Wednesday, June 29, 2005

R' Slifkin's Speech

I went to R' Slifkin's speech tonight. On The Terror of Dinosaurs. I felt like I got to meet all these famous blogger personalities that I read so much about but never see in real life. Gil Student too! I knew that name years before I was even a skeptic and I thought it was a pseudonym. I mean, an internet scholar named "Student." Come on! Now which one was Godol Hador?

I think Slifkin is a pretty clever guy (had no idea he was British though) and he is a strong believer in both science and Torah - he just goes grasping at straws to reconcile the two. I mean, he goes to Kabbalah of all places to explain the problems in Genesis while admitting that he has no clue what Kabbalah is and that he "isn't really into it."

But still, an A for effort. Though it would likely be better had he not been so obviously evasive about so many topics. Oh, evolution, too complex. The "alleged Abraham," out of scope.

And he was occasionally factually incorrect about things too. Not just "most" dinosaurs were terrestrials - all dinosaurs were. The big old animals in the sea were called ichthyosaurs. And carbon dating is never used to date dinosaur remains, C14 dating is only accurate back a few thousand years. It is other forms of radiometric dating which are used for dinosaur remains.

But even so, I liked his presentation, I thought his arguments were interesting, if not convincing, and I think he's very brave to bring up such issues so directly and openly to a population who still thinks the mabul is a good explanation for anything. (Though he was still too chicken to talk about how unlikely a global flood actually was.)

At the very least he's getting people to think about these things.

24 comments:

brutus said...

more please

Orthoprax said...

Brutus,

More of what? The whole talk was only about an hour long. Do you have any specific questions?

brutus said...

Orthoprax says - "I thought his arguments were interesting, if not convincing, and I think he's very brave to bring up such issues so directly and openly to a population who still thinks the mabul is a good explanation for anything."
What were the arguments?

Orthoprax said...

Brutus,

He referred to a couple of rabbis who had written something about seeing the order of Genesis not as a physical, factual truth, but a higher spiritual truth. And that the order given in Genesis has some hidden spiritual meaning with a connection to the sefirot.

Though he didn't give any explanations for what those spiritual lessons might be (except for the birds and fish thing, he connected them by saying they are in the same day because they move through their environment in similar ways).

One person in the audience rightly called Slifkin on this saying that such a Kabbalistic explanation is just pure speculation especially as such a "theory" doesn't even have any specific descriptions or provide any learned higher spiritual truths that it promises are there.

Slifkin responded, saying that he was just offering "an" answer that can be used to explain the issues of Genesis but was in no way saying that he had proof that it was so.

So it ended up being really weak.

BrooklynWolf said...

I was there too (I wish I had seen you :) ).

I agree that he did leave some things to be desired. He sidestepped a number of questions (about the flood, about evolution, etc.) and really did stick to the topic of dinosaurs and the age of the universe. While I thought the answer he gave wasn't great, I will admit that it's probably one of the best ones I've heard yet.

But overall, he was smart, funny and entertaining.

The Wolf

Orthoprax said...

Wolf,

"I was there too (I wish I had seen you :) )."

I'm sure you did and I you, we just didn't recognize each other.

"While I thought the answer he gave wasn't great, I will admit that it's probably one of the best ones I've heard yet."

I think the best explanation is simply that it was written by people who didn't know of science and were stuck in a mythological worldview. But I understand that you feel that you cannot accept such an answer.

"But overall, he was smart, funny and entertaining."

And British! ;-)

Sarah said...

Women's section was pretty teeny - you probably would have figured me out had you looked cloesly enough :)

"I think the best explanation is simply that it was written by people who didn't know of science and were stuck in a mythological worldview. But I understand that you feel that you cannot accept such an answer."

Whether or not one thinks Torah was written by God or people doesn't change the argument. In essence he was saying the same thing - that Bereishit represents a view that has nothing to do with science, and shouldn't be confused with trying to represent that.

Orthoprax said...

Sarah,

"Women's section was pretty teeny - you probably would have figured me out had you looked cloesly enough :)"

Oh, you were there too? Go know! It was a whole blogger get together. I'm sure you saw me then, if you contact me privately I'll tell you where I was sitting.

"Whether or not one thinks Torah was written by God or people doesn't change the argument.
In essence he was saying the same thing - that Bereishit represents a view that has nothing to do with science, and shouldn't be confused with trying to represent that."

I don't think so. His argument depended on a supernatural origin. How else can he justify the supposed existence of higher hidden secret spiritual messages in the text?

BrooklynWolf said...

Maybe we should have had a blogger sign-in sheet? :)

The Wolf

BrooklynWolf said...

I don't think so. His argument depended on a supernatural origin. How else can he justify the supposed existence of higher hidden secret spiritual messages in the text?

True, but when you're discussing a religion and religious beliefs, there is nothing wrong with pre-supposing a supernatural origin. Isn't a supernatural origin of the world (i.e. God's creation of it - in whatever manner He did) an essential part of Judaism?

The Wolf

Sarah said...

"I don't think so. His argument depended on a supernatural origin. How else can he justify the supposed existence of higher hidden secret spiritual messages in the text?"

Taken on face value, you're completely right. But sometimes people speak in languages that their audience will accept.

Lawrence Schiffman does that ALL the time. I mean, until you really read his stuff, you might think he was Charedi. But search out his writing and you see things you would never expect to come out of his mouth. He never contradicts himself outright ... he just uses a different language, makes some key choices about what to say and what not to say, so to speak.

I'm not that I'm saying that Slifkin does this. But knowing that people can shade what they mean in different terminology allows us to take the kernels of what he did say and frame it in our own terminology as well.

Whether or not it's hidden spiritual messages created by God, or the mythological fantasies of people, or a message the authors wanted to pass down, the fact that you aren't taking the words literally doesn't change. That's the root of what he's saying. Why it says what it says is only speculation, regardless, and doesn't change that root argument.

Orthoprax said...

Wolf,

"True, but when you're discussing a religion and religious beliefs, there is nothing wrong with pre-supposing a supernatural origin. Isn't a supernatural origin of the world (i.e. God's creation of it - in whatever manner He did) an essential part of Judaism?"

How can you presuppose exactly what you're trying to prove? I mean, people do it all the time, but how does that help you gain any further insight into what you are studying?

The whole issue with reconciling Genesis with science is that the Genesis appears in every reasonable way to not be factually correct and to not have been written by a supernatural source. So how can the believer justify his belief? Thus the arguments and Slifkin come.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Now you all just need to come with me to hear him speak in Kew Garden Hills next week ;-) !

Orthoprax said...

Sarah,

"Whether or not it's hidden spiritual messages created by God, or the mythological fantasies of people, or a message the authors wanted to pass down, the fact that you aren't taking the words literally doesn't change. That's the root of what he's saying. Why it says what it says is only speculation, regardless, and doesn't change that root argument."

Not exactly. If one takes the argument that it was written as mythology - then they are taking the words at face value and simply declaring them not accurate to reality. They _are_ taking them literally.

Slifkin's argument takes the words non-literally but still says that it retains a truth about the world.

It comes down to how one views the text itself.

Orthoprax said...

Steg,

That would be interesting, but I'm just a poor student. The ten bucks from just tonight dug into my budget. It was worth it though.

But I also don't know how long I could keep quiet in the face of so much apologetics.

Sarah said...

Daniel,

tell me about it. I tried to call a friend to come and drive me home, but got no answer. Mom said, "take the bus." I replied: "2 more dollars! Are you crazy??"

The Rabbi's Kid said...

That's the funny thing - with all the furore he's not particularly innovative or impressive, just an auto-didactic yeshiva bochur who has written a few books and quotes a few sources. I wish they would've banned someone decent, with gravitas and creativity.

judi said...

In case you missed last night, he'll be in New Haven tonight speaking on the same topic. Check my blog for more info (you'll have to scroll down a couple of entries). Admission's only $5- a bargain.

hayim said...

Can you please tell me what was this thing about the "alleged Abraham" ?

thanks a lot.

Anonymous said...

Slifkin was trying to reconcile the order of creation as recounted in B'reishis with the very different order apparent from scientific discoveries. He summarized Rav Dessler's view which, if I understood correctly, was that the six "days" were not chronological days, but represented some deep idea related to the kabbalistic "sefirot." In other words, the events recounted were not grouped by "day," but by sefirah level.

The questioner stated that that was all fine and good, but unless Rav Dessler fleshed out how each "day's" events related to each specific sefirah, it was pure speculation and not significant. He then added that if such explanations of p'sukim that are understandable differently in their p'shat are acceptable, then what does the Torah's alleged person Avraham really represent?

I believe he also asked how Rav Dessler could offer such a novel explanation, as we are a people that lives by our mesorah, and our mesorah is that six days means six days. Rav Slifkin wisely ducked.

BrooklynWolf said...

He didn't entirely duck. He did state that there were certain times when you might have to reconsider some of the mesorah in light of scientific discoveries.

Interestingly enough, that's the same approach taken by Rabbi Weider at the shiur he gave several weeks ago (at which the same questioner was present as well).

The Wolf

Gil Student said...

So now I know what you all look like, just not who is who. But you know what I look like. Not fair!

I think R. Slifkin's staying on topic was very wise. Talking about evolution intelligently would have taken at least a whole other hour, if not longer. Talking about it unintelligently would have been counterproductive.

Gil Student said...

I don't think the "mesorah" question was strong, but I didn't want to butt in.

The Rambam makes it clear in his introduction to the Mishnah that we have traditions on only certain verses of exactly what they mean. We do not have a mesorah on the interpretation of every single verse in the Torah.

Akiva said...

I've got photos and video from his New Jersey session,

Photos here
Video here