On Tuesday, January 28th, Rabbi Natan Slifkin, AKA the Zoo Rabbi, visited Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School to share with Ma’ayanot students his novel ideas about the interplay between Torah and science. Rabbi Slifkin was invited to speak at Ma’ayanot as part of the school’s Interdisciplinary Exploration initiative, which aims to provide interdisciplinary experiences through which students are encouraged to integrate Judaic and secular knowledge across the curriculum.
The visit started with a presentation to the entire 11th and 12th grades on the topic, “The Animal Kingdom in Jewish Thought,” which was followed by presentations on evolution to students enrolled in Ma’ayanot’s interdisciplinary Tikvah elective and to Ma’ayanot Scholars (i.e., students who participate in Ma’ayanot’s Scholars Program (MSP)—a voluntary program aimed at increasing the amount of time students spend engaged in extracurricular Torah study).
With his extensive knowledge of science, zoology, Tanakh, and Talmud, Rabbi Slifkin encouraged students to think about the intersection of Torah and science in ways that they had not previously considered. In this regard, Talmud teacher Dena Block commented that “Rabbi Slifkin’s animal kingdom talk was very broadening for our students. Prior to this talk, very few of our students would have thought that a careful reading of the Torah has a lot to contribute to our understanding of zoology, or that our empirical observations of the world can contribute to our understanding of the Torah. Rabbi Slifkin’s talk allowed students to see that both of these are possible.”
Science teacher Noam Weinberger concurred, but expressed this idea in a different way: “Rabbi Slifkin’s presentations brought both Chazal and zoology to life; they made science more relevant to students who are more inclined towards Judaic studies, and they made Judaic studies feel more relevant to students who are more science minded.”
Rabbi Slifkin’s presentation on evolution was equally well received. A main thrust of that talk was that Orthodox Jews do not necessarily have to find a perfectly coherent synthesis between the science of evolution and the Torah because the goals of these teachings are different; the Torah, he explained, exists to teach theology and life lessons while the theory of evolution exists to explain how the physical world has developed over time. Senior Hannah Ash, a student in the Interdisciplinary Tikvah elective, found this presentation to be eye-opening. “At first he postulated ideas that seemed radical, but on reflection they made so much sense. I gained so much insight from his talk!” Sophomore Shana Adler, an MSP participant, echoed this sentiment: “When we learned biology last year, I wondered how the theory of evolution related to the Torah, and Rabbi Slifkin helped answer this question for me.”
A main goal of Ma’ayanot’s interdisciplinary programming is to promote a learning environment where creative, out of the box, thinking is encouraged. The Zoo Rabbi more than accomplished this goal.
By Pam Ennis