An Old World Where Geese Don't Grow On Trees


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."