The Zoo Rabbi Talks Torah

— by Hannah Lee

The last time the “Zoo Rabbi” came to Philly, I had a family emergency and missed Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s Bible-guided tour of the Philadelphia Zoo. This time, I caught both of his shiurim on July 22 at Congregation Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The advantage was that he could show photos and PowerPoint graphics for two lectures titled, The Challenge of Dinosaurs and Beasts of Prey in Jewish Thought.

More after the jump.
Born in Manchester, England and the son of a physicist, Rabbi Slifkin has been a life-long student of animal life. In 1999, he began teaching about the relationship between Judaism and the animal kingdom at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo. He has since developed the Zoo Torah program, which he has since successfully operated in various cities in the United States as well as in Toronto, Cape Town, and Johannesburg. He’s also studying for a Ph.D. in Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University.

Rabbi Slifkin, his wife Avital, and their four children live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel, along with an assortment of pets, which at various times has included chinchillas, squirrels, rabbits, guinea-pigs, hamsters, cockatiels, parrots, pheasants, parakeets, finches, quails, snakes, iguanas, geckos, chameleons, turtles, frogs, toads, basilisks, and fish.

Did dinosaurs exist? The Rabbi showed an impressive life-size display from one of the prominent science museums in this country and stated baldly that it’s all fake. To gasps of disbelief, he calmly clarified himself by explaining that the actual fossil bones are too delicate to present to the general public. So, how do we know they’d existed? From the fossil bones, footprints, eggs, and excrement left behind. (Although when he visited Dinosaur Ridge, Colorado, he was nonplussed by how many of the local residents had never bothered to see the famous footprints in their neighborhood.) He then passed around a baby tooth from a Spinosaurus which he said was 100 million and seven months old (because he’d obtained it seven months ago!). The crucial point was that in all the areas with dinosaur bones, there were no other bones of co-existing creatures.

What is the lesson is this? Rabbi Slifkin offered the most popular theories before citing the one that was most cogent. One is that God created the world with dinosaur bones in it. Rabbi Yisrael Lifshitz in Derush Ohr HaChayyim notes that when the Bible says: “…and it was evening, and it was morning,” this implied that there had been other epochs. And the Mishnah refers to iguanodons that were 15 feet high and megalosauruses that were meat-eaters. Finally, the Kabbalah mentions destroyed worlds. But why would HaShem tease us so?

The second perspective is represented by Rabbi Eli Munk in The Seven Days of the Beginning, who notes that when the Bible states that six days occurred before the creation of Man, how long was a day before the Sun?  The latter came into being on Day Four, after vegetation was created on Day Three. Yom could refer to “an era,” just as “day” can refer to more than 24 hours as in The Day of the Jackal, the English thriller novel and movie of that name. So, six days can refer to billions of years and a shifting sense of time. However, says Rabbi Slifkin, this approach undermines the Torah by implying that nothing was learned or was accurate until science validated it.

The true value of Torah is as theological pedagogy, says Rabbi Slifkin. What was concurrent at the time of the Bible?  For example, the Babylonians’ creation tale is about a clash of the titans, deities who battle it out with each other. The goal of the Torah is to teach monotheism, that one God had created Everything. The Biblical message of the six days of creation is to create the setting for Man: History began with Man. All pagans worship the Sun, but in the Torah, the Sun appears only on Day Four.

What about the taninim, great reptiles, that appear in Genesis?  Yes, but they live only in the water. Pagans believe in great monsters of the sea, but the Torah demythologizes these legends, by placing them within the company of other creatures.

So, the important question is not where are the dinosaurs in the Torah? A better quest is what can we learn from the dinosaurs? There are several hypotheses about how the dinosaurs became extinct. The popular one is that a giant meteor or comet crashed — perhaps near the Gulf of Mexico — blotted out the sun, and flooded the land where the dinosaurs lived. However, this approach does not serve us well, as current science indicates that we’d have only one day’s notice before such meteor could strike again.

No, it’s a lesson of humility, says Rabbi Slifkin. Another lesson is that while dinosaurs, a term commonly used to refer to something obsolete, became extinct, Judaism is an ancient tradition that has survived — and thrived — into modernity.

The second shiur focused on contemporary creatures of prey, mostly on the bear, which is often cited as a symbol of anger in Jewish texts. Why is that?  Adult bears can weigh between 400 – 500 pounds, while the newborn cubs weigh less than half a pound. So, a mother bear has to invest a lot of time and energy into nurturing its young, thus forming a fierce bond. Anyone who threatens its young faces its wrath.

In the Biblical book of Daniel [7:2-5], Persia and Medea are represented by bears, Babylon by a lion, and Greece by a leopard. In the Talmud, Persians are said to eat and drink like a bear [Megillah 11a]. As we all know, bears hibernate in the winter, but in the spring and summer months they feast ravenously and indiscriminately. In the autumn, in a race against time to pack in calories before winter hits, bears can eat continuously; they can eat up to 200 pounds of berries in one day. Similarly, the Persians of Megillat Esther — as in the week-long feasts of King Achashverosh — are human examples of gluttony.

Another use of bear imagery is the creature that attacks when it is caught unawares. A brown bear is dangerous when it is surprised, when it thinks it’s being attacked. When one is careless in bear country, that’s the time when one could surprise a bear and cause it to attack. So, the Biblical Joseph’s death is attributed to “a wild beast [that] has consumed him.” A stronger imagery is when the Midrash Bereshit describes Potiphar’s wife as a bear, because Joseph was so carefree in Pharoah’s domain that he could curl his hair, thus God sets her against him [Rashi, Genesis 39:6]. Similarly, Jews in Persia were not on their guard.

Finally, the lesson of the Torah on bears is contrary to the rising popularity of the notion of mutual respect, that “if you love them, they’d love you back.”  As with wild animals, so with human enemies. Jews should know our enemies, but we should not delude ourselves that they’d love us back were we to love them.

Rabbi Natan Slifkin maintains two websites, zootorah.com and rationalistjudaism.com. You may download a sample chapter from the four-volume The Torah Encyclopedia of Animal Kingdom, to which Rabbi Slifkin has devoted over a decade of scholarship.

Mitt Romney Feels The Heat in New Hampshire Debate Marathon


If you missed last night’s ABC debate, here is a round up courtesy of TPM.”


And here is today’s NBC debate in 100 seconds.

Last night the Republicans faced off for a 2-hour debate on ABC, and this morning is round 2 as they debate on NBC. Mitt Romney, the putative winner in Iowa and the projected winner of New Hampshire, is feeling the heat as he is being attacked from all side as the Suffolk University tracking poll shows  his support dropping for the fourth day in a row.

“Taking two positions on every issue, one on the left and one of the right, doesn’t make you a centrist. It makes you a charlatan.”
— David Axelrod, in a conference call with reporters.

According to the Huffington Post, Romney’s first event in New Hampshire after the Iowa Caucus “offered a rude awakening”:

Three of the first four questioners were openly hostile to Romney, although one of them was an Occupy Manchester activist. And even the endorsement and appearance of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) failed to arouse much of a reaction from the Granite Staters in attendance… the tone of the event was a sharp break from the joyful mood that had accompanied the former Massachusetts governor onto a charter plane from Iowa earlier that morning, along with a swarm of press befitting a presidential frontrunner.

Romney’s Fast Shuffle on Tax Figures

FactCheck: In the post-debate analysis, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found Romney mangled facts in Manchester.

Romney, talking about taxes, said federal, state and local government consume 37% of the economy today compared with only 27% when John F. Kennedy was president. In fact, taxes now consume only 27.4% of GDP.

The Urban-Brooking Tax Policy Center has analyzed Mitt Romney’s tax plan. They “found that the plan constitutes a major tax cut for wealthy Americans. But compared to today’s rates, Romney proposes effective tax increases for people making less than $40,000.”

Meanwhile as April 15 approaches, Romney continues to refuse to make his tax returns public as is traditional for Presidential Candidates. Brian Beutler exposes Romney’s motivation for doing so:

One tax expert told TPM of “fairly sophisticated tax strategies” that would be “not available to ordinary tax payers.” A technique that puts you in a position that’s “like having an unlimited 401k account” sounds very attractive. But maybe not if you’re running for office, for Pete’s sake.

When Romney jokes that he’s been unemployed for years, he’s obscuring the fact that he’s still collecting millions of dollars of investment income, which is taxed at a much lower rate than it would be if he, like most taxpayers, took home a regular paycheck. He’s also obscuring the fact a great deal of that same income is only vaguely connected to his own underlying investments, and yet benefits from a key loophole in the tax code that allows him and other wealthy finance veterans to more than halve their effective tax rate.



Romney’s Dubious Jobs Claim, Again

“Mitt Romney, I think, is more of a job cremator than a job creator.”
— DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz

FactCheck continued its analysis of Romney’s job creation claims:

Romney repeated the claim that he created over 100,000 jobs through his work at the private equity firm Bain Capital. That’s an unproven and questionable claim, as we wrote earlier this week.

Romney said that 100,000 jobs was a “net-net” figure that included jobs gained and lost at more than 100 businesses in which Bain invested. When moderator George Stephanopoulos questioned that, saying analysts had said Romney hadn’t subtracted jobs lost, Romney responded, “no, it’s not accurate.” He said he was “a good enough numbers guy to make sure I got both sides of that.” But this week, the Romney campaign sent us as support for the claim a thin list of jobs gained at just three companies: Staples, The Sports Authority and Domino’s. No other companies were included in the list, and no jobs lost were mentioned, either. We have asked the campaign again for the detailed count that Romney said exists.


A former employee of Mitt Romney

Trailer for documentary by pro-Gingrich PAC

Romney: “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”

As for the three companies the campaign has cited, it’s true that they have added more than 100,000 jobs since Bain invested in them. But does Romney deserve credit for all of those jobs? He admitted at the debate tonight that the total includes jobs up until the present day, long after Bain’s initial involvement, and that other firms had invested in them as well. As we reported earlier, The Sports Authority was started with help from Bain, William Blair Venture Partners, Phillips-Smith and Marquette Venture Partners. William Blair and Bessemer Venture Partners invested in Staples. And both companies, of course, had founders and CEOs spearheading their launches.

Romney Spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom: Romney’s claimed 100,000 job figure was undercut by his own campaign as his spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler that these were gross job creations, and not net numbers which would have to include the people Romney laid off:

Fehrnstrom says the 100,000 figure stems from the growth in jobs from three companies that Romney helped to start or grow while at Bain Capital:

  • Staples (a gain of 89,000 jobs),
  • The Sports Authority (15,000 jobs), and
  • Domino’s (7,900 jobs).

This tally obviously does not include job losses from other companies with which Bain Capital was involved — and are based on current employment figures, not the period when Romney worked at Bain. (Indeed, Romney made his comments in response to a former employee of American Pad & Paper Co. who says he lost his job after Bain Capital took it private.)

Contradictions about ads produced by pro-Romney PAC after the jump.