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No rabbi, you do not promote learning by pandering to idiots

No rabbi, you do not promote learning by pandering to idiots

Rabbi Dr Natan Slifkin, above, founder and director of The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, tells the story of a ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who entered his museum.

I recall seeing one visitor, an adult, standing in front of our lion exhibit, marveling at it. “It’s amazing!” he said to me. “Yes, it is,” I agreed. I was completely unprepared for his next question: “What is it?”

What is it? It’s a lion, for goodness’ sakes! One of the most instantly recognizable animals in the world! But not if you’ve never been on safari, never been to a zoo, never watched a wildlife documentary, and barely ever read any books or literature outside of rabbinic scholarship.

British-born Slifkin, known as “the zoo rabbi” tells of the encounter in a recent blog post about the row that erupted when – in a bid to shelter ultra-Orthodox Jews from the idea of evolution – an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem was covered by a mauve curtain.

Photos: Michael Bachner/Times of Israel

Slifkin is no anti-evolutionist. Indeed , he even published a book about reconciling evolution and the Bible, which was promptly banned by three dozen of the top ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who called for it to be burned.

Yet the rabbi argues that those protesting about the Jerusalem’s museum cover-up are demonstrating:

A stubborn desire to teach a lot more than people are willing to learn.

Those opposing the cover-up, says Slifkin:

Are standing outside the museum with placards. Prominent American biologist Jerry Coyne has published a public letter, writing as ‘an evolutionary biologist of Jewish ancestry’, slamming the museum for censorship and lying by omission. And the director of Be Free Israel, a non-profit which aims to promote religious pluralism in Israel, has condemned the museum as for engaging in ‘self-censorship that seeks to tell its visitors half-truths and complete lies.’

The gist of Slifkin’s argument in a post called “The Skeleton in My Closet” is that learning is best served by taking into account religious sensitivities. Which is simply ridiculous, especially coming from an academic.

Slifkin then reveals that his own museum has no exhibits regarding evolution, and explains why:

In part, it’s because that’s simply not part of our museum’s mission; our museum is about the animal world of Biblical Israel. But another reason is that it would severely damage our educational mission.

We want to teach as much as possible about the natural world to as many people as possible. And Israel is home to an extraordinarily diverse range of people, not to mention the tourists that visit. There are Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus and people who are not attached to any faith. All of them visit our museum.

And within the Jewish people, there are secular Jews, modern Orthodox Jews (who generally accept modern science), and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The latter group itself in turn contains many diverse communities – Lithuanians, Chabad, Gerrer, Belz, and so on. Many of them are completely insulated from the outside world. They’ve never watched television. They’ve never even been to visit the zoo, because the zoo is open on Shabbat. They’re certainly not going to visit a museum that has exhibits about evolution.

Does it make sense not to have institutions that these communities will ever visit, and to continue to deprive them of knowledge about the natural world? Or does it make sense to have a variety of institutions available for the general public – some that teach the full range of modern scientific knowledge, and others with a mission that is more limited, but which will reach all communities?

No rabbi, if certain religious groups insist on living their lives in a bubble of ignorance than let them do so. Museums – especially if they receive funding from taxpayers as the Jerusalem one does – should not be allowed deprive those who want to expand their knowledge by censoring exhibits.

This is the text of a letter sent to the Jerusalem museum by Jerry Coyne, above:

As an evolutionary biologist of Jewish ancestry, I am deeply offended at your practice of covering up the human evolution exhibit lest it offend the Haredi Jews who go to your museum. Why would a museum hide the truth, even if it’s offensive to some religious believers? Is this proper in a largely secular state like Israel?

I hope you realize that by literally hiding the evidence for human evolution, you are misleading people: in effect, lying by omission. The truth is the truth, regardless of whether some people are offended because it goes against their upbringing; and by catering to the false beliefs of creationists, you are, in effect, censoring whatever science that some people find unpleasant. This kind of behavior makes me ashamed of my Jewish background.

I hope that in the future you can just present the plain scientific truth about human origins and not worry about who it offends. Your blatant censorship offends me–and has offended many others – but of course you’d prefer to offend scientists and truth-seekers than those who harbor religious superstitions.

According to this report, the museum said it had received approval to temporarily cover up the exhibits on dinosaurs, human evolution and human body. The approval was based on a recommendation by the Jerusalem Haredi Education Division, a joint body that is part of both the Jerusalem Municipality and the Education Ministry. The division confirmed those details.

Hat tip: BarrieJohn

10 responses to “No rabbi, you do not promote learning by pandering to idiots”

  1. Broga says:

    Jerry is on the ball as usual. Getting his oxytocin dose from the moggy.

  2. Gary Gissing says:

    It may sound a bit strange but I respect the so-called fundamentalist/ultra religionists. The do not try to reconcile their “divine revelation” with scientific discoveries. They do not apologise for their beliefs. They do not modify or “modernise” their sacred dogmas.

  3. L.Long says:

    If the fundie ignorant aholes don’t like truth, then they can stay home soaking up their st00pidity!

  4. Terry says:

    Jerry Coyne. Great man. If you have not yet encountered him look up his stuff on YouTube and go buy his books. Richard Dawkins made his enormous contribution to humanity with his great work and now Jerry Coyne has picked up the baton. Anyone who still wants to believe in Creationism and Intelligent Design is a wantonly ignorant fool.

  5. StephenJP says:

    “If certain religious groups insist on living their lives in a bubble of ignorance then let them do so”. Indeed; and let them finance their own blinkered lifestyles instead of demanding that the State of Israel, and its taxpayers, do it for them.

    By some estimates 40% of the population of Israel could be Haredi or similar fundies in 50 years’ time. May Jahweh help them if that happens, because the Israeli Army will be hard pressed to do so.

  6. 1859 says:

    I (mistakenly?) thought the whole point of a museum is/was to reveal the past, to explain what we as a species have discovered about our world and about ourselves? To cover up discoveries like this is to lie. The whole point of new knowledge is that it makes us re-assess who we are and pose questions about existence.It’s religion again poisoning the human spirit of enquiry and ‘Dr.’ Slifkin should be ashamed of himself – however, his behaviour illustrates just how deeply poisoned he himself is if a so-called ‘scientist’, as he describes himself, can cowtow to such ignorance.

  7. Maggie says:

    Why are these people so insecure in their faith that just seeing another ‘point of view’ is so threatening?

  8. 1859 says:

    Because they are frightened of bursting the cosy bubble in which they have always existed – especially Jewish religious bubbles as it would mean a complete, near-death exile from their community.

  9. sailor1031 says:

    Were the fauna of the biblical Middle East not the result of evolution?

    “…and to continue to deprive them of knowledge about the natural world? “. No Rabbi, they deprive themselves we do not,and should not, assist them.

  10. Vanity Unfair says:

    [N.B. I realise that what follows is the result of mistranslation in the C16 and C17 and ignorance of the natural history of the region. Please regard this as mere whimsy.]
    I really like the idea of a Biblical Museum of Natural History I would go there merely to see the unicorns, behemoths, leviathans, dragons, satyrs, and cockatrices as mentioned in the A.V.
    “Some things that you’re li’ble to read in the Bible
    Just ain’t necessarily so.”
    Porgy and Bess: Gershwin and Gershwin.

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