Tuesday, February 23, 2016
Zoo Rabbi Doctor
I am pleased to announce that after five years at Bar-Ilan University, I finally received my doctorate!
This represents the culmination of a change in my life's direction that I not only did not foresee, but would have positively feared and hated. Twenty years ago, when I was twenty years old, I successfully fought against my parents, who were urging me to leave yeshivah and attend university. At the time, even if I would have attended university, it would certainly would not have been to study Jewish subjects. I looked at academics in the field of Jewish studies with deep suspicion, especially if they were also rabbis. Rabbis should be rabbis, and doctors should be doctors!
A number of factors combined for me to finally enter Machon Lander, at the age of 33, as described in my post From Yeshivah to Academia. After obtaining my Master's degree, it seemed natural to progress to a doctorate at Bar Ilan. But which department should I choose?
Since the Great Torah Science Controversy of 2004-2005, I had been fascinated by the following question: How can something seem so obviously true and traditional to some rabbis, and so obviously false and heretical to others? At Machon Lander, I had extensively studied the difference between the rationalist and mystical schools of thought, which contained the answer to my question. But the underlying point, indeed the key to academic Jewish studies, was context. I thus realized that Jewish intellectual history was where I wanted to focus, and so I enrolled in the Department of Jewish History.
Since my MA had been in a course-based program, I had to prepare a thesis in order to be accepted to Bar Ilan's doctoral program. I decided to write it on the topic of different rabbinic interpretations to the Gemara about the sun's path at night. This is the key topic for all Torah-science discussion, and one that I had made a huge mistake in not bringing to the fore during the Great Torah Science Controversy. In my post The Sun's Path At Night Redux I described how I reworked this material to reflect an academic approach. With my previous "yeshivish" training, I had simply listed all the different interpretations of the Gemara, categorizing them as rationalist, mystical, etc. Under the guidance of Prof. David Malkiel, I realized that the key is that all the non-rationalist approaches began in the 16th century. This in turn enabled me to explore the context and reasons for this transition.
After being accepted to the doctoral program, I had to attend a number of different courses. In Prof. Gershon Bacon's courses, I studied the development of Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy. These resulted in my papers The Novelty of Orthodoxy and The Making of Haredim. I was also fortunate to be able to attend courses by colleagues of mine in the field of Biblical and Rabbinic zoology, Prof. Zohar Amar and Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky.
The main work in a doctorate program is the dissertation. It was difficult to choose a topic - there were several aspects of Torah vs. science that were tempting. Ultimately, however, I decided that it made the most sense to devote myself to a topic which would relate to my lifelong fascination with the animal kingdom. I wrote my dissertation on rabbinic encounters with zoology (which also included several conflicts between Torah and science, and which also related strongly to the issue of historical context). My dissertation focused on the nineteenth century, which was when the field of rabbinic zoology took off, with five books being written on this topic. In a future post, I plan to describe my dissertation in more detail.
A number of thanks are in order. I would particularly like to express my gratitude to my dissertation adviser, Prof. David Malkiel, for his guidance and encouragement. I am also indebted to Prof. Gershon Bacon and Prof. Shaul Stampfer, and to my German tutor, Naftali Guttman. I am also deeply grateful to Rabbi Eliezer Langer and to my father-in-law, Mr. Lee Samson, who encouraged me to pursue academic qualifications. Prof. Menachem Kellner pointed me in the direction of Machon Lander, where I was blessed with the guidance of Rabbi Prof. Carmi Horowitz and Rabbi Prof. Yosef Tabory. It is deeply upsetting that my father, Prof. Michael Slifkin z"l, did not live to see my academic career, but my mother's nachas is enough for two people. I would also like to express my appreciation to the staff at the Biblical Museum of Natural History who enabled me to take some time off to finish my dissertation. Most of all, I am grateful to my wife Tali, for her unwavering encouragement and support, while putting up with my constant griping and groaning about how difficult the entire process was!
Finally, I would like to thank my third child, Michaella. When my dissertation was finally printed, sitting on my desk and ready to be taken in to Bar-Ilan, she was looking at it. She said, "Aba, there is a mistake in your avodah."
I laughed. "Michaella," I said gently. "You're eight years old. You didn't find a mistake in my doctoral dissertation."
She pointed at the cover, where I had written the date. "You wrote תשע"ה. It's תשע"ו."
Posted by Natan Slifkin