February 15, 2001
Natan Slifkin teaches Torah through his love for the animal kingdom
When Natan and Tali Slifkin were married in Los Angeles last year, their friends turned up in Disneyland animal suits. It was not your classic Orthodox wedding.
When Natan Slifkin was a child in England 20 years ago, his parents said he could keep any pet he liked as long as it was in a cage. They drew the line, he said, at tarantulas and snakes. So he kept those hidden in his room. One day, a giant monitor lizard escaped and was found in his mother's bed.
At Manchester Jewish Grammar School, he always said he wanted to work in a zoo. "People said that's ridiculous," he recalled. "They thought I would be a good Jewish boy and go into computer programming." He wasn't put off that easily.
Now, 25 and living in Israel, Slifkin not only works as a guide and lecturer at the ambitious, landscaped Tisch Family Zoo, he teaches a course on zoos and Jews at the Ohr Samayach outreach yeshiva. He is modern Hebrew "Natan" at the zoo, Yiddish "Nosson" at the yeshiva.
With the punning delight of a Talmudic prodigy, he calls his enterprise "Zoo Torah" (zu is Hebrew for "this is"). At a recent party to launch a slim volume he wrote on "Biblical perspectives on the zoo," a boa constrictor he was fondling struck at Uri Lupoliansky, the ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor of Jerusalem and founder of the Yad Sarah medical charity. Happily, it missed.
After high school, Slifkin studied in yeshivas in England and Israel. "In Jerusalem," he said, "I started looking for what the Torah and the Talmud say about nature. I was overwhelmed by how much there was and how profound. It deepened my appreciation of the natural world."
At the same time, the slender, loquacious, ever-curious yeshiva bocher took a course for volunteer guides at the zoo, which was known in an earlier incarnation as the "Biblical Zoo" and still cites scriptural texts on the labels adorning its cages and enclosures.
"I suggested expounding the biblical theme of the zoo more," he said. "I wanted to show religious perspectives on animals, that each animal teaches us a different lesson."
Asked for an example during a stroll through the zoo on a chilly, sunny winter morning, he quoted the Talmud: "Had the Torah not been written, we would have learned modesty from the cat and the prohibition against stealing from the ant." God uses the massive but grass-eating hippo to teach Job humility.
Warming to his theme, Slifkin pointed to laws about treating animals kindly. For instance, before taking eggs from a nest, you have to scare away the mother bird to avoid causing her distress. The Torah forbids yoking two different species to the plow because the slower one might suffer. Before sitting down for lunch, you have to feed your animals.
The zoo rebbe has a talmudic answer, too, for skeptics who ask why we should bother saving the lesser spotted toad: "The tradition teaches that everything in the world has a purpose, even if we don't know what it is," Slifkin said. "There is a beautiful midrash that when God created Adam he showed him round and said, 'Look at this beautiful world I've created. Take care not to damage it.'"
Slifkin is a self-taught zoologist. He reads everything he can lay his hands on and sees no need to pursue his study at university, not that he is averse to secular learning. His father, Michael, is a physics professor at Machon Lev, a Jerusalem college that combines high tech and Talmud.
The younger Slifkin makes a living giving "Zoo Torah" tours to students and adults. Last year a Jewish day school in San Diego invited him to run a two-week program for the community there. This spring, he will be lecturing in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, and again in San Diego.
He has also written three books, all published in English by the religious Targum press of Jerusalem. The first was "Seasons of Life," a naturalist's guide through the Jewish year. Then came the zoo book, "In Noah's Footsteps."
This month, Targum brought out "The Science of Torah," in which Slifkin tackles the thorny issues of evolution and religion. Unlike many in his ultra-Orthodox world, Slifkin contends that they can be reconciled. In his study in Jerusalem's religious Har Nof suburb, he proudly displayed a dinosaur's tooth.
Without giving too much away, he explained: "There are eight different concepts of evolution. I discuss them all, and the age of the universe. Are all living creatures descended from a single ancestor? If so, how did it happen? Darwin said we have a common ancestor. I've got an explanation."
When I protested that B'reishis (Genesis) details the creation of different species, day by day, one after the other, he put me right: "Maimonides says that B'reishis should not be taken at face value. There's little in evolutionary theory that contradicts Judaism."
Maybe, but his hillside apartment is strangely bereft of beasties. Tali, his bride of a few months, put her foot down. Animal pictures, yes. Stuffed animals, yes. A fish tank, maybe. But no cats, no dogs, let alone tarantulas, snakes or monitor lizards.
For more, see the Zoo Torah Web site: www.zootorah.com