Aug 31, 2006 — While many Orthodox people see the intelligent design movement as a way to reclaim the origins of the universe from atheist scientists, Rabbi Natan Slifkin, known as the “Zoo Rabbi,” feels that theory actually minimizes God’s role.
“Really, it’s trivializing God –– this movement that many people think is a friend of Jewish and religious people,” Rabbi Slifkin said during a lecture at Stern College for Women. “I find it theologically offensive.”
Rabbi Slifkin was invited to speak about “The Heresy of Intelligent Design” by the Stern College Biology Department. Rabbi Slifkin said the title of the talk was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, given the ban on his books and labeling of his ideas as heresy in some circles.
Speaking to a packed crowd of more than 110 people, Rabbi Slifkin discussed why he supports many of the concepts of evolution, and why he thinks they are not contrary to Torah Judaism. Also discussed were the age of the universe and the interplay between Torah and science.
Rabbi Slifkin has come under fire for writing that the world is billions of years old, not 5766 as a literal reading of the Torah would conclude. He also believes that the six days of creation are not literally six days, but rather a “but rather a theological text that is is superficially guised with simple lessons that speak to the broadest of audiences.” Rabbi Slifkin’s comments are based on the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim, saying that the creation account in Bereshit is not to be taken literally.
“You are a group of people studying science and confronting science, and you deserve to know this,” Rabbi Slifkin said to the audience of mostly Stern College students.
Students reacted strongly, with thoughtful questions. Rebecca Hazan, who just began her first year on the Beren Campus, said her biology professor Dr. Brenda Loewy suggested she attend Rabbi Slifkin’s lecture.
“The past hour and a half has really opened my eyes and changed my world view,” the Philadelphia native said.
Rabbi Slifkin explored what people mean when they talk about evolution. Sometimes people say they don’t believe in evolution because they are talking about one of two related theories: Common Ancestry or Natural Selection. Common ancestry refers to the idea that all creatures are descended from one progenitor. While critics say that gaps in the fossil record cast doubt on common ancestry, Rabbi Slifkin pointed out that there is much evidence, including the general anatomical structure of animals and vestigial organs, that support common ancestry.
Then Rabbi Slifkin turned to the idea of natural selection, the process by which individual organisms with favorable traits are more likely to survive and reproduce than those with unfavorable traits. While common ancestry is a generally agreed fact for most scientists, natural selection is closer to a theory because “we don’t have just one explanation of how one species changes into another,” Rabbi Slifkin explained.
The intelligent design movement attacks the idea of natural selection by saying that since there are certain aspects of biological organisms that cannot be accounted for by natural selection, they must be evidence of God’s intervention.
“The intelligent design movement says scientific explanations are not good enough,” Rabbi Slifkin said. “The implicit message of intelligent design is that you cannot see God in things that science can explain. It would mean that the Neviim who spoke of seeing God in the majesty of the cosmos –– they got it all wrong because science can explain that!”
Rabbi Slifkin also explained that the predictability of science meshes with Judaism. Before Avraham introduced monotheism, people attributed events to the wrath or pleasure of the gods. But Avraham introduced that idea that there is an underlying order to the natural world that originates from one God.
Slifkin also addressed the concern about the “randomness” of evolution, citing the examples of Purim and the lottery that allocated land in Eretz Yisrael to the tribes as two random methods. “It seems like random events, but in the end we see it’s God behind the scenes.”
Slifkin has been in the United States for several months this summer and early fall promoting his new book, “The Challenge Of Creation: Judaism’s Encounter with Science, Cosmology and Evolution,” and giving lectures.