By Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin, founder and director of The Biblical Museum of Natural History
I have a skeleton in my closet. I’ve been keeping this secret from many, many people. And I think that my reasons are absolutely justifiable. But in light of some protests taking place both nationally and internationally against a colleague in a similar situation, I’ve decided to come out and explain why I’ve been keeping it in my closet.
There are currently protests raging against The Natural History Museum in Jerusalem, because they were found to be covering over the human evolution exhibit when they receive ultra-Orthodox school groups. People 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.”
You don’t have to agree with me, but in my view, the evolution of all animal life, including humans, is an adequately proven scientific fact. And I don’t see it as presenting any kind of conflict with the Bible. As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote in the 19th century, when evolution had just been proposed as an explanation of life’s development, the truth of it would demonstrate God’s “creative wisdom” in forming animal life not by separate acts of creation, but via a profound system of natural law. I 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. You don’t have to convince me to be passionate about getting people to accept evolution!
And yet, in my own museum, The Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, we do not have any exhibits about evolution. We don’t have any skeletons of dinosaurs. We do have the skeleton of a 100,000 year old cave-bear, a wonderful donation to the museum, but the sign merely states that it is an extinct species from the Pleistocene, which most people probably think is a type of clay.
Why don’t we say anything about evolution or prehistoric animal life? 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?
The ultra-Orthodox schools that visit our museum are among our most valued visitors. The impact that we make upon them is extraordinary. 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.
It’s incredibly rewarding to watch our ultra-Orthodox visitors marvel as they hold a live chameleon for the first time, as they gasp at the skull of the Biblical behemoth (a hippopotamus), as they learn about the differences between herbivorous and carnivorous mammals. Wouldn’t it be a terrible tragedy to deprive all these children of this experience, out of a stubborn desire to teach a lot more than people are willing to learn?
I have a skeleton in my closet. It’s the skeleton of an archaeopteryx, a prehistoric dinosaur-bird. And I plan to keep it there.
If you’d like to help the Biblical Museum of Natural History with its acquisition of a new, permanent home, today is the last day of our quadruple matching campaign! Click here to see the video about our new home, on our campaign page!