Response to Maurice Skikne

In response to the post Training and Indoctrination, a local reader sent in a thoughtful email. Here is his email (lightly edited to remove typographical errors) and my comments.


Maurice Skikne:

Reb Yoram, It is also true that Religionists are also subject to conditioning, training and indoctrination, by their teachers.

My Response:

Quite right. I wrote in Genesis and Genes:

Of course, I am not saying that conditioning is a problem only for scientists. We are all products of our lives and experiences, and these experiences make us all vulnerable to bias. When Polkinghorne says that scientists wear theoretical spectacles behind the eyes, his point is that conditioning is a problem for scientists also. They are not immune to having preconceptions.

The key point is that when it comes to disciplines other than science (especially religion), the average person is aware of the issue of bias. But contemporary scientific research is so remote and removed from the domain of the everyday that ordinary citizens labour under a massively-distorted picture of how science works. As Sir John Polkinghorne, physicist and theologian, explains:

Many people have in their minds a picture of how science proceeds which is altogether too simple. This misleading caricature portrays scientific discovery as resulting from the confrontation of clear and inescapable theoretical predictions by the results of unambiguous and decisive experiments… In actual fact… the reality is more complex and more interesting than that. [Science and Theology, John Polkinghorne, Fortress Press, 1998, page 9.]

 Maurice Skikne:

It is also a fact that not all researchers have to be “young” to make their ground-breaking discoveries!

My Response:

I am a Talmudic scholar; as such, I choose my words carefully. I never wrote that only young researchers make ground-breaking discoveries. In my post, I wrote that “Philosophers of science have long pointed out that great breakthroughs in science tend to be made by young men.” I also quoted Professors Holton and Brush in saying that “It is a curious fact that radical conceptual changes in a science are often initiated by people who did not receive their initial professional training in that science.”

I think that competent users of the English language can easily detect, in the words marked in bold above, that no categorical point is being made about younger researchers or outsiders. The overall point remains valid: young outsiders are disproportionately successful in formulating radical theories that revolutionise their fields.

Maurice Skikne:

As a trained biologist and a late convert to religionism, I cannot understand why religionists keep thumping Darwin. He after all propounded his “Origin of Species” nearly 200 years ago! Many of his so-called discoveries have been shown not to hold anymore. Besides which, what you are pounding in some aspects of Science has been proven over and over again to hold.

 My Response: 

Without question, Darwin has been one of the most influential thinkers of all time, and his ideas continue to wield immense influence on numerous fields. From a Jewish perspective, he has done immeasurable harm in initiating and promoting an ideology which the biologist William Provine has called the most efficient engine for atheism ever invented. Darwinism has affected just about every area of human thought and endeavour, including criminology, economics, education, ethics, law, agriculture and medicine. I recommend John West’s superb Darwin Day in America (ISI Books, 2007) as an introduction to this topic. We do not have the luxury of ignoring the fruits of Darwin’s ideas just because they were written 200 years ago. 

Maurice Skikne: 

To me Bereishis and the Physical realm of the Universe require a lot of debate. I opine that the Torah comments are very valid and need to be more deeply studied and interpreted in the light of modern Physics, Chemistry and Biological interpretation. But then the Sages of today require- in my very humble opinion- a deeper understanding of what has been recorded in Bereishis, as well as what we know about the Universe and Life today. To condemn out of hand on either side is not entirely fair.
At this time I do not have the time, nor am I freshly read up enough to make comments, but you as a Teacher ought to take a stance of open-mindedness on the issues of both sides of the history and existence of the Universe as it is today and how we must needs, to understand it. 

My Response: 

I believe that I have done my due diligence in producing Genesis and Genes (which, I suspect, Mr. Skikne has not read). So the argument that Bereishis and physics require debate doesn’t hold water in my case. I have spent the last twenty-odd years debating and discussing these issues. 

Open-mindedness does not mean that one can never reach a conclusion about controversial subjects. Open-mindedness requires that one be exposed to a range of opinions. Once that hurdle has been cleared, one is at liberty to formulate opinions – even strong opinions – on the matter. As I pointed out in the post A Further Response to Dan, I find it curious that when it comes to other contentious issues (gun control, legalization of cannabis, affirmative action) lots of people manage, despite the vociferous debate, to sift through the arguments and reach a conclusion that they deem to be rational and fact-based (while still acknowledging that others disagree). Yet, when it comes to contentious issues that impinge on fundamental theological points, the same people are content to perpetually abstain from taking a position. 

Torah Leaders’ Knowledge. A correspondent once asked me how contemporary Torah leaders can be so emphatic in their rejection of Darwinian evolution (in the broad sense of universal common descent). My response was as follows. Imagine a physicist who is employed by the patent office to examine applications. He is approached by a chemist who submits a design for a chemistry-based perpetual motion machine. The physicist – who is completely clueless about chemistry – rejects the proposal out-of-hand. How can he be so confident about the fatal flaws of the proposal if he knows nothing about chemistry? The answer is that physics is a more fundamental science than chemistry. The second law of thermodynamics makes perpetual-motion machines impossible, and it is probably the most important law in science (I discuss this in greater detail in Genesis and Genes). And so, it is unnecessary for the physicist to know about the chemical nature of the proposal for a perpetual mobile. Such a machine is physically impossible. 

But the Torah is even more fundamental than physics. If Torah sources clearly and unambiguously indicate that Man was created de novo, and not through a lengthy evolutionary process, that would be enough to reject evolutionary biology, even without intricate arguments about the failings of the latter. In Genesis and Genes, I address readers who are not sufficiently knowledgeable in Torah, and so I provide them with intricate arguments as to the fatal weaknesses of evolutionary biology. Contemporary Torah leaders don’t need those arguments – they have access to deeper layers of reality. 

Maurice Skikne:

I once heard one of my ex-proteges, Rav Akiva Tatz, saying Man has descended from monkeys {he was quoting some or other biologist}. Well neither scientists nor Rabonim make so rash statements-AND prove it!! 

My Response: 

In the Introduction to Genesis and Genes, I wrote: 

It must be emphasised that Genesis and Genes was not written under the auspices of any organisation or individual. It is entirely my initiative, and my views should not be imputed to anyone else who may be mentioned in the book or with whom I am associated in any way whatsoever.

 Conversely, I take no responsibility for comments made by other writers. So I decline to respond to this statement. Mr. Skikne is at liberty to take the matter up with Rabbi Tatz. 

Maurice Skikne:

Leave it there! Keep up your fabulous work and research! Would love to debate this one time over a cup or three of Coffee! As they say in Yiddish: Zaai Gezunt!!

My Response:

Thank you. I look forward to meeting you and discussing things.

Maurice Skikne:

PS.My especial Parshe is obviously Bereishis- I’ve spent over 20 years trying to hold onto it’s meaning and message!!!
PPS Even Schroeder’s “Genesis and the Big Bang” requires drastic revision by him!!!!

My Response:

I recommend Genesis and the Big Bluff on this website.


One Response to “Response to Maurice Skikne”

  1. Danny Says:

    I hope you will understand that I need to be direct and upfront, as this is, I believe a fundamental issue with you book. I will admit that I have only seen parts of your book because it is not available in SA yet, as soon as it is I will buy it. But if you decided to post parts of it then it is fair for me to comment. And I realize that I was not clear in my other post because, I did not want to be disrespectful. But I trust that you will address this, because I simply fail to see how you can write at length about the problems in the scientific system, when those very problems apply to a greater extent in your system.

    What I mean is this, you claim that the big bang, evolution, etc is against the fundamentals of Judaism, you also claim that the big bang theory, common descent and the like, are very flawed. And it is not just you who makes this claim, a lot of frum rabbis, and kiruv workers have been making this claim, most of them, including the very rabbis that wrote haskomas for your book, have been doing this since around 2004. Before then they were saying that Torah is compatible with an old universe, and evolution. How do I know this? Primarily because I was around before 2004, but also because one of the positive things about the internet is that it makes rewriting history impossible. Thus no matter how much editing is done to websites, everything is archived forever. Thus when I did just a little bit of research, I got some interesting results.

    What happened in 2004 that changed the fundamentals of Torah Judaism’s approach to science? The answer is, as I am sure you are aware, less then 20 leading charaidi rabbis decided that certain approaches are now heretical. kiruv workers and rabbis were now scared of going against these authorities, and they were scared of losing there olom haba, like you posted with the dirshus haran (i don’t think he meant what you think he meant but I wont write about that now) there was no debate with these rabbis, no one could challenge their authority thus, as you will admit some past opinions, of great rabbis now became heretical. You will bring your physics/chemistry argument that you bring in this post, the problem is no one is allowed to disagree with those 20 rabbis on the Torah issues! In your mind they are right. But on the other side of the fence the secular word thinks that the scientists are great, and right regarding scientific matters. Do you understand what disturbs me? Do you see why I find it tragically ironic? Is this not a striking example of the pot calling the kettle black?

    You believe daas torah can decide what thoughts are heretical, end of discussion, it no longer matters what proof people will bring about what rav Hirsch or Rav kook said, their opinion is no longer valid. Nor are scientists’ opinions valid if they say evolution is true. Because in your mind they are over ruled by rabbinc authority.
    As soon as the gedolim say something is heresy we can’t bring logical arguments and say they wrong, because by definition they are right.

    I ask with the utmost respect, if what you write against in the scientific world is a fundamental tenant of your belief system, (just replace Gedolim with scientists)
    How can you criticize them for it?

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