Miriam Shaviv meets the 'Zoo Rabbi,' Natan Slifkin, who defends his books on animals and science against charges of heresy by strictly Orthodox sagesIn a London drawing room, a slightly built rabbi with a black velvet kipah, a tie with lizards and a chirpy Manchester accent shows off the final proofs of "The Challenge of Creation," in which he argues that evolution can be compatible with Judaism, as can the idea that the world is more than 5,766 years old.
Tackling these topics would be a brave venture for any charedi rabbi, but doubly so for Israel-based Rabbi Natan Slifkin, 30, whose books on these subjects have been banned for heresy in the past two years by some of the world's most prominent rabbis.
Indeed, the Slifkin Affair has become a cause celebre in the Orthodox world, causing alarm among some at the way Slifkin's opponents have dismissed science out of hand, used book-banning to silence debate and declared ideas which had strong rabbinical pedigrees to be heretical.
"The controversy revealed two distinct groups in the charedi world," says Slifkin, in London for a speaking engagement on behalf of the British Friends of the Jerusalem College of Technology. "It was a clash of cultures."
On the one hand, he says, there are those who are exposed to scientific ideas and struggle to reconcile them with Judaism. On the other are those who "opposed the books from an ivory tower of Orthodoxy - they don't deal with the people or the issues [that] my books are for."
Slifkin emphasises that supporters included not only modern Orthodox but many charedim, "including senior rabbis. Even in the yeshivah world, many people were on my side," he claims.
Unfortunately, despite his receiving thousands of letters of support, few charedi figures have come out publicly in his favour. Still, the backlash against the ban was so strong that Slifkin is convinced it will never be re-enacted, and believes that those who came out against him are eager to put the affair behind them. And he intends to persevere. "Maybe I'm brave, maybe I'm foolhardy," he says, "but I feel very strongly about these issues, and I'm not going it alone."
Before the controversy, Slifkin had already established an international reputation as the "Zoo Rabbi," writing and lecturing about Judaism's relationship to the animal kingdom. He displayed an early passion for animals, with a menagerie including mice, salamanders, monitor lizards, quails, a tarantula, parrots and a dormouse. His mother tolerated the obsession. "She bought me a bug-collecting kit but was appalled at the idea I'd actually use it."
In 1995, he left Manchester for Israel, where he attended the prestigious Mir Yeshivah, and taught at Ohr Somayach. While he studied, animals took a back seat - until, eight years ago, he joined a course training volunteers for the Jerusalem Zoo. "At the end, I asked, since this is a biblical zoo, why don't I work on teaching people about biblical animals?"
He began guiding groups around the zoo and then developed a course in Jewish zoology for gap-year students, covering everything from the laws of keeping pets to locust-cookery classes, and he soon became a popular lecturer worldwide. His fan base was also cemented with a series of books, including "Mysterious Creatures" and "The Camel, the Hare, and the Hyrax." Predominantly about animals, they also discussed issues of science and Torah. Since his books drew heavily on traditional rabbinic sources, and carried endorsements from leading charedi rabbis, he did not expect controversy.
But one morning in September 2004, he received a phone call warning that he had 24 hours to withdraw three of his books or face the "public humiliation" of a letter condemning him, signed by four gedolim, or luminaries. Despite repeated attempts, he was not allowed to meet the signatories and three days later, on erev Yom Kippur, posters went up in Jerusalem and his home town of Ramat Bet Shemesh, banning his books. Over the next few months, the rabbis endorsing them came under pressure to retract. Two did so. He was dropped by his publisher, and a second letter appeared with more signatures, including that of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, widely recognised as the leading Torah sage of today.
"It was very traumatic," he says. "It was very hard for me to have prominent people, whom I greatly respected, coming out against me." In fact, it was never entirely clear what was deemed objectionable. He surmises that the problem lay with his beliefs that the sages of the Talmud were mistaken in certain scientific matters and that the world is billions of years old.
Did he ever consider withdrawing the books? "I was never given a single reason to retract other than to listen to those rabbis," he says carefully. "My own rabbis told me there was no halachic reason to retract."
Indeed, he soon realised that his own rabbis - such as Rabbi Aryeh Carmell, founder of the Association for Orthodox Jewish Scientists - had a "qualitative advantage" over the signatories of the letters.
"They knew science," he says. "They had actually read the books, and it makes a big difference to see something in context."
With hindsight, he realises that some of his opponents were genuinely convinced that the books were heretical; others were worried about their impact on young, impressionable yeshivah boys, but yet others, behind the scenes, were "provocateurs," with political agendas he refuses to discuss, other than to say that some had a grudge against one of the rabbis backing him.
The boyish, usually good-natured Slifkin is at pains to emphasise that he still respects the rabbis who moved against him, and that his worst fear is that his case will be used by anti-charedi agitators.
Nevertheless, he has been hurt. The fact that some colleagues came out against him out of loyalty to the rabbis made matters worse - as did the feeling that the entire episode could have been avoided had he been allowed to meet his accusers. Asked if he's bitter, he answers, "Of course. It's something I need to try and overcome."
One rather ironic boon has been that since the ban, sales of his books have gone through the roof - and several are now out of print. Rather than rushing out with new editions, he has taken time to expand them. As he throws himself into a series of new "Zoo Torah" projects, such as a kosher safari adventure, an encyclopedia of animals in Judaism, and, hopefully, a video series, the storm can only help his sales.
After all, as he admits - somewhat sadly, one senses - "There's no such thing as bad publicity."
"The Challenge of Creation," due out in July, will be available in the UK through the internet. Rabbi Slifkin's website is www.zootorah.com