Friday, November 11, 2011

Who Cares About Evolution?

I have often wondered why some Very Religious People are so hung up on evolution. After all, there are much bigger intellectual threats to traditional Judaism. And there certainly were great Torah authorities who saw no problem with evolution. Why, then, so people obsess over evolution so much?

There are doubtless several reasons for this, but one in particular emerges from another question to be asked on Rabbi Avi Shafran's recent very strange article criticizing the scientific community for failing to be self-critical, which I analyzed in the previous post. It includes a single sentence in which Rabbi Shafran acknowledges that "it may indeed turn out that... as Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch considers possible, that G-d created species through a process that began with a single cell."

Praise is due to Rabbi Shafran for acknowledging that evolution, at least in terms of common ancestry, is not to be ruled out on either scientific or theological grounds. (I wonder if this is due to the complimentary copy of The Challenge Of Creation that I sent to him?) But here's an interesting question: How is it that he felt comfortable saying such a thing, and he is not taking flak for it, in light of the Great Torah/ Science Controversy of 2004-2005?

The answer to all these questions is, I propose, that the kerfuffle over evolution has very little to do with its alleged theological difficulties (which are, after all, easily solved). Rather, it has to do with social identification.

Many scientists, and especially evolutionists, are associated with atheism and are therefore "bad guys" (and a strong perception has developed that it is not just evolutionists, but evolution itself which is inherently anti-religious). Correspondingly, trashing evolution has become associated with the religious camp and its duties. That's why there is so much more passion about fighting evolution rather than other, more serious, intellectual threats.

The important thing here, for people in the Very Religious Camp, is to show allegiance to the home team. And so endorsing the theological acceptability of evolution is fine if it's a throwaway sentence in a lengthy article trashing scientists. What matters is that the clear message is given: Scientists=bad, Us=good.

39 comments:

  1. In as much as you claim to understand chareidi society, you are clearly a foreigner and haven't got the first clue about the way they think.

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  2. It bugs me when people accuse others who are against what they consider bad science to be against science. With this in mind, I recommend the following talk:

    "Anti-Science": Unpacking a Vague & Distorted Label

    http://intelligentdesign.podomatic.com/enclosure/2011-10-24T15_11_09-07_00.mp3

    (Host David Boze discusses the ambiguous label "anti-science". What does it mean? What are the implications? Who's using it?

    The term is being bandied about, not just in science journals and newspapers, but in the political arena as well...)

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  3. Not referring to scientists in general, but to evolutionary biologists in particular, the percentage of atheists is anywhere from 56 to 95%, according to Google. The following study seemed pretty decent to me; it focused on "eminent" evolutionists: http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2007/06/evolutionary-biologists-flunk-religion.html It put the percentage over 80%, and maybe up to 90%.

    So, when I see you write: "a strong perception has developed that ... evolutionists especially, are associated with atheism", I have to wonder why you focus on the perception as opposed to the reality.

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  4. You're absolutely right. I'll try to fix it.

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  5. hypothesis?
    The reason for evolution being discussed more is probably much simpler. The 'more serious intellectual threats' are not frequently discussed in the world at large. Many of the 'Very Religious' may not even have heard of them. They also have less evidence. Also, the very fact that evolution is less problematic could make it easier to be mentioned.

    the reverse
    Also, they don't attack evolution as a way to attack scientists. The reason they attack scientists is because of their theory of Darwinian evolution. They don't attack physicists for believing in relativity. Just because evolution is fully accepted in your circles, that does not mean Haredim have no issues with it.

    we can say it
    There are two issues they have with evolution: A)it goes against the literal meaning of the pesukim. B)it it claims everything happened randomly. More moderate or educated haredim probably do not feel 'maseh bereishis' has to be literal, so only 'B' is a problem. But if one stresses that it was God who 'created species through a process' then B is also solved. So one could mention it as a possibility.

    quantum gravity
    Not everything is just a social construct. You can disagree with them over whether evolution is problematic, but that doesn't mean they don't actually believe their positions.

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  6. I think you are incorrect about the lack of threat that comes from the Theory of Evolution. No person who has a respectable high school education....and certainly nobody with a decent college education.... can sit down and start reading the Tora without immediately thinking "well, THAT'S certainly not true". And this thought repeats itself constantly...like a mantra. The narrative voice of Torah...which is supposed to be divine...seems completely unaware of the evidence that He created. From this point of view, God is the product of a hoax or of some very deluded writer/s.

    So, the threat to religiosity may be in the area of Authorship. But the evidence that God is not the author is clearly laid out in, for example, the Theory of Evolution, which uses evidence brilliantly and does not at all comport with how God creates the different species of plants and animals in the Torah. At least, not by the traditional and ancient understandings of Bereishis.

    Gary Goldwater

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  7. Let's be frank: It's all a matter of what hat you wear and whether you kowtow to the right people.

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  8. Yep, never understood all the dilemma myself. Somewhere along the way I decided that if people want to discover that they're descended from monkeys who am I to prove them wrong. Everyone needs ancestors. It's a lonely world without.

    If my memory doesn't fail me as to who's invovled, many years ago on a plane flight from Israel to America two of the passengers were HaRav Ya'akov Kaminetsky, zt"l and Yerucham Mashal, the then head of the Histadrut (1973-'84). At some point well along in the flight, Yerucham Mashal commented to Rav Ya'akov how impressed he was by how Rav Ya'ako's grandchildren attedended to his every need, adding, "my grandchildren pay me no attention."

    Replied Rav Ya'akov, "You believe you came from monkeys, so your children and grandchildren know that each generation is farther along down the line and better than the previous generations. My children and grandchildren know that we came from Har Sinai and that each generation as it progresses is further from that light."

    I have other thoughts about this topic, which I won't share at the moment, but what Yerucham Mashal didn't understand but which Rav Ya'akov did is, "we come from kedushah."

    And the greatest kedushah we've been blessed with is...

    Shabbat Shalom
    Daniel Eliezer

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  9. What is a greater challenge to Judaism? You might say Biblical criticism and the academic assumptions about Torah shebaal peh, but most charedim know nothing about these subjects and assume it's all hogwash.

    To them evolution and the like are th biggest challenges. To be honest, as long as I was in charedi yeshivas, it was the only question I knew of as well.

    It is only now that I realize that evolution is the least of our problems.

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  10. There's probably some truth to what you're saying. However, it's also along the lines of what others have said.

    The right wing of the Chariedi world tries very hard to cultivate and maintain Emunah Peshuta among their flocks. Dealing with scientific issues visa vis the Torah is only a B'dieved, usually reserved for Baalei Teshuva and others who have gone "off the derech" of "Torah only". I think that maintaining Emunah Peshuta requires, at least as regards anything outside of the Torah orbit, Machshava Peshuta. Thus, science, as one of the most "dangerous" forms of Machshava, becomes an enemy which must be denigrated and debunked in the eyes of the flocks.

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  11. I think there's also a lot of historical baggage that goes along with evolution, such as Social Darwinism, which isn't a scientific theory at all, but rather, an ideology. In fact, I think to a great extent, the anti-evolution streak in charedi Judaism is copied from fundamentalist Christianity, which not only holds a less sophisticated view of scripture then is found in Judaism, including most of charedi Judaism, but also has reacted against evolution based to a large extent on historical circumstances in which evolution was identified with modernity, and with a perceived trend towards devaluing the importance and worth of the individual (e.g., Social Darwinism). All in all, there is a serious failure by the charedi critics of evolution to distinguish between the actual theory of evolution, as put worth by Darwin and his successors, and the historical and ideological baggage that has attached itself to this theory. Of course, alongside of this is a very unfortunate ignorance, which sometimes seems willful, of the theory itself, the evidence behind it, and the character of Darwin himself, whom even some of our greatest rabbis attacked without, I believe, knowing anything about him.

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  12. You are ALMOST correct.

    It's not about scientists = athiests... it's about Very Religious Christians. It's all politics.

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  13. Now that you are post-charedi (officially at least, it may have been for a while), is there any good reason to call R. Hirsch, "Shamshon?" I believe he went by Samson or the German pronunciation equivalent, and in Hebrew Shimshon, although in Israel I usually hear him referred to as Rashar Hirsch.

    Is there any grammatical or historical basis to that pronunciation or is it yeshivish?

    By the way I also tend to call him that, but just wondering.

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  14. Yehuda Levi, in Facing Current Challenges p 179, has some interesting statistics about atheists. Biologists bet 40% - 50%. Among psychologists, close to 100% are atheists.

    I'd love to see some updated research on the matter.

    It is fascinating that there is so much bashing of evolution, and not much bashing of psychology. Plenty of American Bais Yakov graduates, get degrees in psychology.

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  15. The reason evolution is so dangerous is that for many people, their belief rests on a combination of their sense of wonder at the world and an informal version of the Watchmaker Argument. They look at the world in general, and life in particular, and feel fully justified in thinking that all of this must have had a Creator. Then along come evolutionary scientists and show that, no, God isn’t really necessary to explain the diversity and complexity of life.

    Evolution certainly doesn’t rule out God, but it closes one giant gap that God was previously seen as necessary to explain.

    By the way, this only explains the more intellectual opposition to evolution. For the average person, (and what I was taught in yeshiva) it’s a combination of “scientists” as an evil anti-religious cabal, evolution as a ridiculous idea that people come from monkeys, and cute stories like the one Daniel told above.

    Speaking of which, how about this version of the story, posted by a venerable member of the blogosphere last year:

    A Rav and a biology professor happened to be sitting on a plane next to each other. They each had their grandchildren on board too. During the flight, the rav’s grandchildren were behaving like vilda-chayos (wild animals), jumping around and generally causing a huge disturbance. The professor’s grandchildren on the other hand were very well behaved and sitting quietly, like proper English schoolboys.

    After a while the rav turns to the professor, and says "Excuse me professor, but how come my grandchildren are so badly behaved, while yours are so well behaved?"

    The professor replies "Ah Rabbi, the answer is poshut. You see, we believe in evolution, in the ascent of man. Each generation gets increasingly more human and more sophisticated, hence my grandchildren are models of restraint and good behavior. However you believe in yeridas hadoros, that every generation away from Sinai is further and further devolved. Hence your grandchildren are behaving like monkeys!"

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  16. Evolution isn't the problem. I can show you evolution in a petri dish.
    The problem is the timing of the Mabul given the unbroken chain of civilization going back past what the simple reading of the Torah suggests is the date of the Mabul.

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  17. R. Shafran's article nonwithstanding, I'm not sure if evolution is, in fact, such a big deal. It all depends upon the circles you're part of, I suppose. I never really hear anyone discussing it.

    It seems to me biblical criticsm is far and away the MUCH bigger issue to grapple with. Evolution, Big Bang - all these theories must be and can be reconciled with the Torah. Biblical Criticism, on the other hand, concerns the very Torah itself.

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  18. The Rabbis who condemned your books were indeed concerned about theological issues. Understandably, you responded on a theological level. These Rabbis were not merely putting down scientists.

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  19. I would add also, importantly, that nowadays science has become so politicized, that it calls into question the science formualated a century ago. Among many examples, consider the supposed science underlying the proponenets of global warming, the homosexual gene, and second-hand smoke. All of these areas are fraught with poltical agendas, and yet the proponents of these causes bandy about so-called scientific studies that many of know intuitively to be false. RNS, you have to consider this when wondering why so many people reject evolution.

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  20. "Many scientists, and especially evolutionists, are associated with atheism and are therefore "bad guys."[...] Correspondingly, trashing evolution has become associated with the religious camp and its duties."

    I'd say this dynamic is also at work in shaping many religious Jews' attitudes toward environmentalism and the ethical treatment of animals.

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  21. Yehuda said ...
    Well said.
    I have a problem with Talmud Bavli when I realize that so much there was written without any Messora.
    Their whole train of thought was already ridiculed by their contemporaries in Israel proper.
    Today TB is ruling uncontested.

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  22. I believe that the dispute over evolution and the refusal by so many religious people to accept it is that, as Steven Weinberg famously quipped: science does not make God impossible, science merely makes God unnecessary. Evolution is so offensive to so many fundamentalists because it removes the *need* for God to explain how we got here - or certainly limits that role drastically.

    Evolution plugs a major hole that believers in the God of the Gaps so desperately need. Shafran and friends are such believers.

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  23. From Dov Zlotnik's Intro to the works of R. Shaul Lieberman. I think it VERY apropos here:

    An observation in Greek in Jewish Paleastine, one that the professor would repeat in his classes, is that the sages were "men of their time". They were "modern" and as such accepted the "science" of their day in much the same way as scientific truth is accepted today, provided it did not specifically clash with Jewish law. Astrology is a case in point. Not to admit its power was tantamount to rejecting an "established fact, to discredit a "science" accepted by both Hellenes and barbarians. Neverthelss, Rabbi Johanan, the head of the academy in Tiberias, insisted that astrology has no inlfluence over the Jews. [Ain Mazal Liyisarael]"

    There is something in there to think about for both RNS and his opponenets.

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  24. My unanimous experience with various haredim on this issue is that it insults them to think that their gedolim evolved from monkeys (as if gedolim are a separate specie from the rest of mankind). At one home in particular, I suggested that our tail bones are evidence that we evolved from monkeys. Our host had never heard such an idea and was horrified by my comment.

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  25. I think the threat to the fundamentalists is clear.

    If the Torah's account of creation is literal and known to be false by today's science and almost universally believed, why should anything in the Torah be believed to be true or accurate.

    I would suggest this is an accurate assessment on their part.

    With that said, The Torah never tells us the manor in which we are supposed to believe it. The fundamentalists believe one way because they relate that way and modern Jews believe their way.

    I will repeat a common point I keep making. We need
    to accept a spectrum of Jewish beliefs and practices and realize, no one is all right and no one is all wrong.

    Perspective is everything.

    Shalom

    Rabbi Simon

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  26. Baruch Gitlin, if they knew about the man himself they'd say he was a real mentsch.

    When he was outside the UK he sometimes hired locals. He paid them the same as his English workers, something almost unheard of in that day.

    One of the reasons he waited so long to publish was that his wife was quite religious. He felt it would cause her and other Christians discomfort.

    He felt there was some intellectual merit in his cousin Galton's work on eugenics, that by helping weak people survive society might be harmed. But he rejected policies aimed at "improving the breed" because it went counter to human sympathy which he considered "the noblest" human trait. He considered education and social justice to be much more important. In other words, tzedakah and chesed were among his most deeply held personal values.

    It's also important to remember that he didn't invent the idea of evolution. It was already there. What Darwin did was propose an elegant theoretical mechanism and backed it up with voluminous research.

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  27. I'm a great fan of your blog, as I told you when we met. The one thing I can't agree with is your repeated assertion that the issue of evolution is a minor theological issue for Jews.
    This assessment does not resonate with me.
    Your attempt at incorporating evolutionary theory within Judaism by adapting Judaism itself to accommodate it, is likely to meet with much opposition, and rightly so. Those who wish to reject these "upgrades" and to remain true to ancient conceptions inherent in the creation narrative will be forced to oppose your efforts.
    A reliance on Maimonidean synthesis of ancient torah and greek cosmology is admirable starting point for you, but that cannot work for evolutionary theory.
    The modern orthodox rational Judaism you strive to create will demand compromises which many in either camp will be unlikely to accept.

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  28. Until I Googled it, I was sure that kerfuffle could not possibly be a real word.

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  29. Eric

    "Now that you are post-charedi (officially at least, it may have been for a while), is there any good reason to call R. Hirsch, "Shamshon?" I believe he went by Samson or the German pronunciation equivalent, and in Hebrew Shimshon, although in Israel I usually hear him referred to as Rashar Hirsch.

    >Is there any grammatical or historical basis to that pronunciation or is it yeshivish?

    >By the way I also tend to call him that, but just wondering.

    To begin with, Rabbi Slifkin was quoting Rabbi Shfran verbatim, so he simply preserved the spelling.

    Now, you are correct that he went by "Samson," with the German pronunciation. "Shamshon" is, as best I can figure, the Lithuanian Jewish pronunciation of "Samson" (not "Shimshon"). In addition, if you look on page 65 of יודישע שפריכווערטער און רעדענסארטען by I. Bernstein and B.W. Segel(Warsaw 1908) we see that "in Rusland lauter der Name auch Schamschon." I conjecture this happened on the basis of the fact that the Litvaks often pronounced "sin" as "shin." In addition, there was a historian from Kovno named Jacob Schamschon.

    That said, there are also many many German sources which spell the name Schamschon, which leads me to suspect that at least some German Jews pronounced the name this way as well.

    In short, it is not an error. It is simply not the English "Samson," the German "Zamzun," (although it is spelled the same as the English) or the Hebrew Shimshon. It is, however, an authentic historical pronunciation of this name, and perhaps even one used by German Jews.

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  30. As others have said, I think there is an instinctive aversion to the theory of evolution as a simple reading of the Torah implies creation. Though I agree it can be reconciled with the Torah, easily if one accepts directed evolution.

    However, I have an additional, scientific, problem. There is no sensible mechanism that can explain evolution. The probabilities of the encoding imbedded in DNA are simply not reasonable in the 15 billion years of the universe. Your evidence of a common decent does not lead to the theory of evolution. It could just as well fit with the claim of creation by G-d.

    Natural selection simply does not match the real numbers over the time period of the universe. And as long as there is not a sensible mechanism to explain evolution it remains a very weak theory.

    Avraham

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  31. The problem with evolution is not the mechanics behind evolution, but the absence of God. Yes the laws of nature where laid down by Hashem, so the idea of random occurrences are a biproduct of Hashems handy work. Even Darwin stated in the Decent of Man, that there wasn't enough time in the existence of the universe for so many random acts to occur (without the help of the Creator). The words in bracket may have been stated to satisfy his wife or as a joke. As soon as I find the page it's in I'll let you know.
    In a televised program, Douglas Johannson and Richard Leakey where invited to discuss the line of decent of man. Johannson had a very nice chart depicting such decent. Richard takes a red marker and draws a large x on it, flips the board over and draw a big question mark. He states we don't know how or from where.
    I support evolution, but I live by Torah. The problem is not evolution but what it brings in its carry on bag. There are many area's which pose problematic in our Torah, but it is up to us to figure it out. It is the truth, some revealed, some need extra digging. Science offers this too, but again, eliminates God. So as one who majored in science and loves Torah, I have to say, given a choice I choose Torah. At least it comes with the Architect.

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  32. "Many scientists, and especially evolutionists, are associated with atheism and are therefore "bad guys" (and a strong perception has developed that it is not just evolutionists, but evolution itself which is inherently anti-religious)."

    There may be some validity to this idea specifically about evolution, which has always been understood as a religious threat, but I don't think this extends to science in general. Religious people tend not to dislike quantum mechanics, in fact they love it (even if they don't understant it). If it is true, one must ask why evolution specifically is associated with anti-religious sentiment.

    Evolution is a religious threat on multiple levels. It is clearly discordant with the Genesis account of creation and speciation, although obviously some will reinterpret those verses.

    On a more broad level, it is in direct opposition to the religious worldview. Fundamentalist religion is all about distinction. Orthodox Jews are better than Conservative Jews. Jews are better than goyim, who are already practically animals (bsar chamorim bsaram). And the animals themselves only exist for us jews (ok, that's true about the goyim too!). It's the same reason Orthodox rabbis love to rank on PETA. There can be no connection between animals and Jews in an OJ's mind, the chasm must remain untraversable.

    Orthodox Judaism and the realization that these distinctions are superficial are sadly incompatable. Some will argue that evolution does not necessarily imply this lack of distinction, and perhaps this is so, but it does help explain the fundamentalist reaction.

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  33. "And as long as there is not a sensible mechanism to explain evolution it remains a very weak theory."

    While I maintain that the distinction between evolution and quantum mechanics is as I described above, I forgot to mention that, concerning evolution, every yokel thinks he has expertise in the area. Although I do suppose that if quantum mechanics were deemed a threat, there would be some fundamentalist soundbite such as, "Wave and particle? That's silly, and until a sensible mechanism is found, it remains a very weak theory."

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  34. "While I maintain that the distinction between evolution and quantum mechanics is as I described above, I forgot to mention that, concerning evolution, every yokel thinks he has expertise in the area. "

    When it comes to natural selection via purely random mutation, the numbers really don't add up.

    This is why you will find some scientists trying to find larger influences on evolution that affect the outcome.

    Just like they realized that DNA alone could not explain variance in human behavior, and were excited when they found out that hormones during pregnancy were a factor as well. (Or did they just declare that? I'm not sure on the history there)

    I feel that if people spoke about "arbitrary mutations" instead of "random mutations" there would be less Monday-morning scientists doubting the education they receive about evolution. http://johnthedebs.blogspot.com/2008/01/arbitrary-vs-random.html

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  35. "The problem with evolution is not the mechanics behind evolution, but the absence of God."

    You could make such a statement about all scientific methodology, as it is impossible for human methods to make predictions about God's actions (at least until a true prophet appears again).

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  36. How is it that he felt comfortable saying such a thing, and he is not taking flak for it, in light of the Great Torah/ Science Controversy of 2004-2005?

    The answer to all these questions is, I propose, that the kerfuffle over evolution has very little to do with its alleged theological difficulties (which are, after all, easily solved). Rather, it has to do with social identification.


    I can answer all your questions intuitively without positing some deep sociological theory:

    1) He felt comfortable saying it because R' Shafran considers himself a pure Hirschian first, and a chareidi second.

    http://onthemainline.blogspot.com/2010/10/interview-with-rabbi-avi-shafran-about.html

    "And I consider myself a Hirschian beyond any qualification. I very much live that way, that's how I educate my children - this is how I've raised my children, who are fine, frum people and, and how I decide what I'm reading or what I'm exposed to."

    (And its not the least surprising that a Hirschian has become a spokesman for the Agudah. He is following a long historical tradition in doing so. And a true Hirschian must be a good spokesman almost by definition.)

    2) Who says he's not taking any flak or will not take any flak for it soon?
    Why are you jumping to sudden conclusions?

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  37. Lo Fidalti said... I have a problem with Talmud Bavli when I realize that so much there was written without any Messora.

    Did you arrive at that conclusion despite the various sefarim which defend Talmud Bavli, such as מעוז הדת
    &
    מטה דן [in English as The Rabbis’ Advocate, Yashar Books (RNS’s publisher) – see also http://seforim.blogspot.com/2009/09/r-david-nieto-matteh-dan.html] & הקדמת הערוך השולחן לחושן משפט? Have you gone through מלבי"ם and other commentaries on the Chumash who devote much space to defend material that appears in Talmud Bavli? If not, try them so you can arrive at a more knowledgeable assessment.

    Their whole train of thought was already ridiculed by their contemporaries in Israel proper.

    מטה דן – The Rabbis’ Advocate 2:151-156 demonstrates that in all the cases where the ‘contemporaries from Israel proper’ expressed themselves sharply against the Babylonian rabbis their critique could only have been דרך שחוק וחבה because the substance of the critiques was not strong enough to warrant such strong criticism [בבלי טפשאי] as would appear from their literal words. The substance, he says, wasn’t even the kind of critique that would warrant the words they used. He also cites R Yochanan –an especially prominent ‘contemporary from Israel proper’ – who says in Bava Kama 117b to his Israeli students, “I thought you were the Torah greats, but now I see that the Babylonians are”.

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  38. You're not incorrect, but make sure to consider the opposite side too. The large majority of Modern Orthodox Jews -- or atheists, for that matter -- don't believe in evolution on its merit. They don't understand what evolution is beyond being able to regurgitate inaccurate bite-sized summaries, and if asked why they believe in it, wouldn't be able to come up with a better answer than "scientists say so". They believe in it because everyone around them does, and only those crazy weirdo anti-science people don't.

    This is true for pretty much all beliefs, in fact. Almost everyone picks up most of their beliefs from the surrounding society, not based on the beliefs' merit. This is an important point to reflect upon -- but when you state it only with respect to charedim, it comes across as an attack on charedim instead of a general point. I think your blog would benefit from more equal time being given to Modern Orthodox failings. Your audience is mostly Modern Orthodox, so trying to fight Modern Orthodox misconceptions is more productive anyway.

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  39. I so agree with Aryeh's analysis. As a genomics researcher, I'm occasionally drawn into a tight circle of aghast Bar Mitzvah guests who want to know how I can do such work if I (as they assume) don't believe in evolution. Then they're shocked when I tell them that I do, and that there's no reason why I shouldn't. And then I hear about how all scientists are atheists...

    The truth, as I see it, is that people are scared of what they don't understand. Science is difficult. It's hard to explain. I can tell someone that over 90% of human DNA corresponds nicely to chimp DNA, but they can't fathom how and why the seemingly minor differences matter so much. And I can try to explain, but it took me years and years to learn it for myself and several years of seeing it for myself. I can't sum all of it up in layman's terms in 2 minutes or less. But I can try.

    Awesome blog, Rabbi Slifkin. Keep up the great work!

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