An Old World Where Geese Don't Grow On Trees

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A lingering tale from the far side of the Haskalah: There is an attempt by some ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel to shun a young rabbi colleague of theirs because, among other things, he has concluded that the world is more than 5,765 years old. The books of Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, a science writer who attempts to reconcile sacred writings with nature, have been forbidden as a result of a religious edict signed by 23 influential rabbis. They regard his work as heretical. Slifkin has been instructed by these rabbis to "burn all his writings."

What sort of thing is in his nine books? According to the NYT, Slifkin has observed that "'tree-ring chronology, ice layers and sediment layers in riverbeds all show clear proof to the naked eye that the world is much more than 5,765 years old.'" He has also "gently debunked the claim, found in a medieval text, that geese grow on trees, explaining that it was 'based on the peculiar anatomy of a certain seashell.' And he examined the Talmudic doctrine that lice, alone of all animals, may be killed on the Sabbath because they do not sexually reproduce—a premise now known to be false."

The edict against Slifkin carries no legal weight, of course, but it has had an impact within the ultra-Orthodox community (which not to be confused with the Modern Orthodox community). His publisher and distributor dropped him, and some Web sites pulled his writings. Of course, another publisher soon picked up the titles, and "the banned books have become hits."

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  1. Thank Christ for this topic–I was getting bored shooting fish in a barrel with the Christers re Schiavo. Now I can shoot gefilte fish in barrel.

    Of course the ultra-Orthodox haven’t dragged the government into it (they have a more secular society over there, you know), so I’ll just pass over it for now….

  2. I’d love to see that “geese grows on trees” argument. Reminds me of ducks, wood and water.

  3. A four billion year-old universe is far more awesome than a 6000 year-old universe. Fundies, of every sect, think God [aka Nature] is a cheap-skate.

  4. …to “burn all his writings.”

    You know, people just never learn.

  5. Fuck mysticism and all it’s apologists.

  6. A little harsh, don’t you think? Although I am agnostic, I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable with the amount of hostility directed toward people of a more religious persuasion on this blog. What’s especially odd about the above post what provoked it.

    Claiming that the Earth is 6,000 years old is stupid, yes, but I would say that such a belief warrants quiet ridicule rather than outright hostility.

  7. Sorry…

    What’s especially odd about the above post IS what provoked it.

    I should have previewed.

  8. oy vey

  9. Of course the ultra-Orthodox haven’t dragged the government into it (they have a more secular society over there, you know), so I’ll just pass over it for now….

    Have any fundamentalist Christians tried to get the government involved in banning books that contradict their estimate of the universe’s age?

    If you’re referring to the Schiavo case, there’s more than a bit of incongruence between getting the govt involved to keep a woman from being starved to death, and getting the govt involved to ban books.

  10. A little harsh, don’t you think? Although I am agnostic, I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable with the amount of hostility directed toward people of a more religious persuasion on this blog.

    Yep, it’s amusing how often one finds posts here complaining about “religious zealots”, laced with profanities and soaked and sodden with vitriol. I might advise them to look to the plank in their own eye, but…

  11. If someone needs to believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, let him so believe. Unless he is an evolutionary scientist or some such thing, I don’t see what difference it makes. I believe the Earth to be considerably older myself, but the issue rarely comes up in conversation, and when it does, I just agree to disagree on the point. I don’t get a commission or anything on folks I convert to my point of view on this.

  12. As someone with certain spritual beliefs, I will accept that if someone wants to believe the Earth is 6000 years old and that witches are made of wood, that’s fine–stupid but fine. My problem is when someone tries to ban books arguing otherwise, or when a school teacher, paid for by my property tax dollars, determines my daughter’s science grades based on her response to such assertions. At that point those ideas will and should be attacked with vitriol.

  13. crimethink,

    I saw “Traditional Values Coalition” demand on Bullshit that profanity be excised from the language via statute. The talking head for the organization basically argued that words like “fuck” are not covered by the First Amendment and thereby can be banned from public speech (and I am not just talking about broadcast TV or radio here either).

    http://www.traditionalvalues.org/index.php

    http://www.sho.com/site/ptbs/topics.do?topic=profanity

    Georgia considers banning evolution from school texts: http://forums.lycaeum.org/cgi-bin/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic&f=13&t=001881

    Cox repeatedly referred to evolution as a “buzzword” Thursday and said the ban was proposed, in part, to alleviate pressure on teachers in socially conservative areas where parents object to its teaching.

    If you aren’t aware of these religious nutbars in our culture then you are not paying attention.

  14. crimethink: “Have any fundamentalist Christians tried to get the government involved in banning books that contradict their estimate of the universe’s age?”

    Um, yes, essentially they have. What else is it called when they try to force their religious views into science texts? It is the modern day equivalent of book banning (since outright banning isn’t going to work in the US, but don’t kid yourself, if they could they would). That is de facto banning of any science text that doesn’t include their ridiculous “theories.”

    I agree with the sentiment expressed above in that I don’t care what any individual believes, and I don’t feel the need to convert any of them. The problem is many of them are not content to simply hold those views themselves, but feel the need to foist it on society and the education system by means of cloaking theology in the garb of science with nonsense like “intelligent design” and “irreducible complexity” crap. This does make me angry and, as cdunlea points out, these attempts should be met with a vigorous refutation at every opportunity.

  15. Brian Courts wrote: “The problem is many of them are not content to simply hold those views themselves, but feel the need to foist it on society and the education system…”

    The Creationists probably feel the same way about the Evolutionists. They do not want them to foist their views on society via government schools and the like. As long as we have state schools, the curriculum is going to be politicized with hilarious results.

  16. The problem is that if you believe the world is 6000 years old instead of say millions and millions, your idea of how long it takes to renew resources like say, oil, is severely skewed and will lead to a whole lot of poorly informed decisionmaking. I wish, as a part of running for public office, a candidate had to state what they believed was the age of the earth, its shape, their stance on evoplution, etc. Granted, I think I’d vote for even fewer candidates that win than I already do.

  17. Though not directly on point, here is another example of fundies trying to crap all over this issue:

    http://www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Movies/03/23/volcano.movie.ap/index.html

    Note that despite all the “equal time” claims of fundies regarding creationism being taught in schools, its pretty clear in real life they don’t even want “equal time.”

  18. “The Creationists probably feel the same way about the Evolutionists. They do not want them to foist their views on society via government schools and the like. As long as we have state schools, the curriculum is going to be politicized with hilarious results.”

    Vache, well sure, I agree to an extent. I am against the government running the schools (the issue of public financing of education seems entirely a separate issue – i.e. even if one believes there is an argument that the market will undersupply education, this is not an argument that the government should be running the schools). I would prefer an entirely private run education system where there would be ample variety, from secular to religious, for parents to choose from. If parents want their children ill informed of science, well I feel bad for the kids but that’s not my business.

    But I’m afraid your comment misses a more fundamental issue that I was addressing. No one is forcing anyone to believe in evolution by teaching it as science – that is simply what it is, with no serious dispute among any non-fundamentalist scientists (that is not to imply there isn’t plenty of disagreement over how it happens and the precise details, but that it happens is simply beyond reasonable dispute given the evidence – and if you are going to overturn that tentative explanation you better have some simply amazing evidence because you have a lot to refute).

    The real problem is trying to require the teaching of something that is purely theological, with no scientific basis, as science. That is fine as a private decision, but so as long as we DO have public schools, their role should be to teach kids how to think, not what to think, and this is done through the proper teaching of science, history, math, etc. Not as “received wisdom,” but with an explanation that this is the best we know given our current state of knowledge, but is always open to challenge with proper evidence and argument. Teaching that any religious text is the word of God has no place in such a setting. In a theology class, fine, but keep it out of science.

  19. Good points, Brian. If students were given the straight dope on the whole evolution/creation controversy, including discussion of what constitutes science and the differences between scientific and religious statements, it might go far to alleviate concerns on both sides of the issue. The creationists would get to say “evolution is a theory” and the evolutionists would get to say “creation is not science”. Of course, I am probably a nitwit to think that folks wouldn’t fight over this curriculum, too.

  20. Oh, relgious dumbasses… what won’t you do?

  21. …Religious. I hate the alt key.

    Quite frankly, until all religion is destroyed, this will continue. There’s no other way around it.

  22. I respect your statement of faith.

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