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When quote mining becomes quote mania
Rabbi Slifkin derives
science from the Torah
By Shmuel-Pairont de la Meyraque
Posted July 15, 2007
Several years ago my acquaintance, a wealthy man who often
provided financial support for various worthy projects, asked me to review a manuscript
of a certain young rabbi named Nosson Slifkin. The rabbi was asking my
acquaintance to finance publication of a book based on the manuscript in
question, titled The Science of Torah, with
the subtitle: "How the Torah Unfolds to Produce Scientific Law, the Universe
and the Life."
cited subtitle could sound confusing -- the verb unfold seemed to be used
by Slifkin in a metaphoric sense; however, it could create the impression that
it implied literally unfolding the Torah scroll, which action magically produced
scientific laws, the universe and
the life. This my remark, which may be viewed as nasty nitpicking, is just to
stress that there is always a hazard the words of a writer might be interpreted
in a number of ways, so therefore the utmost care must be taken to avoid any
done with, Slifkin endeavored to pursue a very ambitious goal. The book in question seemed to be
designed to prove that scientific laws, the universe and life all are products
of the Torah's "unfolding." Starting
such an ambitious project, Slifkin must have been aware of the enormous burden
of proof he had to encounter. In
this regard, the first question he must have answered for himself, would be
what kind of a readership the book was supposed to address. It seemed reasonable to conclude that
the book was written for true believers, and more specifically for believing
Jews. Indeed, the question of the Torah's veracity was not addressed by Slifkin
at all. Therefore, a skeptic, starting reading this book, after just a few
pages would most probably shrug off all Slifkin's passages and stop reading
of Slifkin's intended audience, another question was: what new insights would
this book offer to make it worthwhile for a reader to spend time reading it?
this viewpoint, the manuscript made an odd impression. It appeared not so much a discourse in
which the author endeavors to provide some hitherto undiscovered ideas, but
rather was not unlike a school essay, whose main purpose was to show the
student's diligence in studying the literature on the subject in point.
opus showed that, besides having spent most of his young years on studying the
tenets of Judaism, of works of a large number of sometimes prominent and sometimes
rather obscure rabbis, of all those midrashim
and numerous volumes of the Talmud, he had also invested some time in perusing works
of popular science in a search for quotations which could be used to support
his views. The manuscript was so overloaded with quotations that a question naturally
arose: wouldn't it be more efficient just to provide the list of references and
let the readers turn to the original sources?
the beginning of his manuscript Slifkin tried to explain the reasons why he
decided to write it. For example, on manuscript page 9, at the very beginning of
the Preface, Slifkin maintained that, before his book, the "current status of
the 'argument from design' has not been properly discussed." While one may argue what
constitutes "proper" discussion,
the simple fact is that, contrary to Slifkin's assertion, there already had
been an abundance of books, articles, lectures, websites etc., discussing the
present status of the "argument from design" from a multitude of viewpoints,
and the flow of such material did not show any signs of abating. Many of those publications were by
Christian writers, many by Jewish writers, some by Islamic authors, and many by
skeptics, agnostics and atheists. It was hard to find in Slifkin's manuscript a single notion in regard to
the "argument from design" which has not been heard and discussed before,
usually more than once.
Continuing, Slifkin wrote:
"No book (Jewish or non-Jewish) that I have seen performs the all-important
task of adequately distinguishing between different elements of evolution, a
distinction that should become clear during the course of this work."
I am sorry to
be blunt, but the above quotation is laughable. There is a plentitude of books,
papers in journals, etc., in many languages, discussing in minute details
different elements of the theory of evolution, and Slifkin's discourse has hardly
added anything not said before on that subject.
Here is just
one example. There is a discussion
of a subtle distinction between various aspects of the evolution theory, from
standpoints of both its adherents and opponents, in the book by Del Ratzsch The Battle of Beginning . While Ratzsch, like Slifkin, is himself
a believer (although, unlike Slifkin, a Christian) whose views I do not share, his
book displays a commendable effort at impartiality, and presents a thorough
discussion of the subject much superior to Slifkin's effort. Of course, there
are many other books on that subject, including those by Jewish writers, and
Slifkin's work did not seem to add anything not chewed before, over, across and
While on the
one hand, as mentioned, Slifkin's manuscript was overloaded with lengthy
quotations, he was very selective in choosing them. Each quotation was in tune
with Slifkin's own view. There was not a single quotation from the other side
of the dispute. It created the impression that nobody was ever able to offer
any counter-arguments to the assertions by the quoted writers. Of course, the reality is quite
different. Slifkin obviously chose from the multitude of literature sources
only those that supported (or at least could be interpreted as supporting) just
one kind of narrow viewpoint, while carefully hiding the existence of those
sources which could cast shadow on the validity of his views.
when quoting certain authors, Slifkin was very selective in filtering the statements
of this or that writer, rather than letting the reader judge what the actual
views of this or that writer were. A case in point is a quotation from Einstein. On manuscript page 26 (and repeated on page
39 of Slifkin's book The Challenge of
Creation which I will discuss a few lines down) Slifkin quoted from a
letter by Einstein to Maurice Solovine,  which, if viewed separately from
Einstein's other statements, may seem to indicate that Einstein somehow shared
Slifkin's beliefs. There are,
though, many other statements by Einstein, including even his direct assertion
of being in a certain sense an atheist  which Slifkin ignored. Such a method of quotation is usually
referred to as quote mining. However, the sheer volume of quotations in
Slifkin's opus allows one to suggest that he elevated the art of quote mining
to the level of quote mania.
of Slifkin's planned book was his attempt to cover a multitude of scientific topics. It was evident from all those
references to scientific theories that Slifkin perused many books on subjects
relating to many, sometimes quite remote from each other, scientific
disciplines. Unfortunately, more
often than not, it was also rather evident that he limited himself mainly to
more or less popular presentations of scientific subjects rather than having
studied them in a systematic, not to mention professional manner. His understanding of many of those subjects
was obviously on a dilettante level, and this led him to some misinterpretation
and misrepresentation of scientific facts. In particular, it was quite obvious Slifkin was not sufficiently
familiar with physics, but rather has just looked up a number of books aimed at
laymen. Here is an example. On manuscript
page 20 he mentioned "the so-far
contradictory theories of special relativity and quantum physics."
This quotation testified to Slifkin's lack of knowledge of what he was writing
about. The special theory of
relativity in no way contradicts quantum physics, but Slifkin's assertion
indeed contradicted facts. In fact, there is a fully consistent relativistic
quantum mechanics, whose fundamentals were developed by Paul Dirac in the early
thirties of the last century. The
original version of quantum mechanics, as developed by Erwin Schroedinger and Werner
Heisenberg in 1928, was indeed non-relativistic, which did not mean it
contradicted the special theory of relativity. It just did not account for the relativistic effects, i.e.
it was good as long as the velocities of moving particles did not approach the
speed of light. When, just a few
years later, Dirac developed the relativistic version of quantum mechanic, the non-relativistic
version remained as a good approximation valid for not very high
velocities. It is not hard though
to figure out the source of Slifkin's erroneous statement. He read somewhere (possibly in the
immensely popular book by Stephen Hawking ) that it is yet unclear how to
combine the General theory of relativity with the uncertainty principle
of quantum theory. It simply showed Slifkin's vague semi-familiarity with the
subject in question, as he obviously confused the special and the general
theories of relativity, and did not understand what precisely the point is at
which the general relativity and quantum physics still wait for another Dirac
to sew them together.
Here and there Slifkin made statements which were highly disputable, but
did not bother to substantiate them. For example, on manuscript page 24 we read: "In the last few decades, we
have witnessed an astonishing reversal. Instead of science diverging from
religion, it has begun to converge in profound ways." It is a highly questionable assertion. What is really occurring is incessant
attempts by proponents of the Bible's inerrancy to find arguments allegedly
proving that every new advance in science is fully compatible with the biblical
story. Probably the most common
example is the utilization of the hot big bang theory as allegedly proving the
story of the creation given in Genesis. At the very least, all these attempts are questionable, and so far no
arguments have been offered in favor of that view to which no counter-arguments
could be suggested. The assertion
that science is converging with religion was just Slifkin's private opinion,
not supported by evidence. As it
has been the case until now, religion and science seem to remain two different realms,
neither of the two being capable of penetrating each other's domain (although
it is possible to approach certain specific tenets of religion using scientific
On the manuscript page 26 Slifkin offered a very simplistic
interpretation of determinism. The principle of uncertainty and the "bizarre"
behavior of micro particles do not negate the principle of determinism but, on
the contrary, provide a deeper understanding of determinism, advancing it
beyond its Laplacian form. Elsewhere
in the same manuscript Slifkin devoted many words to the existence of laws which
seem at work in the universe. He
seemed not to notice that the existence of such laws is a display of
determinism. Each law of physics
establishes a certain causal relation between various factors. This causal relation can have sometimes
a complex form, but as long as there is a law of physics, a causal relation is
necessarily present. That is
essentially the meaning of determinism. The question about the apparently
random behavior of micro particles is a different topic, but whatever
interpretation of it one adheres to, it does not abolish the existence of laws
and hence of determinism, if the latter is not interpreted in a very narrow
In some places Slifkin revealed insufficient familiarity even with the
literature having the direct relation to his theme. For example, on manuscript page
30, discussing harmony in the universe, Slifkin wrote:
But what is this beauty? Some describe it in terms of harmony or
symmetry, but both boil down to the other term used: simplicity.
While I agree
with Slifkin's thesis about simplicity (see ), many defenders of the Bible's
inerrancy disagree with him on that point. In particular, there are many publications in which the
opposite notion has been proposed and fervently defended, namely that the
extreme complexity, rather than simplicity indicates the so called "intelligent
design" of the universe and of life. In particular, writings by Dembski (see their
detailed discussion in ), by Behe (see ) and by their acolytes state
incessantly that complexity rather than simplicity is the marker of design. (Adding
to "complexity" the qualifiers like "specified" or "irreducible" hardly converts
complexity into simplicity.)
I sent to my
wealthy acquaintance my brief review of Slifkin's manuscript, which was largely along the lines of the above
discussion. As far as I know, the
potential donor had shared with Slifkin the text of my review.
of my review, or for other reasons, the potential donor rejected Slifkin's
request for money.
young vigorous rabbi managed to find other sources of financial support which
resulted in the publication of a book, based on the manuscript in question
under the title The Science of Torah.
At that time I
had no idea about the publication of the above book. No wonder: its appearance
did not stir any waters, what with its being just another in a series of
multiple insignificant books asserting the Bible's supposed inerrancy. Perhaps
the book would remain almost invisible for a wide audience but an event (not of
Slifkin's making) took place which made Nosson (or Nathan) Slifkin kind of a
celebrity. His literary output attracted the attention of a bunch of
ultra-religious psychopaths. Although Slifkin wrote his output from the
position of a faithful Orthodox Jew, a fringe group of extremist rabbis in
Israel disseminated a strong condemnation of Slifkin and his publications. They
issued a strongly worded prohibition forbidding Jews to even touch Slifkin's
books, which they pronounced to be heretical nonsense. What has caused the ire
of the pious ignoramuses was Slifkin's acceptance of scientific data. Slifkin
joined many other religious apologists who tried to reconcile science and the
biblical story while the rabbis in question simply reject each and every tenet
of science, insisting on a literal reading of the Torah with its asseverations
about the age of the world (about 6,000 years), the creation of the world in
six days and all other peculiarities of the Bible's narrative.
credit, even if he was possibly scared by the vicious attack by his more
extreme co-religionists, he displayed an impressive resourcefulness in rebuffing
the attack, and continued publishing his books in the same vein as he did
before. Of course, in this story each decent person must be on Slifkin's side.
One of the
results of the above story was a sudden upsurge in the popularity of Slifkin's
books. Their sales jumped dramatically.
If we are
sympathizing with Slifkin as a target of an assault by religious fanatics, does
this mean we must accept his position regarding the relation between the Torah
and science? Of course not.
Slifkin's position had to be evaluated on its merits, regardless of what some
fringe rabbis may have claimed about it. Such an evaluation leads, in my view,
to the conclusion that Slifkin's thesis is dismally unsubstantiated.
Let us turn to
Slifkin's latest book  titled The
Challenge of Creation which is just an updated version of his previous book
The Science of Torah, which, in turn,
was an expanded version of the manuscript discussed at the beginning of this
review. Let us look and see
whether or not Slifkin progressed in this book beyond the level of the original
manuscript discussed above.
Alas, almost all
the weaknesses of the original manuscript are found in the book in question as
well, except for some minor amendments. Apparently my comment regarding
Slifkin's confusion of the special and the general theories of relativity had
its effect: in the recent version of the book this fallacious assertion of the
original manuscript has been removed. Otherwise the book is just a
substantially expanded version of the original manuscript, with the same
abundance of quotations whose overall volume seems to exceed the volume of
Slifkin's own text.
Here is one
example. I opened at random to a page which turned out to be page 66. It
contains total of 34 lines, of which 27 lines are quotation and only 7 lines
Slifkin's own text. This page is by no means an exception but is rather
typical. Indeed, I again opened Slifkin's book at random, this time to page 216. From the total of 36
lines of text on this page, only 5 lines are Slifkin's text, the rest being a
quotation. The same situation occurs elsewhere in the book. Lengthy quotations
fill its pages, slightly diluted by swatches of Slifkin's own text.
In one respect
the book is substantially worse than the original manuscript: the latter was
relatively short while the book is very long, and (sorry, again, for being
blunt) intolerably boring. One hardly can find in the book original notions --
almost all of it has been said time and time again by proponents of
compatibility of the biblical story with science. I used the qualifier "almost"
because there is one notion in Slifkin's narration that can be considered as
his personal nuance in the argument favoring Torah's impact on science. Slifkin
asserts that the Torah is not just fully compatible with science (such a thesis
has been suggested by many other religious authors ) -- but that in fact the
Torah is the source of all science.
Here is a
quotation exemplifying Slifkin's repeatedly pronounced notion (page 31 in The Challenge of Creation):
entire scientific enterprise has its roots in religion, specifically monotheistic
this quotation an exception? No, it is just one of Slifkin's repeatable claims
of a similar kind. For example, on page 33, where Slifkin comments on a statement
in a book by physicist Paul Davies (who is a recipient of the huge Templeton
award for his work favoring the converging of religion with science), Slifkin
tend to think of Judaism's contribution to the world in terms of the Bible and
the concept of morality. But here we see that Judaism is also considered
responsible for the remarkable phenomenon of the entire scientific enterprise.
perhaps some readers may find the following quotation from Sifkin's book even
more eloquent (page 36):
from science being an alien challenger to religion, it is actually a child of
religion, and one that is gradually returning to its roots.
assertions could well serve as a parody of senseless claims by religious
fanatics, but in this case Slifkin seems to be quite serious in making such
absurd claims. Of course, even in this he is not really original. For example,
in a book titled Not By Chance,  its
author, Lee Spetner (a specialist in signal processing) in an equally serious
manner claimed several years ago that his "Non-Random Evolution Theory" (in a
certain sense presaging Behe's claim in his Edge
of Evolution book  about directed rather than "random" mutations) has
its roots in the Talmud.
the thesis of religion (more specifically of Judaism) being the root of all
science the sole absurdity in Slifkin's book? By no means; it only is
(arguably) the most vivid display of the level of Slifkin's argumentation.
Indeed, the book in question is in fact a conglomerate of many equally
example, on page 48 of The Challenge of
Creation there is a footnote wherein Slifkin discusses the problem of
infinite regress (without naming it as such). Presenting the position of those authors who do not share
Slifkin's beliefs, he attributes to his putative opponents, as their counter-argument
against the idea of a Creator responsible for the existence of the world, the
made God? … This counter-argument is, however, flawed. Somewhere down the line,
it seems that there must be something that exists without a prior cause. Faced
between attributing this quality to a physical universe or to a supernatural
being, it is more reasonable to attribute it to a supernatural being.
Slifkin's choice indeed more reasonable? Has Slifkin never heard about Occam's
razor, also referred to as a principle of parsimony? We all, Slifkin including,
know that at least one "physical universe" indeed exists. On the other hand,
the existence of a supernatural being is a surmise based at best on purely
philosophical rather than on an empirical foundation. If we have to choose
between attributing the "quality" of existing without a prior cause either to
the "physical universe" or to a "supernatural being", obviously the former
choice is immensely more parsimonious than the latter.
quality of being parsimonious is inextricably related to being more reasonable.
unlike the arguments for the existence of an uncaused supernatural being, which
leave completely unanswered the question of "Who made God?", there are scientific arguments plausibly
explaining the reasons for the existence of the physical universe , i.e.
offering a plausible answer to the question "Why there is something rather than
nothing?" While this explanation may fall short of providing a non-refutable
"proof" of its validity, it is based on well established scientific facts, is
logical and eminently parsimonious. To my mind, Slifkin's arbitrary assertion
of the God hypothesis being "more reasonable," only shows that Slifkin's idea
of the concept of "reasonable" has substantially been muddled by the long years
of his studying the writing of the numerous rabbis which he so admiringly
acclaims in his book.
is one more example of Slifkin advocating notions that make no sense.
page 52 Slifkin offers (as usual not really original) discussion of the amazing
properties of visible light so perfectly fitting the animal's scope of vision.
He lists five requirements electromagnetic radiation must meet to satisfy the
needs of animal organisms. Then he writes:
a single small range of electromagnetic radiation -- that between 0.3 micron and 1.5 micron -- meets all these
delicate five requirements. Even more incredibly, the majority of radiation
emitted by the sun falls within this range. Still more fortuitously, the sun
does not emit any of the numerous lethal types of radiation, such as gamma
all those data are as "remarkable" and "incredible" as the incredible
coincidence -- human legs have the length exactly needed to reach the
ground. In another well known
example, a pit in the ground is amazed that the water filling it happens to
have the exact shape to fit the pit. Isn't this remarkable, Rabbi Slifkin?
examples of utter bunkums in Slifkin's book can be continued, but I think the quotations
given so far are more than sufficient to conclude that Slifkin's opus is a
practically useless piffle produced by a semi-educated (except for matters of
Judaism) but very self-confident and ambitious writer lacking qualifications to
pronounce judgments on important philosophical and scientific problems.
asserting that Slifkin is self-confident to the level of arrogance, I can point
to one peculiar detail. On the inside flap of the Challenge of Creation, where usually editorial blurbs are placed,
we find claims very flattering to Slifkin, extolling the virtues of his book in
a greatly exaggerated manner. In
itself, it is not something unusual, as editors naturally tend to acclaim their
production. What is peculiar in Slifkin's case is the following detail. The
book has been published by a publishing outlet named Zoo Torah (and distributed
by Yashar Books). Yashar Books is a small publisher that has a real list of its
publications (all religious books). However, no such publisher as Zoo Torah is
listed anywhere besides the first page of Slifkin's book. Furthermore, we find
in the opening pages of the book in question the information that the book's
design was done by Slifkin himself, while the name Zoo Torah also clearly
points to Slifkin as an individual (see the entry on Slifkin in Wikipedia). In other words, from all the available
information seems to follow that the "Zoo Torah publisher" is just a name for
Rabbi Nathan Slifkin himself. Apparently
we deal here with a self-published book.
is nothing wrong with self-publishing per
se. However, if the book in question is indeed self-published by Rabbi
Slifkin (which is why he needed a help from a small, but real publishing outlet,
like Yashar, in distributing his book), then the highly flattering editorial
blurb on the inside flap must have been composed by Slifkin himself.
is nice to know that the esteemed rabbi has such a high opinion of himself and
of his opus.
if Slifkin is so fond of his own output, it is humanly understandable. What is
more puzzling is the array of highly positive blurbs all acclaiming Slifkin's
the humanity must know its heroes, here is the list of blurbs' authors:
- Yehuda Gellman, professor of philosophy, Ben Gurion University.
- Carl Rozenzweig, professor of physics and astronomy, Syracuse University.
- Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy, Florida State University.
- Rabbi Aryeh Carmell.
- Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein.
- Tim M. Kuski, professor of
natural sciences. Saint Louis University.
foreword to the book, also highly positive, was authored by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh
the appearance in the above list of some of the blurb writers causes no
surprise, it is hard to comprehend why such reasonable and intelligent people
like Rabbi Adlerstein or Professor Ruse considered it proper to lend their
respected names to the acclaim of an obvious piece of piffle, mostly consisting
of a multitude of quotations chosen in a biased manner, intolerably boring and offering
no original notions. Let them be their own judges.
References and Notes
1. Del Ratzsch. The
Battle of Beginning: Why Neither Side Is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate. InterVarsity Press, Downers
Grove, Il, 1996
2. Nathan Slifkin. The
Challenge of Creation: Judaism's Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and
Evolution. Zoo Torah/Yashar
Books, Brooklyn, NY 2006.
3. Albert Einstein. Letter to Maurice Solovine, Lettres a Maurice Solovine, Gauthiere
Villas, Paris, 1956. p. 102.
4. Einstein, letter to Guy H. Raner Jr of July 2, 1945. Reproduced
in Skeptic, vol. 5, No 2, 1997, p.
5. Stephen Hawking. A
Brief History of Time. Bantam Books, NY 1996 .
6. See, for example, books by Gerald Schroeder, Nathan Aviezer,
Hugh Ross, Grant Jeffrey, and other religious writers, reviewed in detail in
the section Faith vs. Reason on the
Talk Reason website (as well as in the book Unintelligent
Design by Mark Perakh, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2004)
7. Victor J. Stenger. The
Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From. Prometheus
Books, Amherst, NY, 2006.
8. Mark Perakh. Chapter 2 in Unintelligent Design
(also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Behe2.cfm
last accessed on July 7, 2007).
9. Mark Perakh, chapter 1 in Unintelligent Design, also available online at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/dembski.cfm
last accessed on July 11, 2007.
10. Lee M. Spetner. Not
by Chance: Shattering the Modern Theory of Evolution, The Judaica Press, NY, 1998
11. Michael J. Behe, The
Edge of Evolution: The Search for the
Limits of Darwinism. The Free Press, NY 2007.
contribution to Talk Reason by de la Meyraque can be seen at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/laugh.cfm where some personal information about the author is also to be found.