When quote mining becomes quote mania
Rabbi Slifkin derives science from the Torah
By Shmuel-Pairont de la Meyraque
Several years ago my acquaintance, a wealthy man who often
provided financial support for various worthy projects, asked me
to review a manuscript of a certain young rabbi named Nosson
Slifkin. The rabbi was asking my acquaintance to finance
publication of a book based on the manuscript in question,
titled The Science of Torah, with the subtitle: "How
the Torah Unfolds to Produce Scientific Law, the Universe and
The cited subtitle could sound confusing -- the verb
unfold seemed to be used by Slifkin in a metaphoric sense;
however, it could create the impression that it implied
literally unfolding the Torah scroll, which action magically
produced scientific laws, the universe and the life. This my
remark, which may be viewed as nasty nitpicking, is just to
stress that there is always a hazard the words of a writer might
be interpreted in a number of ways, so therefore the utmost care
must be taken to avoid any ambiguity.
Nitpicking done with, Slifkin endeavored to pursue a very
ambitious goal. The book in question seemed to be designed to
prove that scientific laws, the universe and life all are
products of the Torah's "unfolding." Starting such an ambitious
project, Slifkin must have been aware of the enormous burden of
proof he had to encounter. In this regard, the first question he
must have answered for himself, would be what kind of a
readership the book was supposed to address. It seemed
reasonable to conclude that the book was written for true
believers, and more specifically for believing Jews. Indeed, the
question of the Torah's veracity was not addressed by Slifkin at
all. Therefore, a skeptic, starting reading this book, after
just a few pages would most probably shrug off all Slifkin's
passages and stop reading further.
Regardless of Slifkin's intended audience, another question
was: what new insights would this book offer to make it
worthwhile for a reader to spend time reading it?
From this viewpoint, the manuscript made an odd impression.
It appeared not so much a discourse in which the author
endeavors to provide some hitherto undiscovered ideas, but
rather was not unlike a school essay, whose main purpose was to
show the student's diligence in studying the literature on the
subject in point.
Slifkin's opus showed that, besides having spent most of his
young years on studying the tenets of Judaism, of works of a
large number of sometimes prominent and sometimes rather obscure
rabbis, of all those midrashim and numerous volumes of
the Talmud, he had also invested some time in perusing works of
popular science in a search for quotations which could be used
to support his views. The manuscript was so overloaded with
quotations that a question naturally arose: wouldn't it be more
efficient just to provide the list of references and let the
readers turn to the original sources?
At the beginning of his manuscript Slifkin tried to explain
the reasons why he decided to write it. For example, on
manuscript page 9, at the very beginning of the Preface, Slifkin
maintained that, before his book, the "current status of the
'argument from design' has not been properly discussed." While
one may argue what constitutes "proper" discussion, the simple
fact is that, contrary to Slifkin's assertion, there already had
been an abundance of books, articles, lectures, websites etc.,
discussing the present status of the "argument from design" from
a multitude of viewpoints, and the flow of such material did not
show any signs of abating. Many of those publications were by
Christian writers, many by Jewish writers, some by Islamic
authors, and many by skeptics, agnostics and atheists. It was
hard to find in Slifkin's manuscript a single notion in regard
to the "argument from design" which has not been heard and
discussed before, usually more than once.
Continuing, Slifkin wrote: "No book (Jewish or non-Jewish)
that I have seen performs the all-important task of adequately
distinguishing between different elements of evolution, a
distinction that should become clear during the course of this
I am sorry to be blunt, but the above quotation is laughable.
There is a plentitude of books, papers in journals, etc., in
many languages, discussing in minute details different elements
of the theory of evolution, and Slifkin's discourse has hardly
added anything not said before on that subject.
Here is just one example. There is a discussion of a subtle
distinction between various aspects of the evolution theory,
from standpoints of both its adherents and opponents, in the
book by Del Ratzsch The Battle of Beginning
. While Ratzsch, like Slifkin, is himself a believer
(although, unlike Slifkin, a Christian) whose views I do not
share, his book displays a commendable effort at impartiality,
and presents a thorough discussion of the subject much superior
to Slifkin's effort. Of course, there are many other books on
that subject, including those by Jewish writers, and Slifkin's
work did not seem to add anything not chewed before, over,
across and sideways.
While on the one hand, as mentioned, Slifkin's manuscript was
overloaded with lengthy quotations, he was very selective in
choosing them. Each quotation was in tune with Slifkin's own
view. There was not a single quotation from the other side of
the dispute. It created the impression that nobody was ever able
to offer any counter-arguments to the assertions by the quoted
writers. Of course, the reality is quite different. Slifkin
obviously chose from the multitude of literature sources only
those that supported (or at least could be interpreted as
supporting) just one kind of narrow viewpoint, while carefully
hiding the existence of those sources which could cast shadow on
the validity of his views.
Moreover, even when quoting certain authors, Slifkin was very
selective in filtering the statements of this or that writer,
rather than letting the reader judge what the actual views of
this or that writer were. A case in point is a quotation from
Einstein. On manuscript page 26 (and repeated on page 39 of
Slifkin's book The Challenge of Creation which I will
discuss a few lines down) Slifkin quoted from a letter by
Einstein to Maurice Solovine,  which, if
viewed separately from Einstein's other statements, may seem to
indicate that Einstein somehow shared Slifkin's beliefs. There
are, though, many other statements by Einstein, including even
his direct assertion of being in a certain sense an atheist
 which Slifkin ignored. Such a method of
quotation is usually referred to as quote mining. However, the
sheer volume of quotations in Slifkin's opus allows one to
suggest that he elevated the art of quote mining to the level of
Another feature of Slifkin's planned book was his attempt to
cover a multitude of scientific topics. It was evident from all
those references to scientific theories that Slifkin perused
many books on subjects relating to many, sometimes quite remote
from each other, scientific disciplines. Unfortunately, more
often than not, it was also rather evident that he limited
himself mainly to more or less popular presentations of
scientific subjects rather than having studied them in a
systematic, not to mention professional manner. His
understanding of many of those subjects was obviously on a
dilettante level, and this led him to some misinterpretation and
misrepresentation of scientific facts. In particular, it was
quite obvious Slifkin was not sufficiently familiar with
physics, but rather has just looked up a number of books aimed
at laymen. Here is an example. On manuscript page 20 he
mentioned "the so-far contradictory theories of special
relativity and quantum physics."
This quotation testified to Slifkin's lack of knowledge of
what he was writing about. The special theory of relativity in
no way contradicts quantum physics, but Slifkin's assertion
indeed contradicted facts. In fact, there is a fully consistent
relativistic quantum mechanics, whose fundamentals were
developed by Paul Dirac in the early thirties of the last
century. The original version of quantum mechanics, as developed
by Erwin Schroedinger and Werner Heisenberg in 1928, was indeed
non-relativistic, which did not mean it contradicted the special
theory of relativity. It just did not account for the
relativistic effects, i.e. it was good as long as the velocities
of moving particles did not approach the speed of light. When,
just a few years later, Dirac developed the relativistic version
of quantum mechanic, the non-relativistic version remained as a
good approximation valid for not very high velocities. It is not
hard though to figure out the source of Slifkin's erroneous
statement. He read somewhere (possibly in the immensely popular
book by Stephen Hawking ) that it is yet
unclear how to combine the General theory of relativity
with the uncertainty principle of quantum theory. It simply
showed Slifkin's vague semi-familiarity with the subject in
question, as he obviously confused the special and the general
theories of relativity, and did not understand what precisely
the point is at which the general relativity and quantum physics
still wait for another Dirac to sew them together.
Here and there Slifkin made statements which were highly
disputable, but did not bother to substantiate them. For
example, on manuscript page 24 we read: "In the last few
decades, we have witnessed an astonishing reversal. Instead of
science diverging from religion, it has begun to converge in
profound ways." It is a highly questionable assertion. What is
really occurring is incessant attempts by proponents of the
Bible's inerrancy to find arguments allegedly proving that every
new advance in science is fully compatible with the biblical
story. Probably the most common example is
the utilization of the hot big bang theory as allegedly proving
the story of the creation given in Genesis. At the very least,
all these attempts are questionable, and so far no arguments
have been offered in favor of that view to which no
counter-arguments could be suggested. The assertion that science
is converging with religion was just Slifkin's private opinion,
not supported by evidence. As it has been the case until now,
religion and science seem to remain two different realms,
neither of the two being capable of penetrating each other's
domain (although it is possible to approach certain specific
tenets of religion using scientific method ).
On the manuscript page 26 Slifkin offered a very simplistic
interpretation of determinism. The principle of uncertainty and
the "bizarre" behavior of micro particles do not negate the
principle of determinism but, on the contrary, provide a deeper
understanding of determinism, advancing it beyond its Laplacian
form. Elsewhere in the same manuscript Slifkin devoted many
words to the existence of laws which seem at work in the
universe. He seemed not to notice that the existence of such
laws is a display of determinism. Each law of physics
establishes a certain causal relation between various factors.
This causal relation can have sometimes a complex form, but as
long as there is a law of physics, a causal relation is
necessarily present. That is essentially the meaning of
determinism. The question about the apparently random behavior
of micro particles is a different topic, but whatever
interpretation of it one adheres to, it does not abolish the
existence of laws and hence of determinism, if the latter is not
interpreted in a very narrow sense.
In some places Slifkin revealed insufficient familiarity even
with the literature having the direct relation to his theme. For
example, on manuscript page 30, discussing harmony in the
universe, Slifkin wrote:
But what is this beauty? Some describe it in terms of
harmony or symmetry, but both boil down to the other term
While I agree with Slifkin's thesis about simplicity (see
), many defenders of the Bible's inerrancy
disagree with him on that point. In particular, there are many
publications in which the opposite notion has been proposed and
fervently defended, namely that the extreme complexity, rather
than simplicity indicates the so called "intelligent design" of
the universe and of life. In particular, writings by Dembski
(see their detailed discussion in ), by Behe
(see ) and by their acolytes state
incessantly that complexity rather than simplicity is the marker
of design. (Adding to "complexity" the qualifiers like
"specified" or "irreducible" hardly converts complexity into
I sent to my wealthy acquaintance my brief review of
Slifkin's manuscript, which was largely along the lines of the
above discussion. As far as I know, the potential donor had
shared with Slifkin the text of my review.
Either because of my review, or for other reasons, the
potential donor rejected Slifkin's request for money.
However, the young vigorous rabbi managed to find other
sources of financial support which resulted in the publication
of a book, based on the manuscript in question under the title
The Science of Torah.
At that time I had no idea about the publication of the above
book. No wonder: its appearance did not stir any waters, what
with its being just another in a series of multiple
insignificant books asserting the Bible's supposed inerrancy.
Perhaps the book would remain almost invisible for a wide
audience but an event (not of Slifkin's making) took place which
made Nosson (or Nathan) Slifkin kind of a celebrity. His
literary output attracted the attention of a bunch of
ultra-religious psychopaths. Although Slifkin wrote his output
from the position of a faithful Orthodox Jew, a fringe group of
extremist rabbis in Israel disseminated a strong condemnation of
Slifkin and his publications. They issued a strongly worded
prohibition forbidding Jews to even touch Slifkin's books, which
they pronounced to be heretical nonsense. What has caused the
ire of the pious ignoramuses was Slifkin's acceptance of
scientific data. Slifkin joined many other religious apologists
who tried to reconcile science and the biblical story while the
rabbis in question simply reject each and every tenet of
science, insisting on a literal reading of the Torah with its
asseverations about the age of the world (about 6,000 years),
the creation of the world in six days and all other
peculiarities of the Bible's narrative.
To Slifkin's credit, even if he was possibly scared by the
vicious attack by his more extreme co-religionists, he displayed
an impressive resourcefulness in rebuffing the attack, and
continued publishing his books in the same vein as he did
before. Of course, in this story each decent person must be on
One of the results of the above story was a sudden upsurge in
the popularity of Slifkin's books. Their sales jumped
If we are sympathizing with Slifkin as a target of an assault
by religious fanatics, does this mean we must accept his
position regarding the relation between the Torah and science?
Of course not. Slifkin's position had to be evaluated on its
merits, regardless of what some fringe rabbis may have claimed
about it. Such an evaluation leads, in my view, to the
conclusion that Slifkin's thesis is dismally unsubstantiated.
Let us turn to Slifkin's latest book 
titled The Challenge of Creation which is just an updated
version of his previous book The Science of Torah, which,
in turn, was an expanded version of the manuscript discussed at
the beginning of this review. Let us look and see whether or not
Slifkin progressed in this book beyond the level of the original
manuscript discussed above.
Alas, almost all the weaknesses of the original manuscript
are found in the book in question as well, except for some minor
amendments. Apparently my comment regarding Slifkin's confusion
of the special and the general theories of relativity had its
effect: in the recent version of the book this fallacious
assertion of the original manuscript has been removed. Otherwise
the book is just a substantially expanded version of the
original manuscript, with the same abundance of quotations whose
overall volume seems to exceed the volume of Slifkin's own text.
Here is one example. I opened at random to a page which
turned out to be page 66. It contains total of 34 lines, of
which 27 lines are quotation and only 7 lines Slifkin's own
text. This page is by no means an exception but is rather
typical. Indeed, I again opened Slifkin's book at random, this
time to page 216. From the total of 36 lines of text on this
page, only 5 lines are Slifkin's text, the rest being a
quotation. The same situation occurs elsewhere in the book.
Lengthy quotations fill its pages, slightly diluted by swatches
of Slifkin's own text.
In one respect the book is substantially worse than the
original manuscript: the latter was relatively short while the
book is very long, and (sorry, again, for being blunt)
intolerably boring. One hardly can find in the book original
notions -- almost all of it has been said time and time again by
proponents of compatibility of the biblical story with science.
I used the qualifier "almost" because there is one notion in
Slifkin's narration that can be considered as his personal
nuance in the argument favoring Torah's impact on science.
Slifkin asserts that the Torah is not just fully compatible with
science (such a thesis has been suggested by many other
religious authors ) -- but that in fact the
Torah is the source of all science.
Here is a quotation exemplifying Slifkin's repeatedly
pronounced notion (page 31 in The Challenge of Creation):
The entire scientific enterprise has its roots in
religion, specifically monotheistic Judaism.
Is this quotation an exception? No, it is just one of
Slifkin's repeatable claims of a similar kind. For example, on
page 33, where Slifkin comments on a statement in a book by
physicist Paul Davies (who is a recipient of the huge Templeton
award for his work favoring the converging of religion with
science), Slifkin writes:
We tend to think of Judaism's contribution to the world
in terms of the Bible and the concept of morality. But here
we see that Judaism is also considered responsible for the
remarkable phenomenon of the entire scientific enterprise.
Or, perhaps some readers may find the following quotation
from Sifkin's book even more eloquent (page 36):
Far from science being an alien challenger to religion,
it is actually a child of religion, and one that is
gradually returning to its roots.
Such assertions could well serve as a parody of senseless
claims by religious fanatics, but in this case Slifkin seems to
be quite serious in making such absurd claims. Of course, even
in this he is not really original. For example, in a book titled
Not By Chance,  its author, Lee
Spetner (a specialist in signal processing) in an equally
serious manner claimed several years ago that his "Non-Random
Evolution Theory" (in a certain sense presaging Behe's claim in
his Edge of Evolution book  about
directed rather than "random" mutations) has its roots in the
Is the thesis of religion (more specifically of Judaism)
being the root of all science the sole absurdity in Slifkin's
book? By no means; it only is (arguably) the most vivid display
of the level of Slifkin's argumentation. Indeed, the book in
question is in fact a conglomerate of many equally senseless
For example, on page 48 of The Challenge of Creation
there is a footnote wherein Slifkin discusses the problem of
infinite regress (without naming it as such). Presenting the
position of those authors who do not share Slifkin's beliefs, he
attributes to his putative opponents, as their counter-argument
against the idea of a Creator responsible for the existence of
the world, the question:
…[W]ho made God? … This counter-argument is, however,
flawed. Somewhere down the line, it seems that there must be
something that exists without a prior cause. Faced between
attributing this quality to a physical universe or to a
supernatural being, it is more reasonable to attribute it to
a supernatural being.
Is Slifkin's choice indeed more reasonable? Has Slifkin never
heard about Occam's razor, also referred to as a principle of
parsimony? We all, Slifkin including, know that at least one
"physical universe" indeed exists. On the other hand, the
existence of a supernatural being is a surmise based at best on
purely philosophical rather than on an empirical foundation. If
we have to choose between attributing the "quality" of existing
without a prior cause either to the "physical universe" or to a
"supernatural being", obviously the former choice is immensely
more parsimonious than the latter.
The quality of being parsimonious is inextricably related to
being more reasonable.
Furthermore, unlike the arguments for the existence of an
uncaused supernatural being, which leave completely unanswered
the question of "Who made God?", there are scientific arguments
plausibly explaining the reasons for the existence of the
physical universe , i.e. offering a
plausible answer to the question "Why there is something rather
than nothing?" While this explanation may fall short of
providing a non-refutable "proof" of its validity, it is based
on well established scientific facts, is logical and eminently
parsimonious. To my mind, Slifkin's arbitrary assertion of the
God hypothesis being "more reasonable," only shows that
Slifkin's idea of the concept of "reasonable" has substantially
been muddled by the long years of his studying the writing of
the numerous rabbis which he so admiringly acclaims in his book.
Here is one more example of Slifkin advocating notions that
make no sense.
On page 52 Slifkin offers (as usual not really original)
discussion of the amazing properties of visible light so
perfectly fitting the animal's scope of vision. He lists five
requirements electromagnetic radiation must meet to satisfy the
needs of animal organisms. Then he writes:
Remarkably, a single small range of electromagnetic
radiation -- that between 0.3 micron and 1.5 micron -- meets
all these delicate five requirements. Even more incredibly,
the majority of radiation emitted by the sun falls within
this range. Still more fortuitously, the sun does not emit
any of the numerous lethal types of radiation, such as gamma
Well, all those data are as "remarkable" and "incredible" as
the incredible coincidence -- human legs have the length exactly
needed to reach the ground. In another well known example, a pit
in the ground is amazed that the water filling it happens to
have the exact shape to fit the pit. Isn't this remarkable,
The examples of utter bunkums in Slifkin's book can be
continued, but I think the quotations given so far are more than
sufficient to conclude that Slifkin's opus is a practically
useless piffle produced by a semi-educated (except for matters
of Judaism) but very self-confident and ambitious writer lacking
qualifications to pronounce judgments on important philosophical
and scientific problems.
When asserting that Slifkin is self-confident to the level of
arrogance, I can point to one peculiar detail. On the inside
flap of the Challenge of Creation, where usually
editorial blurbs are placed, we find claims very flattering to
Slifkin, extolling the virtues of his book in a greatly
exaggerated manner. In itself, it is not something unusual, as
editors naturally tend to acclaim their production. What is
peculiar in Slifkin's case is the following detail. The book has
been published by a publishing outlet named Zoo Torah (and
distributed by Yashar Books). Yashar Books is a small publisher
that has a real list of its publications (all religious books).
However, no such publisher as Zoo Torah is listed anywhere
besides the first page of Slifkin's book. Furthermore, we find
in the opening pages of the book in question the information
that the book's design was done by Slifkin himself, while the
name Zoo Torah also clearly points to Slifkin as an individual
(see the entry on Slifkin in Wikipedia). In other words, from
all the available information seems to follow that the "Zoo
Torah publisher" is just a name for Rabbi Nathan Slifkin
himself. Apparently we deal here with a self-published book.
There is nothing wrong with self-publishing per se.
However, if the book in question is indeed self-published by
Rabbi Slifkin (which is why he needed a help from a small, but
real publishing outlet, like Yashar, in distributing his book),
then the highly flattering editorial blurb on the inside flap
must have been composed by Slifkin himself.
It is nice to know that the esteemed rabbi has such a high
opinion of himself and of his opus.
Well, if Slifkin is so fond of his own output, it is humanly
understandable. What is more puzzling is the array of highly
positive blurbs all acclaiming Slifkin's product.
Since the humanity must know its heroes, here is the list of
- Yehuda Gellman, professor of philosophy, Ben Gurion
- Carl Rozenzweig, professor of physics and astronomy,
- Michael Ruse, professor of philosophy, Florida State
- Rabbi Aryeh Carmell.
- Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein.
- Tim M. Kuski, professor of natural sciences. Saint Louis
The foreword to the book, also highly positive, was authored
by Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb.
While the appearance in the above list of some of the blurb
writers causes no surprise, it is hard to comprehend why such
reasonable and intelligent people like Rabbi Adlerstein or
Professor Ruse considered it proper to lend their respected
names to the acclaim of an obvious piece of piffle, mostly
consisting of a multitude of quotations chosen in a biased
manner, intolerably boring and offering no original notions. Let
them be their own judges.
References and Notes
1. Del Ratzsch. The Battle of Beginning:
Why Neither Side Is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate.
InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Il, 1996
2. Nathan Slifkin. The Challenge of
Creation: Judaism's Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and
Evolution. Zoo Torah/Yashar Books, Brooklyn, NY 2006.
3. Albert Einstein. Letter to Maurice
Solovine, Lettres a Maurice Solovine, Gauthiere Villas,
Paris, 1956. p. 102.
4. Einstein, letter to Guy H. Raner Jr of
July 2, 1945. Reproduced in Skeptic, vol. 5, No 2, 1997,
5. Stephen Hawking. A Brief History of
Time. Bantam Books, NY 1996 .
6. See, for example, books by Gerald
Schroeder, Nathan Aviezer, Hugh Ross, Grant Jeffrey, and other
religious writers, reviewed in detail in the section Faith
vs. Reason on the Talk Reason website (as well as in the
book Unintelligent Design by Mark Perakh, Prometheus
Books, Amherst, NY, 2004)
7. Victor J. Stenger. The Comprehensible
Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From. Prometheus
Books, Amherst, NY, 2006.
8. Mark Perakh. Chapter 2 in Unintelligent
Design (also available online at
http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Behe2.cfm last accessed
on July 7, 2007).
9. Mark Perakh, chapter 1 in Unintelligent
Design, also available online at
http://www.talkreason.org/articles/dembski.cfm last accessed
on July 11, 2007.
10. Lee M. Spetner. Not by Chance:
Shattering the Modern Theory of Evolution, The Judaica
Press, NY, 1998
11. Michael J. Behe, The Edge of
Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism.
The Free Press, NY 2007.
Another contribution to Talk Reason by de la Meyraque can be
http://www.talkreason.org/articles/laugh.cfm where some
personal information about the author is also to be found.