Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The Significance of a Spider Bite

The other day, I was handling one of the large and impressive tarantulas at the Biblical Museum of Natural History. I now have a huge and horrific spider bite on my arm. 

Unfortunately there is no connection between the two (and the picture here was staged this morning); I was not bitten at the museum. I say "unfortunately" for two reasons. One is that it would be so much cooler to have been bitten by a huge tarantula than by some small spider at home that I didn't even notice biting me. The other is that, contrary to popular belief, a bite from a tarantula is no big deal (which is why we let our visitors hold them), whereas the bite of some house spiders, particularly the Mediterranean recluse, can potentially have serious consequences.

Last night, when I noticed the enormous swelling, with two puncture holes at the center, and the infection spreading up the lymph channels from my forearm to my armpit, I realized that I needed medical attention. After a visit to an emergency doctor, I'm on antibiotics and antihistamines. So far, I have not developed any superpowers. It stings a bit, and I'm nauseous and groggy (though that may be from the medication), but I'm otherwise okay so far, and it hasn't spread further. Hopefully it was not a Mediterranean recluse and there will be no serious consequences.

So, what is the spiritual significance of all this?

Well, some people say that in such circumstances, one should check Perek Shirah. Having literally written the book on that, I don't agree. Still, I decided to check my book to remind myself what I had written. 

The song of the spider, called semamit in Perek Shira, is הַלְלוּהוּ בְצִלְצְלֵי שָׁמַע הַלְלוּהוּ בְּצִלְצְלֵי תְרוּעָה - “Praise Him with sounding cymbals! Praise Him with loud clashing cymbals!” In my book I related this to the other Scriptural mention of the semamit - "The semamit catches with her hands, yet she is in kings’ palaces" (although this actually might be referring to the gecko instead). And I wrote as follows:

The spider catches her prey with her eight hands, and is hated for it; yet she has not been wiped out as a result. Her cleverness enables her to spin webs even in kings’ palaces. Even if she is noticed, she may be tolerated, as her web will trap the flies.
The same is true of the Jewish People. We have been perennially despised, and many have tried to wipe us out. Yet they have not succeeded, and even during the height of our persecution, we have even made it to the king’s palace, thanks to our heritage of wisdom. Many were the kings and rulers who had a “clever Jew” as a trusted and loyal advisor (or physician) at hand in their palace.
The song of the spider is the triumphant sound of the one who has made it to the royal palace by virtue of his cleverness, overcoming the hatred that many feel towards him. It is the song of the royal instruments: “Praise Him with sounding cymbals! Praise Him with loud clashing cymbals!”

What does this have to do with my spider bite?

Nothing at all, as far as I can tell.

Okay, so leaving Perek Shirah, what other spiritual significance may there be in it? A few years ago when I was in a scary situation with an escaped animal that I was trying to recapture, I kept thinking "if this thing kills me, people will say that it proves that the Gedolim were right about my books!" Of course, there is no way to disprove such things, but hopefully people realize that there is no actual evidence for believing such things either.

But whats about general Divine Providence? Although it is not very rationalist of me, I personally perceive enormous Divine Providence, not only in Jewish history but also in innumerable events of my own personal life. But I can't see any providence in this spider bite. And before you object that "everything happens for a Reason!", I will point out that this is largely a recent chassidic view. According to most Rishonim, it's just not true. Things just happen.

Still, one can, and should, try to grow and learn from every experience. And this case is no different. I took the following three lessons, which are pretty standard and universal, but which nevertheless are always worth reinforcing:

Caution. I'm a cautious person in general, but I have a blind spot when it comes to animals, and I have done some embarrassingly reckless things that I prefer not to remember. The rest of you might not be tempted to run into a forest after a bear, but there are other dangers that we always need to remind ourselves to be cautious about, such as texting while driving.

Gratitude. I'm grateful that in general I have good health. I'm grateful to my wife for accompanying me to get medical treatment. I'm grateful to all the people who care about me. I'm grateful for modern medicine. And I'm grateful to have an amazing museum where people (like my youngest son pictured here) can appreciate spiders!

Appreciation. Yes, as potentially dangerous as spider venom can be, it's still something to marvel at (and spiders in general are absolutely extraordinary creatures). Almost all spiders are venomous, though only a very small number are dangerous to humans. Spider venoms, which apparently evolved from saliva, are a cocktail of many chemicals. Some are neurotoxins, which kill or immobilize their prey by attacking their nervous systems, while others are cytotoxins which help break down the tissue so the spider can slurp up a liquefied meal. These unique complex chemicals have enormous potential for medical science; for example, it was recently discovered that they can prevent damage caused by a heart attack and extend the life of donor hearts used for organ transplants! It's just amazing that a chemical which evolved out of saliva to make grasshopper slurpies has a completely different and incredibly beneficial use that the human brain has been able to discover.

Anyway, hopefully I'll make a full recovery. You can save your prayers for more serious causes. Someone asked me for my full name, but my rationalist response was that Hashem already knows it!

 

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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Charedi Dog Tax

This is a post which was first conceived as a critique of charedi MKs, but as I researched the topic further, I decided that the charedi MKs actually overall have a good point!

United Torah Judaism has submitted a bill to raise the registration fee for owning a dog. It currently stands at 50 NIS, but UTJ wants to raise it to a massive 3500 NIS! The alleged reason is to "help the environment," since, as MK Moshe Gafni said, dogs eat large amounts of processed meat that emit carbon, and their droppings are picked up with environmentally harmful plastic bags. Aside from reducing the amount of dogs, the funds raised by the tax can be used to help the environment.

Now, it's pretty obvious that this is not actually the reason for the bill. Charedim are not exactly at the forefront of concern for the environment - in fact, they are generally hostile to such concerns, seeing them as "goyish." And they are the greatest users of disposable plastic. So what is this bill actually about?

You might think that it's about hostility towards dogs. Certainly, dogs are not generally found in charedi neighborhoods (though it is not as unthinkable as it used to be - there are even dog owners in Kiryat Sefer). About twenty years ago, I was in a small private va'ad with Rav Moshe Shapiro and he declared that "anyone who knows anything understands that dogs are the very essence of evil." (It was already at this point that I began to be uneasy about him - having studied quite a lot about dogs in Judaism, I knew that the picture was much more nuanced.) So is this bill about enshrining charedi sensitivities into law? I saw people jokingly ask if a tax on jeans would be next! 

But in fact, it's absolutely nothing to do with antipathy towards dogs. Like absolutely everything in charedi politics, it relates to the interests of the charedi community.

As mentioned earlier, charedim are the largest consumers of disposable plastic. They were therefore particularly stung by a new law that went into effect recently, which placed a very high tax on such plastics. Charedim perceived it as a deliberate effort to harm their community. The dog tax is their shot back.

Personally, I don't believe that the plastics law was remotely a deliberate attempt to harm the charedi community. There are many people who sincerely care about the environment, and disposable plastics are a real problem. According to one shocking study, by 2050 the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than ocean life. Several countries decided to entirely ban disposable plastics. But Israel has been one of the worst offenders. On a per capita basis, Israelis consume the largest number of plastic cups in the world. And the amount of waste along the beaches of Israel is the highest in the world. The quantities of tiny plastic particles off Israel’s coast are nine times higher than the average in other Mediterranean countries. It's clearly a serious problem.

Still, while the plastic tax was not targeted at charedim, it certainly affected them disproportionately. The reason why charedim are the largest consumers of plastic is simple: large families, and large get-togethers. It's simply extraordinarily difficult to run a family of ten people without using disposable plastic.

Making a sacrifice should, and can, be done. Indeed, as a result of the new taxes, the usage of plastics this Pesach dropped by 50%. But charedim are entitled to ask why it is specifically their community which has to make a difficult effort to help the environment, and not other communities.

It's relatively easy for a secular family to avoid using single-use plastic. But they harm the environment in other ways. Cars, and especially planes, are highly damaging to the environment, and are used far more by non-charedi families. 

And then there are dogs. Gafni might have been disingenuous about his motives for the bill, but his given reason was absolutely correct: dogs are indeed damaging to the environment. Their diet alone accounts for up to 30 percent of the environmental impact from all animal production. Owning a medium-size dog can have a similar carbon footprint to a large SUV. Dogs rank third in their ability to disturb other species, outdone only by cats and rodents; they have driven 11 species into extinction, and they threaten another 188. If people want to enjoy the benefits and pleasures of owning a dog, it is reasonable to ask that they offset the environmental damage.

I would like several lessons to be taken from all this. First is that we really do all need to take environmental concerns more seriously (including me). Second is that it's all too easy to point at shortcomings in other communities, but we need to be more aware of our own shortcomings. And third is that the instinctive reaction to a headline is not necessarily the correct one!

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Thursday, April 21, 2022

An Awkward Moment

One of the many thousands of happy visitors to the Biblical Museum of Natural History this Pesach came over to me to thank me. A charedi woman, she expressed her appreciation that I created an educational experience which combines Torah with the natural world. "You're welcome!" I said. She continued, "And not like those other places which teach nonsense such as evolution!"
 
I smiled and nodded.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Not Stupid, Slightly Stupid, and Very Stupid

Although thousands of people enjoyed their visit to the Biblical Museum of Natural History this week, there were quite a few visitors who were extremely disappointed not to see the creature they were most excited about: the Brazilian strawberry salamander!

I would like to reiterate what I wrote in a previous post. People who believed that it was a real creature are not stupid! In fact, among those who fell for it was a PhD biologist. And it's clear that if it hadn't been April Fool's Day, many more people would have fallen for it. After all, it was presented in a convincing way by a reputable institution. It's not stupid to assume that the institution is telling the truth.

On the other hand, certain other things do strike me as slightly stupid.

Did you know that there's an asteroid which just passed very close to earth? Of course the key important factor about asteroids is their size. This one's size was described as follows:

Now, I'm pretty fluent in the size of giraffes, and I think about them a lot more than the average person, but even I would find it much more useful to simply have the size of the asteroid in meters, or to visualize it in terms of something of a similar size, not a multiple of giraffes. But at least it's a nice easy number, right?

Gaaah! I know the size of a hippo, I can estimate three hippos, but half a hippo?

But it gets worse!

On Friday, another small asteroid, designated 2022 GU3, is also set to pass by the planet:

All I can say is that it's a good thing it's only 9.6 American buffalos. If it was 9.7 then I'd start to get worried. 

But the record-holder for stupidity in my book this week is the employee of a certain airport in Europe that I was at. 

As a frequent flyer, I get to use the business lounge. My flight was called, and I decided to quickly pop to the bathroom. Unfortunately, when I tried to exit the bathroom, I discovered that the door was broken and it had locked automatically with no way of opening it. Since it was a business lounge, the bathroom was set off in a quiet area, and I couldn't call out to anyone. And the doors and walls were floor-to-ceiling, so I couldn't crawl out under them or climb out over them. I had my phone, but my flight was about to board, and who could I call that would come quickly? Rummaging around in my bag, I found a plastic knife, with which I managed to force the lock open.

I quickly went to the desk and warned the staff that the door was broken and that I was only able to extract myself with a knife. "Thank you sir, let me take a look" said the staff member. I took him to the bathroom and he walked inside the cubicle. "Here, take the knife," I said. "No sir, no thank you, that is not necessary," he said, and closed the door, promptly locking himself in with no way of extracting himself. 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

"If Chazal Were Wrong About This..."

The comments section to a recent post was extensively visited by not just one but two special guest stars. One was Rabbi Dovid Kornreich of Toras Moshe, who honored me by writing a rather vicious blog against me for a decade which never missed an opportunity to interpret things I wrote in the worst possible light. The other was Rabbi Simcha Coffer of Toronto, who participated in another anti-Slifkin blog and famously once wrote that attending a scientific conference on evolution is worse than going to a brothel.

What caught the attention of these two legendary zealots? It was my post in which I described how those who refuse to acknowledge that Chazal were sometimes mistaken about the natural world suffer from a mistaken fear that if Chazal were mistaken, it would mean that they were foolish. Rabbis Kornreich and Coffer stressed that this is merely one reason. Another, more important one is the concern that if Chazal were wrong about spontaneous generation, then they could have been wrong about a lot of other things, too. Stating that the Gemara contains scientific errors opens the door for saying that it contains moral and halachic errors, especially regarding the nature and role of women. It could potentially lead to a complete undermining of the mesorah and a reform of Judaism.

(Note, by the way, that there is a fascinating admission here. Essentially they are admitting that their approach to conflicts between Chazal and science is intellectually dishonest, but that it is driven by the larger goals. At one point there is virtually an explicit admission of this, when one of them talks about "moving mountains" to avoid saying that the Gemara is scientifically incorrect.)

As it happens, I think that they are basically right.

Now, I personally do not believe that acknowledging Chazal's science to be obsolete leads to halachic change, since I am a strong adherent of the approach of Rav Herzog and others that canonizes Chazal's rulings. Still, I acknowledge that others may take a different approach. And though I personally am not at all convinced that we are any more morally or socially enlightened than Chazal, there are certainly those who think differently. And so I think it's clearly true that acknowledging Chazal to be mistaken on anything, even the spontaneous generation of salamanders, has the potential to lead to serious undermining of Judaism. Which is why I am certainly sympathetic to those who do not wish to make any such acknowledgment.

And yet they are wrong.

They are wrong for three reasons. 

One is that there is a long tradition of great rabbinic authorities who did not feel that such concerns were sufficient to avoid acknowledging the obvious truth that some of Chazal's statements about the natural world are incorrect. From the Geonim, to Rambam and his son and other Rishonim, to Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch and Rav Herzog, to my own mentor Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l and many talmidei chachamim today, there have been countless important Torah scholars who were well aware of potential threats to Judaism and nevertheless felt that one should state the truth about Chazal's statements regarding scientific matters.

The second reason why they are wrong is that insisting that Chazal were never mistaken about science can also lead to serious undermining of Judaism. Because any intellectually honest person can see that it's just not true! When educated and honest people see ridiculous claims about there never having been an age of dinosaurs, or Chazal not having believed in spontaneous generation, or the egg-laying bat of the Gemara being an Australian platypus, they lose respect for contemporary representatives of Judaism. And when, as is all too often, the people issuing these absurdities insist that to believe otherwise is heresy, people simply see themselves as having no place in such an absurd religion.

The third reason why they are wrong is that they also undermine Chazal in other ways. For example, Chazal were absolutely clear that a baby born after seven months can survive (and hence one can break Shabbos to save its life), whereas a baby born after eight months cannot survive (and hence once cannot break Shabbos to save its life), which seems to have been based on various Greek ideas. But every single Orthodox Jew today would act otherwise. Now, they may dress it up with a (completely unconvincing) explanation that "nature has changed," but the bottom line is that saying "nature has changed" also opens the door for undermining Chazal. After all, if the nature of babies' lives can change, so can the nature of the female brain!

And there are even more basic areas where they undermine Chazal. Chazal and the Rishonim were perfectly clear about the value of being self-sufficient, the need for a man to take responsibility for supporting his family, and the importance of raising one's children to be able to support themselves. Nevertheless, charedi society has no problem completely undermining these values and directives. They will invoke such excuses as "Eis la'asos l'Hashem, heferu Torasecha (a time to act for God, overturn the Torah)," or "they could say it, we cannot," or simply not address it. But the bottom line is that they are undermining the classical mesorah and rendering it irrelevant. Mesorah becomes not what was done, but what we do.

Yes, life is complicated. And Torah is complicated. It can be difficult to promote reverence for an ancient tradition in a different world. But every approach has its advantages - and its drawbacks.

 

(On a completely different note - if you're coming to Israel for Pesach and can bring a suitcase of museum items from Teaneck, please let me know!)

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Friday, April 8, 2022

Bilaam's Miracle

It's important, even at times of tragedy and challenge, to keep our spirits up. In that vein, here is a story that a neighbor of mine told me this morning, as a sequel to yesterday's post about my sons' misunderstandings of their teachers' Hebrew. Like me, he is a British oleh.

A few years ago, on erev Shabbat parashat Balak, I picked up my son from gan. I asked him if he had learned about the story of Bilaam. 

"Yes, Daddy!" he said excitedly. 

"And did a special miracle happen in a story with Bilaam?"

"Yes, Daddy!" he replied.

"Did something speak?" I asked.

"Yes, Daddy!" he replied, his eyes shining with wonder. "The newspaper! The newspaper spoke!"


(For those who don't get it - donkey is aton, newspaper is iton!)

Thursday, April 7, 2022

A Surprising Reward for Abstaining from Lashon Hara

Over a decade ago, I posted my all-time favorite post, which relates to this week's parashah:

This week, my adorable five-year-old son was telling me what he had learned about the parashah. He said, "If we say lashon hara, then we get bad things on our skin, and if we don't say lashon hara, we get long animals."

I had been slightly distracted by the antics of one of my other kids, but my attention snapped back at the last part of his sentence. "What did you say?" I asked, unsure if I had heard correctly.

"My moreh said that if we don't say lashon hara, we get long animals." He paused, and looked confused. "Aba, is that really true? Will we get long animals?"

My mind struggled to understand what was going on. I know that with my son being in a Hebrew-speaking preschool, sometimes the teacher's words get lost in translation. But what on earth had the teacher said?

Suddenly, I had a burst of inspiration.

"Oy vey!" I said. "Chayyim aruchim does not mean 'long animals,' it means 'long life'! It's chayyim aruchim, not chayyot aruchot!" 

Sequel One:

A few years later, I happened to be dining with Shimon Peres, and I told him this story. He replied with a story of his own. Once he was at an event, and the host, who was not Israeli but was eager to show that he knew some Hebrew, raised a toast and said LeChaim! And then the host raised his drink to the women and said LeChayot!

Sequel Two:

A few years ago, my youngest son (pictured here with one of his favorite creatures) was telling me what he had learned in school about Yom Ha'Atzma'ut. He said that we got Israel from the British, and the British got it from the parrots.

"What? What did you say?" I asked, unsure if I had heard correctly.

"My moreh said that we got it from the Britim, and the Britim got it from the tukim, from the parrots." He looked confused. "Aba, did they really get it from the parrots?"

"Oy vey!" I said. "Not tukim, Turkim! The Turks!"

 

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Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Strawberry Salamanders and Two-Headed Rhinos

Someone near and dear to me was concerned about the Brazilian strawberry salamander April Fool's Day prank that I pulled. She pointed it out that it would undermine my credibility for people who didn't immediately realize that it was a joke. It would be the same mistake as when I posted a photo of a two-headed rhino that I saw in Africa. Those who had been taken in, and then discovered that it wasn't real, would likely forever be suspicious of things that I say.

Personally, I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing.

One of the things that I've been trying to teach over the last twenty years is that you should be careful about suspending your critical thinking and blindly trusting other people. They could be pranking you. They could be trying to take advantage of you. Or they could be genuinely good and highly intelligent people who are mistaken. And nobody is immune from error. If people come away from reading my work and say, "Rabbi Dr. Slifkin has really shown how other people are mistaken about things - he's the guy to totally trust!" then I have failed at this. I can also be wrong about things! (But not about the shafan being the hyrax.)

Now, there are people who take this lesson the wrong way. They say, "Aha! So there is no reason for me to blindly trust scientists on vaccines!" Since I saw this reaction from more than one person, I think it's important to explain the mistake.

Is it theoretically conceivable that scientists are wrong about the vaccine? Sure. However, when it comes to specialized matters of hard science, which are not influenced by religious or political worldview, and you have an absolutely overwhelming majority of specialists who have reached a certain conclusion, then it is overwhelmingly likely that they are correct. And certainly they are way, way more likely to be correct than a non-specialist relying on some weird cranks on the Internet.

And what about the shafan being the hyrax? Indeed, when I started becoming accepted as an authority on Biblical natural history, I was initially a little unsettled. After all, I knew that my conclusions were based on considerable knowledge, experience and sound reasoning, but how do other people know that? It was slightly alarming that people were accepting what I said, when for all they knew I could have been an eccentric errant figure (like a certain Mexican polemicist) who can spout off all kinds of facts but be utterly wrong in how they are selected and put together. 

Eventually it was pointed out to me that while some people may rely on what I say without understanding why I am credible, others will recognize that I am part of a wider circle of scholars of scholarship in general and Biblical natural history in particular, who all endorse my methodology and conclusions. In addition, people can recognize that I present detailed and sound arguments for everyone to analyze, and that I have shown myself ready to publicly acknowledge mistakes. And so, while I certainly can (and have) been wrong about things, it is very reasonable for people to generally rely on what I say.

But still. If I write about, or even present photos of, Brazilian strawberry salamanders, or two-headed rhinos, be suspicious!


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Sunday, April 3, 2022

About That Brazilian Strawberry Salamander...

Gosh, I didn't realize that it would get that much attention. The Biblical Museum of Natural History's Facebook post about the "Brazilian Strawberry Salamander" received over a hundred thousand views! The majority of people realized that it was an April Fool's Day prank, but a very large number of people thought that it was real. It was even shared to a Facebook group called "God's Wonders - No Photoshop"!

Aside from the very cute image, it seems that this was a perfect fake hybrid creature, much better than the "crocoparrot" or other Photoshop creations on the internet. The Brazilian strawberry salamander struck the perfect balance between the plausible and the outrageous. In fact, had it not been April 1, many more people would have fallen for it. I think that there is a valuable Torah lesson to be learned here.

The longstanding conflict between rationalism and mysticism, which received notable expression in the controversy over my books, had a major focus on Chazal's knowledge of science (or lack thereof). The notion that the Sages of Talmud were mistaken in accepting the existence of mice that grow from dirt, lice that grow from sweat and salamanders that grow from fire was deemed unthinkable and heretical. My opponents variously insisted that these creatures really do exist, or that the Sages never actually believed that they exist and all the rabbinic commentaries misunderstood them.

What lies behind this position? It's the fear that if the Sages mistakenly believed in creatures that do not really exist, this reflects badly upon them. Some people are afraid that it would make them look foolish or gullible.

Yet the Brazilian strawberry salamander demonstrates otherwise. Nowadays, even the least educated person has an incredible knowledge of the animal kingdom, having seen countless animals in photos or on TV. And yet there were still many people who thought that the Brazilian strawberry salamander was real. And why not? The information was shared by a respectable source. And, as several people pointed out, there are plenty of real creatures that are only slightly less incredible. Why shouldn't there be a salamander that grows from strawberries?

Kal v'chomer, how much more so, was it perfectly reasonable for the Sages of the Talmud to accept the existence of mice that grow from dirt and salamanders that grow from fire, the existence of which was attested to by the leading naturalists of the day. In fact, it would have been downright bizarre had the Sages not believed in such creatures! The fact that we now know that such creatures do not exist is not the slightest reason to lessen our respect for the Sages of the Talmud. There is no reason to try to convince ourselves that either such creatures do exist or that the Sages never believed in them.


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Friday, April 1, 2022

Incredible Amphibians

The Biblical Museum of Natural History is thrilled to announce an amazing new exhibit: Brazilian strawberry salamanders! These extraordinary (and beautiful) creatures have a unique form of reproduction. The female deposits her egg directly into the terminal bud of the strawberry plant, where it is co-fertilized by the plant, from which it also derives nutrition. The larvae then develops with genetic input from the plant, and when fully developed, breaks away from the bud. The result is an amphibian with a spectacular appearance that is ideal for camouflage.

While not mentioned in the Bible, the Brazilian strawberry salamander is very similar to certain creatures mentioned in rabbinic literature, such as the goose that grows from trees, the mouse that grows from dirt and the salamander that is generated from fire. (To learn more about such creatures, read Sacred Monsters, available at: https://www.biblicalnaturalhistory.org/.../sacred-monsters.) We would like to express our gratitude to the Wachtfogel and Meiselman families for their assistance in developing this exhibit.
 

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A Legendary Event!

I'm very excited to be running "A Biblical Feast of Exotic Legends" in Beverly Hills next month. We have an incredible menu li...