Slifkin – The disappointment and philosophical idolatry
If you like rabbi Slifkin or you don’t want to hear my views on the stories made up by certain scientists these days, such as molecule-to-man big bang evolutionism, then stop now. Don’t read any further. I’ll just irritate you. I won’t hold it against you. This blogpost is in response to a video I watched of rabbi Slifkin called “Rabbi Natan Slifkin at Yeshiva University” which can currently be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tC2Y-AvHUIE&t=398s.
OK, so that’s what happened to dinosaurs; a meteorite about 10 miles across slammed into the world …
After showing his listeners a video clip about the final fate assigned to the dinosaurs by many of today’s scientists, the rabbi turned to them and summarized that horrible fate.
Those who read my blog may know about my negative views on the stories held high by atheist and Torah-observer alike, that which has been promulgated by a vocal set of scientists for just less than two centuries and which has filled the schools and media since that time up until now.
But some of my respected colleagues and friends speak highly of those stories, speaking of it in terms of absolute words without any reservation, without any doubt that should be inherently a part of scientific theories. Science is a tool used by humans of limited knowledge dealing with incomplete information and therefore its constructs, hypotheses and theories should be held as plausible views that may be probable and plausible but not absolute as they can change with new information or a shift in the paradigm of a loud enough group of scientists or a change in the popular biases of society. Yet many of my friends don’t use the language of probable or plausible. No, the stories that the scientists tell them are so true, so fundamentally and absolutely true, that they can take the first chapters of Bereshis (Genesis), and interpret them based on that imaginative creative creation myth of many modern scientists.
I’ve sat in classes where the rabbi/teacher will ridicule and put down a more “literal” understanding of the time scales of Bereshis, using analogies such as Harry Potter, using phrases like “the God of poof” to ridicule the idea of God creating things instantaneously rather than using slow, more naturalistic, mega-time process. A man I consider a friend used to occasionally throw insult at me regarding the “young earth” position. Each of these people would say that their way of viewing Torah, this mega-time evolutionary view, was the authentic way, the proper way, the way Jews have always viewed the Torah. I’ve already seen that this notion is patently false after viewing what ancient rabbis, such as Ramban, said about the creation week, but I’m not going to go into that here.
No, here I’m gonna focus on something else. You see, I respect my friends. Many of them are way more intelligent than me. So seeing such heights of the intellect and Torah having such views agreeable with the secular speculation about the age and development of the universe makes me doubt myself. Maybe I’ve missed something. There must be a reason why my view is wrong and theirs is right. So one of these friends shared a video of rabbi Slifkin, a rabbi known to have these evolutionary views. I had read about him and the views of those against him, but I thought to myself I would give the guy a chance and watch this video to see if he could explain things in a better way. A rabbi I respect also highly regards this man’s work. So there is more than enough reason to give this point of view another hearing.
He started with dinosaurs. Loads of people love dinosaurs. Believers in the naturalistic creation myth use it to draw in audiences young and old. He started by laying a challenge. He asked the listeners a question along these lines: How do we know that the world is older than 6000 years old? For him, as long as the history of the world is longer than 6000 years old, then the Torah has to be interpreted in other ways than its plainest reading of 6 days plus just less than 6000 years. So how do we know? According to rabbi Slifkin, dinosaurs! What about dinosaurs? Well, according to rabbi Slifkin, dinosaurs lived many many years before man came on the scene. He asked, how do we know this? How do we know that dinosaurs didn’t live 5000 years ago? Is it the lack of human records? (That question was in the video, but it highlights how willing people are to believe the statements of scientists than what people in history have said about encounters with strange big lizards.) Is it radiocarbon dating? (Once again, rabbi Slifkin didn’t correct this to say that carbon dating cannot date millions of years; radioactive dating is supposed to … if you accept certain statements of faith, untestable assumptions.) Rabbi Slifkin said no to both of these as he had something in mind that he saw as more concrete, more simple. Do you want to know this simple and concrete fact that showed that dinosaurs didn’t live 5000 years ago? Let me quote him.
It’s very simple. In the layers of rock where you find dinosaur skeletons and footprints and egg shells and so on, that is all you find! In those layers of rock, you don’t find fossils of people or cows or cats or dogs or lions. It’s a different layer of rock. And it’s not as though dinosaurs are not found in two or three places or even in 20 or 30 places. Dinosaur fossils are found in hundreds, thousands of locations around the world. And in this places, those parts of rock, that is all you find; you don’t find fossils of contemporary mammals in those layers of rock. So that is how we can even see with the naked eye that dinosaurs did not live at the same time as people. (around the 6 minute mark of the lecture)
To Slifkin, this is “more simple, more irrefutable” (his words).
I could imagine someone who already accepted evolutionism astounded at a point so powerful and simple that its simplicity caused the stormy sea and crashing waves to cease with such a suddenness that the whole of creation held its breath in astonishment. And yet there I was, confounded, wondering if he truly believed he had made a valid point. He must believe he did but how in the world …?
Look, he says a person should look at a layer of rock with dinosaur remains in to see that dinosaurs didn’t live at the same time as man. But can you spot the most obvious problems with that “more irrefutable” claim? Well, it’s not as if you can reply so, please, allow me. The problems with this “simple” evidence are that animals buried in rock neither tell you where they lived, and it doesn’t tell you where they died and it can’t tell you absolutely when they lived and died, only where their remains were buried.
Think about it! If a man falls from a height into moving water and drowns there, where his body ends up will have little to do with where he lived or died. And, as you may know, fossils are not created by a creature just dropping dead on the spot and sediment growing around the carcass slowly over thousands or millions of years while it lays there untouched, unmolested. Fossils are normally made through catastrophe, a quick or sudden deluge of water and sediment to bury and encase the remains. Waiting around too long, the forces in nature will act on the remains so that they break down or get scavenged. As dinosaurs may have had a different habitat to man, why would I think man and dinosaurs would be encased in rock together? (If you look into living fossils, you may agree with me that this “not in the same layer” logic of adherents of evolutionism is vacuous.)
Telling a person to look at rock in the expectation that by some miracle they’ll see some hidden label which says “hey dude, we lived ages before man came on the scene” is foolish advice. My God, how can looking at rock be irrefutable evidence of billions of years? Remember, he didn’t advise the simple person to learn about radioactive dating. He didn’t say that a person should learn the principles of superposition, that when one layer of rock is above another, then the one on top is younger than the one at the bottom. He said nothing like that. He just said the fact that this layer of rock only has dinosaurs, just seeing that, tells the simple man there were many many years between the fall of dinosaurs and the rise of man.
To be blunt with you and curt with his advice, that was kinda lame.
I can imagine the excuses and defences his defenders may come up with. “Oh he was talking to a certain audience.” “He only had a short amount of time and couldn’t go into it.” Lots of excuses. But at the end of it all, he used lame advice. What makes it worse is that this was meant to be “more irrefutable.”
By the way, it only takes a simple google search to see that his claim that no contemporary mammals are found in the “dinosaur layer” is either false or has evidence which totally contradicts it. Modern mammals like the squirrel and possum and other modern mammals have been found in the dinosaur layer as well as other modern creatures. But I won’t hang my hat on this as the main issue is that looking at a rock layer isn’t going to give you a date for when it was hardened into place. It’s only going to tell you that the dinosaur remains are where there are. That’s essentially it.
This was the beginning of disappointment. This should have been a sign to me saying “David, yo man! If the guy’s logic and reasoning is so poor when it comes to so called ‘simple, irrefutable evidence,’ then there’s a good chance the whole thing is gonna have the same poor way of thinking.” But I ignored the sign and continued. I had to give this guy as fair a hearing as I can.
But as if I told a stranger to slap me and then receiving numerous slaps, I had the “pleasure” of bearing through this “teaching” by the Zoo Rabbi, as he has been called.
Look, if I went through every one of his broken-reed teachings to highlight the fundamental flaws, this blog post would become an essay, and who, these days, has the time to read an essay? …. What? You think this is already as long as an essay? Ooops! Errr … Well … Ok, keep reading. Whenever you want to jump off this ship, that’s fine. I’ll just get on with it.
Now as I watched, as I listened, I passed some inadequate reasoning. I may mention it later but during his talk I started to hear a repeating message. “Modern Science says …” Oh, the Torah can’t mean this because “Modern Science says …” Man couldn’t have lived with dinosaurs because “Modern Science says …” Job couldn’t be describing an actual dinosaur because “Modern Science says …” Later, he echoed his spiritual brother, Galileo. I don’t mean the mythical Galileo who is said to have fought the mighty dragon, namely the supposedly mindless, faith-blinded, anti-science Roman Catholic Church, and is said to have destroyed the notion that the earth was the centre of the universe, who is said to have gone through such persecution and suffering at the hands of this intolerable and bigoted foe in order to bring to them, to us, the True Truth of absolute motion, that the earth circled the sun, bringing mighty evidences and “irrefutable” proofs to banish geocentricism to the annals of history, forever usurped and superceded by the vision of an Earth forever flying and spinning through the void of space. (Wow, that was a mouthful.) So I’m not talking about the mythical Galileo. No, I’m talking about the historical Galileo. He taught, “The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.” Galileo’s spirit moved across to rabbi Slifkin who promotes the idea that the main intent of the Torah is theology, and the entity called “Modern Science” has the authoritative word on physical reality.
So God could not have described a dinosaur to Job. Why? It’s not because it causes an internal contradiction in the Bible itself. No, it’s because the real authority, “Modern Science,” tells us that dinosaurs died out hundreds of millions of years before.
Wisdom comes when you call a thing by its proper name. The way rabbi Slifkin keeps referring to Modern Science, he was treating it like a Person, a divine Person who can tell us Truth. Repeatedly he committed the logical fallacy of reification. What is important, in order to judge the strength of his claims, is to rightly describe the entity he believes has so much strength, it can turn Bereshis (Genesis) into a passage with no bearing on actual reality but is just a polemic against idolatry that doesn’t actually tell you about a real creation, but just is a counter-narrative against texts like the Gilgamesh Epic.
So, his absolute standard of truth with regards to the physical universe, “Modern Science,” what does it actually refer to? It refers to a certain set of a bunch of humans, limited in perspective and knowledge, who use a limited tool of investigation, which has limited success when applied to what humans actually experience, which is inextricably bounded and founded on untestable and unprovable assumptions (statements you must take on faith), shaped by biases and previously held beliefs, use that tool on a small sliver of time and space, and then, mixing their findings with imagination and creativity, these humans arrogate to talk authoritatively about an entire universe they have never experienced, about eons of time they have never experienced, about global ecologies they have never experienced, about animals they have never observed alive, about chemical and stellar reactions they have never experienced. These are people who use a horrifyingly inadequate and infinitesimally small known sample of time and space to declare what MUST happen in a horrifyingly huge unknown universe of time and space.
That’s modern science: Specks of dust attempting to force the entire universe to bend to their theories and mental constructs.
You know, even just leaving it at the fact that “modern science” is just a bunch of humans would or should be enough to help a person realise how powerless their theories are to tell us what ACTUALLY happened in times and places we just can never ever touch, be it the distant stars or the distant past.
For me personally, when I ground that vague, elephanting term meant to have an air of authority, knowledge and Star-Trek-like endeavour, I can still respect the achievements of human discovery while acknowledging that the whole ocean doesn’t have to be ice because a droplet of it experiences cold. The universe and its history don’t have to bow to what men speculate today.
But, for Slifkin, he takes the Torah, the word of the Absolute and Transcendent, the Being that is the foundation of all reality, and says “no, You can’t talk here, only Modern Science (a bunch of humans) can tell the truth of what really happened.” And this is where I see the signs of philosophical idolatry.
Listening to rabbi Slifkin, I realised that where others, having been convinced that the tool of science still has power outside of human experience, try to reconcile the creation narrative in Bereshis 1 with the modern speculations about universal and biological history, he doesn’t. How can this be? Because for him, the creation narrative has no basis in physical reality, it is only a theological polemic against the other gods. There is absolutely no physical or temporal reality to “seven days.” The order of creation or how they were created cannot be seen in Bereshis 1. There’s just one message: God created the universe.
But there is a huge problem with this methodology. Actually, there are many issues with his method of “interpretation,” if it can even be called that, but I’ll highlight one or two.
For such a methodology to be consistent, you cannot use Genesis to teach that God created the physical universe. Why? Because Genesis is only a rebuttal to the existence of other gods. It’s only a document on theology. So where can it be said that God created the physical universe when the rest of the passage is not describing the physical universe?
Yes, of course rabbi Slifkin’s method uproots the meaning of the Sabbath according to Shemot (Exodus) 20 and 31. God did not actually do creative work for six days and rest on the seventh day. So why should a Jew keep Sabbath? Some would say, “because God commanded it.” But the easy response would be that God commanded man to do his creative work six days and rest the seventh BECAUSE God did his creative for six days and rested on the seventh. God didn’t do this according to Slifkin, so the basis of the command is erased.
Slifkin’s approach also undermines the historical statements because, according to him, Torah is ONLY about theology whereas Modern Science is about physical reality. So if the consensus of archaeologists contradicts the Torah about the existence of Abraham and Moshe, then, in order to be consistent, since the Torah ONLY teaches theology and not the history of humanity or the physical universe, then it is fair and just to question the literal existence of Moshe and Abraham. Maybe the Torah’s point is only theological and not historical.
Hey, maybe the story of the 10 plagues is not historical.
Hey, maybe the leading of the children of Israel out of Mitzrayim (Egypt) isn’t a record of actual history.
Hey, maybe the whole Sinai event is not a record of an actual historical event. I mean, the Torah is only meant to be a book of theology, not a book of history, not a book containing actual physical facts.
“David, you’re taking this too far!” No, I’m being consistent. The consensus of humans that make up the god called Modern Science are the standard of what had actually happened in the history of the physical universe. A branch of “Modern Science” is archaeology. So if the consensus of these guys says “no Moshe,” then we have to reinterpret the Torah to follow, right?
The core definition of idolatry is the act of worshipping anything else other than God as if it were a god. An important teaching linked to this is the idea that we are not supposed to give anyone or anything higher authority than the one true God or make anything his equal. But when one such as rabbi Slifkin essentially says that the plain words of Torah has to either bow down to or move out of the way of his preferred group of scientists, a charge of misguided allegiances and philosophical idolatry can be laid at his door. Who gave these humans the authority to use science so unscientifically and state, as absolute truth, what happened in unverifiable places and eras? And if it’s not absolute truth, then it can’t be given equal authority to the absolute truth which is Torah.
Plus since scientific theories are always tentative, doubtful because of the incomplete nature of the information we have and can receive, and the biases and presuppositions we have and the assumptions we make, then it cannot be said that scientific findings are factual at all, but only plausible and useful descriptions of the present state of conclusions in a person’s mind. This is far from truth.
So to give “Modern Science” the place to say “the Torah statement cannot be understood plainly because Modern Science (the current state of incomplete knowledge of some people) says …” is not only ludicrous, but it also gives “Modern Science” authority equal to divinity. This is especially true when people are attaching the label “science” to speculations about a history with no intelligent witnesses, no record given by intelligent witnesses.
I don’t think rabbi Slifkin is stupid or crazy. But I’m quite certain he’s ignorant of the most basic aspects of science, its limitations, its weaknesses, the role of philosophy, agenda and bias in the formation of theories, etc. And I don’t need to be an expert on such things to draw such a conclusion.
The other parts of the video highlighted for me how rabbis like rabbi Dovid Gottlieb do a much better job of dealing with ideas such as “a universe made mature” and the possibility of created fossils most likely because rabbi Gottlieb has expertise on logic and philosophy. You can hear it yourself at http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/Rabbi_Gottlieb_Tapes.html and a mp3 there called “Evolution and the Age of the Universe.” Rabbi Slifkin represents what I’ve seen in many a professed scientist or “science” promoter in that they only have a superficial knowledge of the practice of science but little knowledge of its philosophical underpinnings. And that is the downfall, both for themselves and this generation that accepts their word as a truth they can never possess. I believe the two great idols of this age, the State and Modern Science, (or maybe it is the one idol of human worship) will help bury this or the coming generations.
I appreciate what some may say, that the obedience to God’s commandments is the most important thing, that he appeals to Jews who worship the words of the priests of scientism, believe them to have constructed the true history of humanity, and thus could leave observance of God’s law. I’m sure many Gentiles see Judaism and Torah more positively because it can wrap so comfortably round their pre-existing faith in Modern Science. And it’s great for anyone to keep the part of God’s law that is relevant to that person. Such a person won’t give a damn about my point of view on rabbi Slifkin.
But the positives that may come from Slifkin’s approach with Torah doesn’t mean he can escape criticism for essentially making Bereshis 1-11 into a work of polemic fiction and homily and for giving so much authority to his preferred group of scientists that they sit in the divine seat of builders of the universal history and universal structure.
Hmmm … I think I can leave this as it is now. I don’t know if I have disagreed more with any person than how much I disagree with that video of Slifkin’s. I may have, but I don’t remember right now.
Hmmm … that’s an odd ending. But it’s an ending nonetheless.