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Introduction for a New Audience
My book Sacred Monsters is being published in Hebrew by Koren. This is the first of my books to appear in Hebrew, and Koren asked me to write a new preface. They said that this should be an introduction for Israelis to learn about me, the book, and the story surrounding the book and the controversy. I was hesitant to get into the whole story about the ban, but I guess it's better for people to get an accurate picture from me than a distorted version from elsewhere. Here is what I came up with; please let me know if you think I omitted anything important:
The original version of this book, written in English, resulted in a considerable storm amongst the Anglo Jewish community in Israel and the Diaspora. It was published with the approbations of great Torah scholars, and was initially warmly received. However, a few years later, the book was the subject of a ban by a long list of prominent rabbanim in the chareidi world, headed by Rav Elyashiv ztz”l. The ensuing controversy raged for over a year, and exploded to such huge proportions that it was even reported in such prestigious non-Jewish newspapers as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. (A vast range of documentation relating to the controversy can be found at http://zootorah.com/controversy.)
In order to understand how this developed and why the controversy was so great, some background is in order. I grew up in Manchester, England, in an Orthodox Jewish home. The schools and yeshivot that I attended were charedi, and I was learning Gemara from the age of ten. Simultaneously, however, I received a strong secular education, which was the accepted norm in England even for many charedi schools. Furthermore, my father, ztz”l, was an outstanding scientist, specializing in physics but also dealing with chemistry and mathematics. From an early age, I developed a fascination with zoology, reading everything that I found on the topic and keeping a wide range of exotic creatures for study. When I moved to Israel after high school, studying in charedi yeshivos, I was both fascinated and disturbed when I came across references in the Gemara to bizarre creatures and strange zoological phenomena. The giant leviathan, the phoenix that lives forever, the salamander that is born from fire, mice that are generated from dirt, are just a few of the astonishing creatures that are encountered in the study of Gemara. Were the Sages describing actual creatures? Yet surely no such animals exist?
Like many people who are faced with these questions, I was not able to receive satisfactory answers from my teachers in yeshivah. They themselves had been taught as children that such creatures were all real, and assumed that there is an unequivocal Jewish tradition which likewise understood them all that way. They did not have a strong science education, and it was not difficult for them to believe that all such creatures actually existed. They were instantly uncomfortable with my questions and disparaged me for asking them.
However, I did not give up, and I kept trying to find answers. Fortunately, I came to know Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz”l, a disciple of the famous Rav Eliyahu Dessler and editor of Rav Dessler’s work Michtav Me-Eliyahu, who taught me a rational approach to these issues. In addition, I came across numerous little-known but very significant sources that dealt with these topics, such as the writings of Rambam and his son Rabbeinu Avraham regarding such problems, and some crucial letters from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. Eventually, I came to realize that there was an entire school of thought, stretching back many centuries, which took a rationalist approach to Judaism, but which had become virtually unknown in charedi yeshivos. According to the distinguished Rabbinic authorities that espoused this approach, many of the Talmud’s accounts of such creatures were to be understood as metaphors rather than describing actual creatures. Others, they stated, were indeed describing actual creatures, but were relying on ancient beliefs about the natural world rather than presenting a tradition from Sinai.
Eventually, I published a book, called Mysterious Creatures, that dealt with these topics. It presented the full range of approaches, including those that insisted upon the factual accuracy of every statement in the Talmud even according to its literal meaning, but it also presented, and sided with, the rationalist approach. The book received rabbinic approbations from prestigious Torah scholars in the English-speaking Orthodox community, who noted in their approbations that the approach presented in the book was unconventional in the charedi yeshivah world, but pointed out that it was nevertheless firmly rooted in impeccable rabbinic sources. They further observed that this approach was of crucial importance to helping people who are confronted with these issues.
The book was extremely well received, and I was flooded with letters from people who had also been struggling with these issues and were thrilled to discover that there were great rabbinic figures in Jewish history who had legitimized a rationalist approach. It was also extremely popular with younger readers (and their parents), who had previously thought that Talmud study was rather dry in comparison to the magical world of Harry Potter, and for whom this novel topic ignited their interest in further study. I also published two other books which dealt with other topics relating to Torah and science; one discussing the age of the universe and the development of life, and another discussing the Torah’s list of non-kosher animals in light of modern zoology.
But a few years later, a storm erupted. A small team of zealots, with a past history of causing trouble, engineered a ban on these three books. They brought certain parts of the books to the attention of various leading authorities in the charedi world, and (falsely) claimed that some innocent yeshivah students had been led astray from Judaism as a result of the books. While the zealots themselves would later be discredited - one would go to prison for a $43 million fraud, while another would lose his position due to severely immoral behavior – they managed to manipulate the support of many figures.
The result of their efforts was that dozens of leading charedi rabbinic authorities signed a letter declaring the books to be heretical and pronouncing a ban upon them. Some of the signatories insisted that it was absolutely heretical to claim that any statement in the Talmud, even dealing with natural history, is not authoritative; they claimed that my alleged rabbinic sources legitimizing this approach must be forgeries. Other signatories to the ban, such as Rav Elyashiv, acknowledged that there had been great rabbinic scholars in the past who took such an approach (indeed, one of Rav Elyashiv’s own teachers, Rav Yitzchak Herzog, followed the rationalist approach), but ruled that it was a minority view that was forbidden to be taught in the charedi world today.
The ban itself, however, caused a storm. There were many thousands of people in the Orthodox Jewish community, including countless rabbis and educators, who subscribed to the approach presented in my books. For years, they had relied upon the sources that I presented (and many people knew of them even before I wrote about them), and they were greatly dismayed, and often furious, to see that these sources were being declared heretical. Furthermore, while some of the younger and less independent rabbis that had written approbations to my work decided to renounce their support, others stood by their approbations. In particular, Rav Aryeh Carmell wrote a letter reiterating his approval of my books, as well as a lengthy article stressing the legitimacy of the rationalist approach to these topics. A host of websites sprung up protesting the ban, with one website accumulating dozens and dozens of sources from Torah scholars over history stating that statements in the Talmud about the natural world are not necessarily authoritative.
In line with guidance from my own rabbinic mentors, I did not recant my views or withdraw my books. (However, I did withdraw from the charedi community and affiliate instead with the broader Orthodox population, as well as entering academia to study Jewish intellectual history.) Yet while I certainly had no reason to believe that my books were heretical, I did feel that the leaders of the charedi community had a right to determine the parameters of the educational approach that they wanted for their communities. In addition, the rationalist approach is certainly not without its risks. True, it can be immensely beneficial to people with a strong secular education who wrestle with conflicts between Torah and science. But it can be upsetting and destabilizing to those who have never been bothered by such problems. As the saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Whereas other books on these topics were “off the radar,” my books had been perceived as threatening yeshivah students in the charedi world, due to my own training in charedi yeshivos, and due to the prestigious rabbinic endorsements that the books included. And while many of the signatories to the ban declared the books to be “heresy,” what really concerned them was that the books were potentially dangerous.
Consequently, when the books sold out very quickly after the ban and I had to republish them, I did so with various changes. I did not retract any of the claims in the original books; in fact, I added many more sources and further discussion buttressing the rationalist approach. However, I did want to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of those who saw the books as trying to target and destabilize the charedi yeshivah world. Therefore, I did not include the rabbinic endorsements in the new editions of the books, and I made various changes in the style and presentation of the books to make it clear who they were aimed at: people with a strong secular education who struggled with conflicts between Torah and science, and who were willing to adopt the approach of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and others to dealing with these issues.
While the original ban was never retracted, the revised new editions of the books were not met with condemnation. Of course, this may have been because it was felt that the original ban had already sufficiently discredited me, or alternately because the signatories to the ban were shaken by the backlash to their letter. But in many cases, it appears that there was simply no motivation to fight an approach that was grounded in great Torah scholars of the past and was not being presented in such a way as to threaten charedi yeshivah students of today.
For several years, I have received requests to make my books available in Hebrew. I decided to begin with this book, for three reasons. First, it deals with the topics of broadest appeal, whether for teenagers who are enamored with the popular genre of fantasy literature, or for students and scholars who are intrigued by discussions of these creatures in rabbinic literature. Second, my impression is that in Israel, there are many people struggling with conflicts between the Talmud and science, and the existing popular literature on this topic is extremely anti-rationalist in orientation. Third, with regard to dealing with a conflict between Torah and science, this topic clearly demonstrates a great divide between different schools of thought stretching back many centuries. As such, it will hopefully enable people to realize that there is a long history of different approaches to such topics.