A bit of a mysterious creature himself, Slifkin’s high-brow book sports a fire-breathing dragon on its cover. Harry Potter would be proud.

-- Bradford R. Pilcher contributed to this report.