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.”
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.