Sunday, February 24, 2008

How Not To Teach Your Kids About Dinosaurs

The age old question of dinosaurs (pun intended) was brought up in an Imamother thread recently. A poster took her son to the museum where they had a mock archeology dig. However, when her son began asking her questions about dinosaurs and the Torah approach to them, she didn't quite know what to answer.

One poster put in with this comment:

I don't see why there's any need to validate the museum's "hashkafa", or not imply that it's not what we believe.

Surely your son understands that the museum guides aren't Jewish, and he can be simply told that the whole dinosoar thing is goyishe . It shouldn't be hard for him to understand that while we are so lucky we have the Torah, where it tells us how Hashem created the world, Breishis Borah Elokim, etc., and the Torah is truth, Toras Emes, so we know the truth,

but that goyim don't have/ believe in the Torah, and sometimes they make things up taht are not true, like dinosoars and other "shtusim" e.g. fairy-tales.( you don't have to go into the whole evolutionary theory and refute it here, for your innocent little three year old's keppeh'le, just say that it's not what it says in the Torah, and goyim made up these stories.)

Now, if you want to believe that "the whole dinosaur thing is goyishe," I suppose I can't stop you. After all, it's your life and you're free to believe whatever you wish, however mistaken and foolish it might be. But I really want to focus on is not so much her personal belief, but the way she would choose to express it to her son.

Her approach is to tell her son that the "goyims'" lives are so empty without Torah, so devoid of purpose, that they have to make up silly things like dinosaurs in order to give their lives meaning. The main problem with this approach, very simply, is that it is a big, fat lie. I wasn't aware that the prohibition of m'dvar sheker tirchak ended when talking about non-Jews.

Putting aside the aspect of the prohibition, there is another problem with this approach -- very simply, what happens when the child finds out that what his mother told him is simply not true. Lying to children in order to teach a lesson is always bad policy. From the rebbe who tells his students that foods taste better when you make a bracha on them to the parent who tells their kid that scientists are only interested in taking people away from serving HaShem, they spread lies and misinformation to children who, at that age, don't know better.

There is also the question of what happens when the child finds out that she or he has been lied to. No matter how insular your community, there is likely to come a day when you might actually have the opportunity to talk for five minutes with someone another faith, and you find out that they *don't* believe that dinosaurs were made up to give their hollow, empty lives meaning. They might even find out that some of them take their faith in Christianity or Islam or whatever religion seriously, and draw real strength and inspiration from it -- much as they do from the Torah. They may even realize that the non-Jew they are speaking to doesn't believe in dinosaurs either. :)

Even if they never meet Christian or Muslim or Hindu or whatever for a length of time long enough to start a conversation, there's even the danger that they may be able to piece it together for themselves. They may eventually reason "why would they make up something so silly as a dinosaur to give their lives meaning?" They may begin to wonder why billions of people would be willing to walk around in self-delusion about the existence of dinosaurs.

And you don't have to be an adult to reason that out -- heck, I did it in eighth grade. I had a classmate at the time who tried to tell me that all the Christians in the world *know* that Judaism is the true religion, and that they are all just faking it. Now, I didn't know a single non-Jew at the time -- and yet, I was able to instantly spot how ridiculous that sounded. I sometimes wonder if my classmate ever met a devout Christian at some point later in his life, and if he did, how he reconciled the man's faith with his own world view.

With children, however, I think it is very important to always tell the truth when trying to impart important life lessons about Yiddishkeit. Basing your lessons on lies is dangerous, because once the child learns the truth (and, in all likelihood, they *will* learn the truth), they will begin to realize that they've been sold a bill of goods, and they might not be able to distinguish between the lies that they were told, and the truth that they were told. And that road often leads to total rejection.

In short, if you don't want to tell your kids about dinosaurs, then by all means, don't say anything. But don't say something as ridiculous as that the "goyim" make it up because they don't have the Torah.

The Wolf


Anonymous said...

Or perhaps stop sending your children to schools where they teach bubbeh myses and debunk what is real in the world in favor of blind faith.

ProfK said...

A little hard to tell a child that dinosaurs did not exist when they are staring at a skeleton of one. Unless we are saying that archaeologists and paleontologists have been secretly constructing these skeletons and burying them for future "discovery" to get themselves fame and fortune? Which puts all the archaeological finds that corroborate and support our own belief system into question. Ask someone with some real learning and they will tell you that there are references to the "large monsters" and "large lizzards."

If the theory of evolution is what your railing against then fine. But for pete's sake stop trying to tell kids that they are not really seeing what they are seeing, because dinosaurs didn't exist.

Makes about as much sense as the fundamentalist Muslims who recently said that the Bais HaMikdosh never existed and that the Kotel is not really a remnant and whatever it is it wasn't jewish. Yet there it is.

Orthoprax said...

Lying for the sake of Toras Emes. Makes sense to me.

Garnel Ironheart said...

There are 2 main problems here:

The first is what's mentioned in your article. Lines like "Oh, God created a complete world include pre-buried dinosaur skeletons" or "the flood boiled the Earth so carbon dating doesn't work" will only endure with ghetto inhabitants. Any trip into the outside world will quickly shatter these excuses and with it a person's entire faith in the Judaism he has been raised in.

But what's more, this "you have to see it my way or you're an apikorus" is a relatively new phenomenon in Judaism, brought about because of the development of a Chareidi culture that would rather silence opponents than debate them, and which would rather choose the q uick easy traditional answer than deal with problems those answers raise.

Thus the poster's stupidity. Where does it say one must take every word of the first chapter of Bereshis literally? Especially when we interpret the bejabbers out of pretty much every chapter?

This is the danger of limiting education to simple dogmas that act as a foundation to the faith.

DAG said...

I'm still trying to understand what the Charedi approach to Science is. On the one hand, scientists are a bunch of Kofrim that want to manipulate data to weasel out of having to obey G-d...So we canm't trust a word they say. On the other hand, the same Charadeim claim Chazal had an amazing For-knowledge of science which proves the Mesorah is from Hashem....Huh?

Here’s a fun exercise. How many Kiruv handbooks from the 1990's quote Richard Dawkins quite favorably...?

frumskeptic said...

Its amazing how its a religious Christian concept to deny the existence of dinosaurs. The Jews are not supposed to be the type to believe that the satan or whoever is "misleading" them.

I thought Jews just weren't sure how to approach the issue (understandable, I guess), but to deny it? Thats just awful.

mlevin said...

I think that the real problem is this mother. I do not think that this mother would be lying to her kid when she explains that dinasours are goish. I think that she actually believes it.

The way I see it, majority of her children will grow up without questioning it, so her ignorant answer satisfied them, but one or two of her children will have a problem with it, and they might go "off the derech" And I mean complete "off the derech" such as pig eating, shiksa wife and conversion to another religion. After all, he would see his parents for what they are: secluded and ignorant and close minded.

Anonymous said...

So what is the charedi approach to dinosaurs?

The skeletons of these creatures are there for us to see and carbon dating says they are millions / billions of years old. This does not quite fit in with our view of the world being 5768 years old!

If we say that the "days" of creation were in fact periods of time (possibly lasting millions of years) and not 24 hour periods then fine but the mainstream charedi view is that the "days" of creation were in fact regular days of 24 hours then how do we reconcile the evidence of the dinosaurs with our undertsanding?

mlevin said...

Simple - there are three approaches

1. We started counting years/time from the day of creation of a man not the world. So, we do not know how much time passed between each prior day.

2. We know that our world is not the first world that Hashem created, so skeletons and etc, could be the remnants from the previous worlds.

3. (My personal favorite and I think makes the most sense) Hashem created the world already aged, as it is written that He created fruit trees, not fruits that needed planting. So, if these trees were already created matured (old), it logically follows that the rest of the world was created aged, too. Including oil, coal and old bones.

Another explanation I like, that Torah starts with a Beth as in a ]. Basically we are capable of learning and understanding everything after that bracket, but not before it. So the answer lies somewhere in one or all three approaches above. We simply would never know.

Anonymous said...


1 Most authorities I believe learn that we start counting from the creation of the world, not man. So it has been 5768 years since the world was created.

2 Yes but surely each time Hashem created a world He did so from nothing so there would not be skeletons left over.

3 Certainly Hashem created the world in a mature state but that does not explain why there would be skeletons of dinosaurs!

For most charedi Jews (myself included) the above is not a problem, it is just one more kashe for which we will one day have an answer but I would like an answer, not least to know what to answer others when they ask.

At present my way of understanding this issue is to take the word "day" in the beginning of creation as referring to "time periods" which could mean the world is millions of years old in teh conventional terms. This approach is mentioned by a few of our sources. The problem is that the normative view is to take the word "day" literally.

Is there any scientific validity in the argument that the processes of creation or the mabul distorted carbon dating (and that the dinosaurs could then be said to be the taninim)?

aaron from L.A. said...

there's even a bracha for seeing a dinosaur,"Borei,p'ri historic" (pre-historic)

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

this is why i never understood the phenomenon of Santa Claus.

BrooklynWolf said...

While I agree that lying to children about Santa Claus is not the greatest thing to do either, at least one can rationally state that Santa Claus isn't a major pillar of the Christian religion.

-suitepotato- said...

The world of the ancients began flooding around ten thousand years ago at the end of the last ice age. That's about when Noah would have been and not with a single boat with two of every animal but more likely a tribal leader who noticed the shoreline's encroachment every year from his youth on, and sounded the warning that saved some who listened and moved on to higher ground while others played the same sort of sociopolitical games people play now, and waited till the storm-driven floods covered the once above water lowlands.

Therein was the wickedness. Someone noted that the world was changing and that G-d doesn't necessarily give us a rose garden and that life is imperfect and the power to change how it plays out is in our hands, by G-d's design, and they didn't move until it was too late because they wanted to believe that everything was out of their hands or that nothing would ever happen.

Sometimes being wicked is mindlessly holding to something seeming innocent that gets a lot of people dead. I think that explains a lot of mankind's bad episodes.

Anonymous said...

Well isn't it a charaidi (or at least satmar) approach of the sitra acharav distorting history (ie the state of Israel). So how far fetched is it to explain away any rational, empirical evidence as false.
So anyway when someone has limited intellectual honesty, it is not so far fetched to have no questions on anything, and always draw the target around the arrow. One thing I realized on the blogs, is that there is an arguement for ANYTHING. That will make someone never wrong, wouldn't it. The dogmitization of charaidi hashkfah and the suppression of secular knowledge in essence leads you to the path of obstructionism and therefore makes relatively simple answers, impossible.
For instance if the right wing would just come to grips with the overwhelming evidence that modern science has on the age of universe, evolution, and dinosaurs, it wouldn't be hard, I believe, to be more tolerant to divergent opinions on how to interpret Beraishis.
And this all corelates to how you value science, non-Jews, and secular culture bechlal.

Zach Kessin said...

Is there any scientific validity in the argument that the processes of creation or the mabul distorted carbon dating (and that the dinosaurs could then be said to be the taninim)?
No there is not.

First of all radioactive decay is happening inside the atoms of C-14 and other elements (Actually C-14 decays way to fast to use for things over a few million years old, there are other dating systems for those). So immersing it in water would not change it.

For example if you take a solid object (Say a rock) and put it in a pool of water the rock does not change, except that the outside gets wet. But the internal structure of the rock is not changed.

Radioactive decay as an atomic process and not a chemical one is not dependent on the temperature of the object. The temperature of an object represents the average kinetic energy of the atoms in that object. So heating an object up will cause the atoms to bang into each other faster but unless you get REALLY hot the nucleus is not going to be affected. And by really hot I mean into the thousands of degrees Kelvin, if not tens of thousands, which would melt and probably vaporize the object

Zach Kessin said...

How about this rule:
The maximum to be spent on a wedding (including Vort, Jewelery, gifts) is $15,000, or twice the combined monthly salary of the bride's parents, whichever is less. (To be honest I think the number should be a lower a LOT lower)

How you choose to spend that is up to you. Not that it would ever fly.

I would also love to see some Gadolim lead by example by putting on simple cheap weddings for their kids.

mlevin said...

re: radioactive decay. I remember reading in one of the midrashim that flood was not a natural rain water. In addition to water falling from the sky, there was boiling hot water gushing from the earth, killing all living things on impact...

Wouldn't that greatly affect a radioactive decay reading?

Dave said...

Boiling water by definition isn't hot enough to do that.

Speaks truth said...

"If the theory of evolution is what your railing against then fine."

Why is that fine? They'll never find out you lied to them about that?

"I remember reading in one of the midrashim that flood was not a natural rain water. [...] Wouldn't that greatly affect a radioactive decay reading?"

Besides for the fact that, as others said, heat does not affect the processes relied on by radiometric dating, how did the mabul age the stones on the moon (we have them now, you know)? Or affect the countless other ways we date the world?

A good book:
Bones, Rocks and Stars: The Science of When Things Happened

Bottom line: it's an indisputable fact that Earth and the Universe are ancient. If your religion can't deal with that, then your religion is false.

Zach Kessin said...

"I remember reading in one of the midrashim that flood was not a natural rain water. [...] Wouldn't that greatly affect a radioactive decay reading?"

No, unless you are heating things up to the point that things are moving at relativistic speeds it would not. And then it would slow things down not speed them up. Of course it would also vaporize them.

Eppur Si Muove

eli a. said...

A previous commenter was using the “flood” to explain the ancient “age” of the earth and dinosaurs etc. But the flood story itself, as described in “Breishit” is also a myth and cannot possibly be true. One can write an entire book to back up this contention, but I’ll try to do it in a nutshell

Using the torah’s own timeline the flood, if it happened, occurred around 2100 B.C.E. And therein lays the difficulty. For if a catastrophic worldwide flood did occur at that time, then at least the following should unavoidably have happened:

1. Prior to the Flood. The total destruction of all traces of mankind prior to this date or at least extensive damage to such traces must have occurred. Yet there are overwhelming number of artifacts and other archaeological evidence that have been reliably dated to a date before 2100 B.C.E. and yet show absolutely no signs of any flood damage.

2. After the Flood. It should have taken mankind hundreds of years to regenerate itself, after Noah left the ark. There should be very little trace of the existence of any people anywhere in the world in the centuries following the Flood. Yet entire civilizations have been unearthed, identified, and studied that have been dated to have existed in the 21st, 20th, 19th and 18th century B.C.E. And since its post flood, you can’t argue that the dating is off due to the flood.

3. Geology. Geologist insist that it is impossible that such a cataclysmic event should not have left some geological traces, somewhere. Extensive excavations and searches throughout the world have yet to find any such traces. Especially upon inspection of archaeological strata that have been estimated to date to the 21st and 20th century B.C.E.

4. Genetic evidence. All of contemporary man would have descended from 8 individuals and diversified genetically in 4000 years. A scientific impossibility.

So, there is more than dinosaurs to be explained.

Mike S. said...

Forgive me, but as a physicist, I must disagree with what some of what was said. It is entirely correct that for a large number of reasons, a few of which are enumerated by eli a., above, a literal interpretation of the Flood narrative is not consistent with the evidence available to us. The last point (genetic diversity) is particularly important, as it would exclude the so-called Gosse theory (a poor name, by the way.) and is applicable to may species besides man, as well.

However, all the above presupposes that an Omnipotent God has not been miraculously tampering with the evidence. If He has, all bets are off, as science can have nothing useful to say in that circumstance. In Rabbinic parlance, science is useful when God allows "olam k'minhago noheig." Which is the overwhelming case in our daily experience. Indeed, I know of no exceptions observed in the last couple hundred years, i.e. since observational science has been around.

I will also point out that any such tampering, if it occurred, must have taken place since the Flood, as well as before and during the Flood. We have no Mesorah to that effect at all. So I doubt miraculous evidence tampering really addresses the question of how to reconcile the Flood narrative in Judaism with the physical evidence. or for that matter, how to reconcile the tower of babel story with obseervations of locations of continual human habitation outside of Bavel, over periods that must include the period between the Flood and the Dor hahaflaga by a literal reading.

Chaim said...

Mike S., Once you start really looling the historical narrative of Orthodox Judaism (as wide a definiton as you care for) it never holds up to scrutiny. The mabul is just the most obvious example, but the rest doesn't hold any more water than the mythical mabul. Yiddishkeit rocks, but don't look too closely at those bits.

Sanegor said...

People who make up primitive and false narrative to answer children's questions are guilty of present and future "lifnei iver", on top of the uber-sin of stupidity which is so egregious that it didn't even have to be spelled out