Rabbi Dr Natan Slifkin, above, founder and director of The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, tells the story of a ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who entered his museum.
I recall seeing one visitor, an adult, standing in front of our lion exhibit, marveling at it. “It’s amazing!” he said to me. “Yes, it is,” I agreed. I was completely unprepared for his next question: “What is it?”
What is it? It’s a lion, for goodness’ sakes! One of the most instantly recognizable animals in the world! But not if you’ve never been on safari, never been to a zoo, never watched a wildlife documentary, and barely ever read any books or literature outside of rabbinic scholarship.
British-born Slifkin, known as “the zoo rabbi” tells of the encounter in a recent blog post about the row that erupted when – in a bid to shelter ultra-Orthodox Jews from the idea of evolution – an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Jerusalem was covered by a mauve curtain.
Slifkin is no anti-evolutionist. Indeed , he even published a book about reconciling evolution and the Bible, which was promptly banned by three dozen of the top ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who called for it to be burned.
Yet the rabbi argues that those protesting about the Jerusalem’s museum cover-up are demonstrating:
A stubborn desire to teach a lot more than people are willing to learn.
Those opposing the cover-up, says Slifkin:
Are standing outside the museum with placards. Prominent American biologist Jerry Coyne has published a public letter, writing as ‘an evolutionary biologist of Jewish ancestry’, slamming the museum for censorship and lying by omission. And the director of Be Free Israel, a non-profit which aims to promote religious pluralism in Israel, has condemned the museum as for engaging in ‘self-censorship that seeks to tell its visitors half-truths and complete lies.’
The gist of Slifkin’s argument in a post called “The Skeleton in My Closet” is that learning is best served by taking into account religious sensitivities. Which is simply ridiculous, especially coming from an academic.
Slifkin then reveals that his own museum has no exhibits regarding evolution, and explains why:
In part, it’s because that’s simply not part of our museum’s mission; our museum is about the animal world of Biblical Israel. But another reason is that it would severely damage our educational mission.
We want to teach as much as possible about the natural world to as many people as possible. And Israel is home to an extraordinarily diverse range of people, not to mention the tourists that visit. There are Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus and people who are not attached to any faith. All of them visit our museum.
And within the Jewish people, there are secular Jews, modern Orthodox Jews (who generally accept modern science), and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The latter group itself in turn contains many diverse communities – Lithuanians, Chabad, Gerrer, Belz, and so on. Many of them are completely insulated from the outside world. They’ve never watched television. They’ve never even been to visit the zoo, because the zoo is open on Shabbat. They’re certainly not going to visit a museum that has exhibits about evolution.
Does it make sense not to have institutions that these communities will ever visit, and to continue to deprive them of knowledge about the natural world? Or does it make sense to have a variety of institutions available for the general public – some that teach the full range of modern scientific knowledge, and others with a mission that is more limited, but which will reach all communities?
This is the text of a letter sent to the Jerusalem museum by Jerry Coyne, above:
As an evolutionary biologist of Jewish ancestry, I am deeply offended at your practice of covering up the human evolution exhibit lest it offend the Haredi Jews who go to your museum. Why would a museum hide the truth, even if it’s offensive to some religious believers? Is this proper in a largely secular state like Israel?
I hope you realize that by literally hiding the evidence for human evolution, you are misleading people: in effect, lying by omission. The truth is the truth, regardless of whether some people are offended because it goes against their upbringing; and by catering to the false beliefs of creationists, you are, in effect, censoring whatever science that some people find unpleasant. This kind of behavior makes me ashamed of my Jewish background.
I hope that in the future you can just present the plain scientific truth about human origins and not worry about who it offends. Your blatant censorship offends me–and has offended many others – but of course you’d prefer to offend scientists and truth-seekers than those who harbor religious superstitions.
According to this report, the museum said it had received approval to temporarily cover up the exhibits on dinosaurs, human evolution and human body. The approval was based on a recommendation by the Jerusalem Haredi Education Division, a joint body that is part of both the Jerusalem Municipality and the Education Ministry. The division confirmed those details.
Hat tip: BarrieJohn