Jan 22, 2007
interview with the Zoo Rabbi - R' Natan Slifkin
Q: How did you become the "Zoo Rabbi"? And how do you make all those connections - you walk into a zoo and say I love animals, can I get into the lion cage - how do you convince them to let you behind the scenes?
NS: I've had a lifelong passion for animals, but as I grew up, I thought that I would never be able to make a career out of it. Then when I was in yeshivah, it occurred to me to start looking into what the Torah says about the animal kingdom. The rest is history...
The pictures and videos of me with wild animals are mostly from a private ranch in California where they train animals for work in movies. It's just a matter of paying a lot of money and signing a release of liability in case I get mauled! Occasionally, my connections to the Biblical Zoo have enabled me to go behind the scenes in some zoos in the U.S., and I also have some friends who work in various zoos.
Q: Has the controversy affected your book sales and speaking schedule? Have sales gone up? Gone down?
NS: Baruch Hashem, my book sales have gone way, way up. In terms of speaking engagements, while there are some places that will no longer invite me, this is far outweighed by the number of places that heard of me as a result of the controversy and davka want to invite me.
It's interesting; when Darwin's book originally came out, the Gedolim in Europe met to decide upon a response. They decided that it would be a very bad idea to place a ban on reading it, as it would merely encourage interest in it.
Q: How has the controversy around your works affected your and your families daily life?
NS: Well, it's already mostly died down. But for the first eight months or so, it completely and utterly took over my life. Aside from the time juggling emails and phone calls, it was extremely stressful and it took a great toll on me and my wife emotionally (fortunately our children are far too young to be affected).
It was especially difficult on my parents, who live in Bayit Vegan. There were posters all over Bayit Vegan - as if anyone there is even buying my books! My father (who is currently in a very grave situation in hospital) would go out every day to tear them down, and my mother was utterly distraught to the point that she was in tears frequently and couldn't bring herself to go to social events. I wonder if those who signed against my books gave any thought to their responsibilities in terms of causing tzaar to my family (or any other of the negative consequences of the ban, such as the massive chillul Hashem and the causing of many sincere people to move away from the yeshivah world).
Q: Do you ever get tired of it - either the job itself or the controversy - and just say I have had enough and will now do something else, like be the Plant Rabbi for example? Do you have other interests that take up your time?
NS: I was very sick of the controversy at the beginning, and I was desperate for it to be over. It was especially upsetting with those who attacked me personally and were motzi shem ra against me. But now it's died down a lot, and I've learned to handle it emotionally a lot better, so it doesn't bother me so much. My main frustration now is how so many people throw out charges against me which would be easily answered if they would just take the time to carefully read my book or my website.
The job and topic itself is certainly not something that I get tired of. It's a source of endless fascination for me. Additionally, there are constantly different aspects of it to focus on. For example, I spent much of the last few months intensively researching hilchos shofar, and writing new chapters for the new edition of Mysterious Creatures.
Q: How do you suggest lay people like me answer those who blankly ban your books without reading them? those who simply follow other rabbis like sheep, how do I respond (not start-up) as to why I want to read it - regardless of my agreeing with his answers?
NS: Well, if they are simply following their rabbis, you can say that you are simply following yours! You could say that you know that there are serious talmidei chachamim who endorse this approach, and that you have no chiyyuv or reason to follow these other people's rabbonim.
Q: Why is there so much hate toward you book and ideas, when you obviously have ma'are mekomos to back you up? Why has your work turned into such a wildfire? Why has it garnered the reaction it did, rather than just be shrugged off?
NS: That's a very interesting question. There are really two issues here - the question of why the ban caused such a backlash, and the question of why there is so much hate towards me. The answer to the first is that the ban was not just directed against me or my works, but against anyone who has ever used these approaches - which is tens of thousands of people. All these people felt like they had personally been condemned. A lot of people bemoaned the criticisms or even leitzonus against the Gedolim that erupted after the ban. I don't think that they realize how these people issuing the letzonos were, in many cases, extremely personally hurt by the ban. This isn't to justify the extreme reactions, but when you effectively tell a large group of people that they are apikorsim, without even giving any reasons, it's inevitable that this will cause tremendous resentment.
The reason why there is such hate towards me and my books is, I think, not so much due to what's in my books - after all, many of those who despise me have never even read my books. Rather, I think that it is for the most part due to my reaction to the ban i.e. defending myself very successfully on my website. If you consider the latest poster against me that was put up in RBS, the main reason why they said that people should not go to my shiurim was not so much the concern of "heresy", but rather that by doing so, people would be showing support to someone who is "defying the Gedolim."
Over a year ago, a certain rabbi told me that I was attacking the Gedolim on my website. I protested that I have always been very careful, as have been those supervising what I put on my website, that there should be nothing that attacks them and that I am only defending myself from their attacks on my work. His reply was very interesting and revealing. He said, "Defending yourself against the Gedolim is by definition attacking them." Now, that is something that sounds ludicrous, but what I think that he subconsciously meant is that his personal sense of identity was threatened when his image of the Gedolim and the universal acceptance of their rulings is shaken, because he draws his own sense of self-esteem from his idea of the Gedolim (which doesn't include the Gedolim that I follow!).
Q: Do you have a base of support that helps you get through the hard times?
NS: Baruch Hashem my family, rebbeim and community have been very supportive. I also have a file that is stuffed with hundreds of letters of support that I have received.
Q: How did you come to the conclusions that you came to that got you in trouble rather than follow other resolutions to the questions? Did those answers simply make more sense to you? Why have you been so adamant that your conclusions are correct, in spite of the rabbinic opposition to your solutions?
NS: When it comes down to it, we are talking about two very simple things - is the universe very old, and do creatures spontaneously generate. I've studied a fair amount of science and I am convinced that the universe is very old and that creatures do not spontaneously generate. My rebbeim in these matters have always told me that these conclusions are perfectly theologically acceptable, and that is what is written in the sources that I have collected. I investigated all the various answers to these and other questions, and the approach that I eventually took was the one that both made the most sense to me and that my rebbeim preferred. I have never been given any reason to tell my rebbeim that they were wrong, to ignore the sefarim that I studied, or to reject what I have learned about the natural world. It's not as though any of the Gedolim who banned my works gave any alternative answers to the problems that my books deals with.
You know, many people are under the impression that my books list dozens of cases where Chazal made mistakes in science. But the truth is that I only use that approach in THREE CASES! Mice growing from dirt, lice from sweat, and salamanders thriving only in fire. In each case, I was quoting other authorities, but the point is, throughout this whole controversy, not one of my opponents has said how they would explain these problems, let alone why my approach is wrong.
Q: Do you feel you are on equal footing with Rabbonim the likes of Rav Elyashiv, Rav Lefkowitz, the Novominsker Rebbe and others that you feel you can oppose them when they say you are wrong?
NS: I suggest that you look at what I wrote at http://www.zootorah.com/controversy/authority.html to see why I am not following their opinion; this is a very important page that I added recently to explain precisely this point.
Q: On your website you say that the Rabbonim refused to meet with you to allow you to explain your position. There is/was a rumor that Rav Moshe Shternbuch had agreed to meet with you. Supposedly he even agreed to meet with you on your own terms, yet supposedly you refused at the last minute.
Is there any truth to this rumor? Why would you not meet with him if he was willing? Can you deny the validity of the rumor?
NS: I have never heard anything like that (I haven't even heard a rumor like that!). Someone offered to arrange a meeting with him, after he had already written his letter. They hadn't spoken to him at all. I asked one of my rebbeim who is extremely close with Rav Sternbuch, and he couldn't see any point at all. After all, he had already made a public statement.
Q: Why do you continues to "peddle" your ideas, in light of the fact that the overwhelming majority of Chareidi Rabbonim oppose them.
One would expect that even if you feels you are right, you should "go underground" for some years, spend his time delving into more traditional subjects, and then when older, wiser, and more mature, return to these issue.
As an objective observer, regardless of the issue themselves, it seems very haughty on your part, at your age, to continue on, knowing that so many great people oppose his books.
Why do you continue on?
NS: Again, this relates to what I posted at http://www.zootorah.com/controversy/authority.html.
I do accept, though, that these rabbonim have the right to say that they don't want this approach for their communities, which I am trying to make clear in the way that I am republishing my books.
Q: Were you disappointed when your fellow landsman David Beckham decided to leave English footbal and take up American soccer?
NS: I have absolutely zero interest in sports and I didn't even know that he left football - in fact, I'm not exactly sure who he is!
Q: And finally, when is your next book coming out, And what will the topic be (if you can reveal it)?
NS: It's a completely revised and vastly expanded edition of Mysterious Creatures, to be entitled Sacred Monsters. It will also include discussions of giants, dwarfs, the shamir, and two-headed people! It will hopefully be out by summer.
Thank you R' Slifkin for the interview. I learned a lot from it. I hope others did as well. And Refuah Shleimah to your father.
For further information and more details of the whole controversy, clcik on the Controversy link on the ZooTorah website