I am not inclined to write about the ban on R. Slifkin’s books on science and Torah. But the ban and the intense reaction of Jewish bloggers may have an impact on my work. This blog seeks to study rabbinic writings as they (arguably) pertain to such matters as environmental law, bioethics, and technology policy.
Apparently, R. Nosson Slifkin’s books were banned due to his opinions pertaining to the age of the universe, the account of creation, and the scientific validity of Talmudic positions (e.g., on ancient healing remedies). Sources below.
In general, there need be little or no conflict between Jewish contributions to public policy and Jewish law (halakhah) on evolution, creation, etc. For halakhic Jews who read the Torah in a less literal manner, the Torah rarely conflicts with secular scientific discourse. For halakhic Jews who hold to the more literal interpretations of Torah, there are a variety of personal and theoretical strategies for taking part in public deliberations on most scientific or technological matters. Deliberations about environmental policy and bioethics, thankfully, rarely (if ever) hinge on one’s religious belief about the age of the universe or the account of creation. Similarly, bioethics discussions do not pivot on a da’as Torah belief in a Talmudic healing remedy, although such remedies are rejected by scientists. Faith and science tend to find decent accommodations in the forum of public reason in the U.S., Israel, etc.
However, doesn't the ban on R. Slifkin’s books raise questions of credibility for people on both sides of the controversy? For R. Slifkin and his supporters, the rabbinic ban could discredit their ability to represent Orthodox Jewish reasoning in any public policy forum. For the authors of the ban and their supporters, the ban could discredit their ability to speak out effectively as Jews on science and technology. In other words, whoever takes sides is partly discredited in the eyes of some Jewish or science-minded audience.
Today, the ban is still a tempest in a teapot. But might it get more polarizing? Will it turn into a litmus test, as activists pressure Jews to make a Hobson’s choice between rabbinic and scientific credibility? (Who benefits from such pressure?) The more intense such a divisive controversy, the more difficult it may be for Jews to be work confidently in the gray areas between faith and science, where so much work needs to be done.
For more information, see the writings in Forward, Dei’ah veDibur (Chareidi news site), Joel Shurkin’s blog, the links at R. Slifkin’s website, Hirhurim (his publisher), Cross-Current articles by Yitzchok Adlerstein, Toby Katz, and Marvin Schick, R. Sternbuch’s position, and the new letter by R. Aharon Feldman.