Thursday, May 19, 2022

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 lined up of kosher unusual foods never before served in the US! This event in particular involves an extraordinary amount of culinary and halachic ingenuity, not to mention amazing efforts to procure certain items that are exceedingly difficult to source! 

The annual benefit supports our core educational activities: the Museum's visitor experience and publications. The Museum's work nurtures a Jewish identity that embraces the natural world and its connection to Israel. For more details, see www.BiblicalFeast.org or email advancement@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org.


Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Meron: One Year Later

Last year, the terrible tragedy at Meron cost 45 lives, along with the subsequent tragedy at Karlin-Stolin that cost further lives. I wrote a series of posts analyzing different aspects of the tragedies:

The Message Of Meron: The Need to Think Big - About how charedi leadership acts as though they are living in a shtetl rather than thinking about the issues that are of importance with large populations.

The Truth Becomes Clear - But Who Will Listen? - About how safety protocols at Meron were disregarded by charedi politicians who do not care for such things.

The Writing Was On The Wall  - About how previous attempts to remove Meron from the religious authorities who were not running it with sufficient professionalism and safety were opposed by charedi Gedolim.

Denying the Reality of Physics - About how some of the charedi "soul-searching" in the wake of Meron exposed the very anti-rationalist mindset that contributed to the tragedy in the first place.

The Horses of Chelm - A parable.

Die and Don't Learn?! - About the subsequent tragedy at Karlin-Stolin, and charedi reactions that fail to understand the importance of being part of a system of civic law.

Meron: Those Responsible, And Those Responding - About the Askanim, politicians and Gedolim who were responsible for ensuring that Meron did not conform to safety regulations - and the people in the charedi community who recognize this and are furious about it.

Meron: The Unavenged - About charedi and Likud political opposition to forming a State Commission of Inquiry.

How to Avoid Teshuva for Negligent Homicide - About how certain charedi rabbinic leaders and their enablers avoid acknowledging the cause of the tragedy

The Shocking News Report You Missed - About the appalling extent of illegal construction at Meron that was subsequently revealed.

A year later, with Lag B'Omer approaching, there are still people who are making the same terrible mistakes. 

The safety consultant for this year's event at Meron just resigned. He said that his warnings that the site wasn’t prepared to handle the number of people expected tomorrow were ignored. He also charged that decisions were being influenced by outside interests and political considerations. If this is what is happening this year, after all the deaths of last year, and with a non-charedi government, can you imagine what it was like beforehand?!

Meanwhile, Rav Yitzchak Kirschenbaum of Yeshivas Toldos Aharon announced at a large rally that everyone should go to Meron regardless of government attempts to limit the number of participants.

To this day, there are people who believe that the tragedy happened because of police mismanagement at the time. Or that the tragedy was just "one of those things" that inevitably happens occasionally at mass events. Or that it was because of problems of tzniyus, as you can see in the picture of a poster adorning the streets.

Meron was an accident waiting to happen. And it was that way because the movers and shakers in charedi society do not know or care to know about responsibilities which involve professional planning, science, and large-population considerations. It's exactly the same as what we see regarding chareidi negligence towards the economy, towards the IDF, towards Covid. If even 45 people being killed didn't wake everyone up, what hope is there?

 

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Monday, May 16, 2022

Chicken Wars: Return of the Zealots

The Chicken Wars started back in 2017, when there was warning of "The Bantam Menace." A group of zealots argued that no chickens sold today are kosher, since they have been hybridized with unknown types that lack a mesorah. They formed a Braekel Alliance, claiming that the Braekel - an unusual and expensive heritage breed - is the only kosher type. Naturally, the entire kosher poultry empire decided to strike back, insisting that not only are regular chickens kosher, but also that Braekels are not kosher. The Braekel Alliance was crushed.

But the zealots were not finished. Within the last few weeks, it's all started up again. This time there is no attempt (that I know of) to push for the Braekel, but there is a concerted effort to ban all chicken. There are pashkevilim and flyers and booklets and letters being circulated, all insisting that today's chickens are not kosher. The zealots have amassed support from a growing list of rabbonim, headed by Rav Moshe Shaul Klein, who runs Rav Wosner's Beis Din and is a major Posek Halacha in Israel. 

It's easy to ridicule this, but it is no laughing matter. I've met people who haven't eaten chickens or eggs or anything made with egg derivatives (such as mayonnaise) in years. Many people are very easy to frighten about kashrut risks, and it's always easier to be strict than to do something that risks being perceived as lenient.

The problem is that virtually nobody really understands this topic. The zealots are indeed correct that all commercially available chickens have been hybridized with unknown types. To understand why this doesn't have any ramifications for kashrut requires a thorough understanding of three things: scientific taxonomy, chicken history, and halachic taxonomy. And almost nobody has studied these three things and how they interact with each other.

Consequently, I am very keen to get my booklet Chicken Wars: The Raging Controversies over Kosher Chickens into circulation, in both its English and Hebrew versions. They are now available as a free digital download on the website of The Biblical Museum of Natural History, but we are also looking for someone to sponsor the printing and distribution of them. It's important to spread correct information about this before it gets any more out of hand. If you'd like to be involved in this project, please write to advancement@BiblicalNaturalHistory.org.


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Saturday, May 14, 2022

Problematic Contemporary Halakhists

How should Jews react to the repeal of Roe vs. Wade, such that various states in America are at liberty to ban abortion? The OU released a very cautious statement explaining that they can neither applaud nor condemn it, since Judaism's position is complicated, varies from case to case, and does not neatly line up with either the pro-life or pro-choice position. Rav Jeremy Wieder of YU, in an interview on the always-excellent Orthodox Conundrum podcast (Spotify/ Apple), says that a repeal is unfortunate, because the consequences of abortion being unavailable even in cases where halachically necessary are more serious than the consequences of it being available even when not halachically permitted. 

Rabbi Dr. J. David Bleich, author of Contemporary Halachic Problems, on the other hand, unreservedly applauds the repeal, in a very disturbing article published on Cross-Currents. His article is deeply problematic for several reasons:

1) Detachment from Reality

Since even the more conservative halachic authorities permit (and even require) abortion in certain cases, what happens if a woman in an anti-abortion state needs one? R. Bleich claims that the Orthodox community will create a fund to finance such a person flying to a state that permits it, after receiving permission from the fund's Posek. Does this really sound plausible? Some teenage girl from a frum family, raped by her rosh yeshiva uncle, is going to come forward to a rabbinic committee and testify that she was raped? And then she will be given thousands of dollars to fly to a different state and receive medical care and recuperate there? 

And where is this money going to come from? Who exactly is going to be raising it? It won't be R. Bleich, unless the Posek for the fund ignores the views of most halachic authorities and takes the exact same extreme stringent view on this topic as R. Bleich does!

2) Callousness

The sheer callousness of R. Bleich's essay is jarring. There is no expression of sympathy for the girls and women who really need abortions and will now have the greatest difficulty in getting one. And if they do get one, in many cases it will be out of their home state and away from their homes and families. I'll quote from a friend of mine in the US who is a community activist:

"All I'm saying is that if you've never been asked to find a rav for a chassidish girl scared that her brother impregnated her while raping her so she could ask for a heter to get an abortion, maybe shut up about it.
"Maybe if you've never been involved in a case where someone was raped by a family member and because they're not allowed to drive they have to beg their mother to get them a pregnancy test because their period was late after being raped, I don't really want to hear your opinions.
"Maybe if you've never had anyone crying to you on the phone about how terrified they are of being pregnant because they know they won't survive it and can't afford an abortion, stick your "principled conservative" nonsense somewhere else.
"Spend a few years doing the work I do and you'll realize really quickly why easy access to abortion is critical."

3) Racism

I was horrified to read the following paragraph:

"No Jewish woman is likely to die in the wake of its repeal. Abortion for medical need will continue to be available in most, and probably all, jurisdictions. If any lives are lost it will be because of inability to afford the expense of travel, not because of constitutional impediment."

Great, so no Jewish woman is likely to die. Only non-Jewish women, who don't have the financial support network of a Jewish community, will die. And so there's no reason not to celebrate the repeal.

If Cross-Currents is not sensitive to the inherent callousness of such a statement, I would have thought that they would at least have the sense to think about the ramifications of such a thing appearing in print.

4) Intellectual Dishonesty

And now we get to the meat of the problem - R. Bleich's sheer intellectual dishonesty in his halachic presentation. 

"Rambam, Noda bi-Yehuda, R. Chaim Soloveichik and R. Moshe Feinstein (and, at least in one pronouncement, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate as well) – and that list is far from exhaustive – unequivocally found feticide to be a non-capital form of homicide justifiable only if the fetus itself poses a threat to the mother."

Actually, the truth is that far from Rambam's view being "unequivocally" as R. Bleich claims, there are many scholars who interpret Rambam's view differently. A dozen other rabbinic authorities, including such luminaries as R. Yechezekel Landau, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, and Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, understand Rambam to mean that the fetus is less than a full human life. According to these views, abortion is not homicide - and it therefore may be permitted even in certain cases where there is no mortal threat to the mother. R. Bleich knows about all these other views, since he's written about them himself - how can he now pretend that they don't exist?

Furthermore, Rambam is hardly the only Rishon to weigh in on this matter. He's not even the majority view. Most Rishonim and Acharonim are of the view that a fetus is not a "nefesh" and thus abortion is not a form of homicide. Precisely for this reason, there is great debate as to what the nature of the prohibition of abortion is, and whether it is a Biblical or rabbinic prohibition; some rate it as chavalah, wounding the mother, while others see it as an extrapolation from the prohibition against wasting seed. And according to those who take the latter view, there is consequently much greater scope for leniency. Again, R. Bleich knows this - why is he presenting such a distorted picture here? (There's an excellent discussion of the whole topic by Rav Eliezer Melamed, now in English translation at this link.)

R. Bleich continues:

"Rabbi Feinstein was an extremely pleasant, sweet, mild-mannered and tolerant person. Yet, when confronted by a much more permissive responsum of a respected rabbinic figure he did not hesitate to write in response, “May his Master forgive him.” 

Yes, that is true. However, it is also true that there was a respected rabbinic figure who felt that it was Rabbi Feinstein that was badly mistaken here. I'm referring, of course, to the one that Rabbi Feinstein was arguing with, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, the Tzitz Eliezer. On what grounds does R. Bleich simply dismiss him, not even mentioning him by name, merely because Rav Moshe Feinstein disagreed with him? Furthermore, there were many other Poskim who respected Rav Waldenberg's approach, and would send women to him to receive a heter for abortion. How can R. Bleich simply dismiss them all and refuse to acknowledge their existence?

R. Bleich continues further:

"As far as non-Jews are concerned, there is not even a scintilla of controversy. Abortion is an even more grievous offense under the provisions of the Noachide Code.”

Again, this is a distortion. Yes, the punishment in cases of forbidden abortion is more strict for non-Jews, and yes, there are some halachic authorites who take a more stringent approach  regarding abortion in general with non-Jews. But there are others who disagree. Rav Eliezer Melamed writes as follows: "It appears that regarding the permission for abortion in a case of serious illness, the rules of Jews and Noachides are the same, and whenever it is permitted for a Jew to have an abortion, it is equally permissible for a Noachide."

Now, R. Bleich certainly does not need to agree with Rav Melamed. But it is dishonest and wrong to claim that he doesn't exist!

Conclusion

If you've been following R. Bleich's various positions over the last few years, as discussed in several posts here, all this will unfortunately come as no surprise. 

Several years ago, R. Bleich wrote an article about Chazal and science in which he ignored the existence of views which say that Chazal could have based halacha on scientific error. I wrote a letter to Tradition pointing out the existence of such views. R. Bleich wrote a twenty-page response, dripping with condescension, futilely attempting to justify why he had pretended that those views do not exist, and claiming that it is impossible and unacceptable to say that Chazal mistakenly believed in spontaneous generation - either they didn't believe in it, or it really exists! You can read the comments of Professor Lawrence Kaplan and myself regarding R. Bleich's article at this link.

(Note that R. Bleich's refusal to acknowledge that Chazal's knowledge of science was deficient has very serious ramifications. It means that his ruling against organ donation, based on his "deductions" about Chazal's view on brain death, is fundamentally mistaken.)

A few years later, R. Bleich made the incredible statement that Rambam - the rationalist par excellence - does not "explicitly deny" the possibility that certain people can "employ metaphysical or transnatural powers to achieve physical ends." As I pointed out at the time, it's also the case that Rabbi Bleich does not explicitly deny the possibility that he considers me to be the Gadol HaDor, but I still wouldn't ascribe that belief to him! Is Rabbi Bleich unaware of Rambam's deep philosophical opposition to the notion of changing the natural order through supernatural means, or is he in denial of it? Neither reflects well on him.

Then, there was a bizarre interview with R. Bleich about methodology of psak, in which he claimed that "there is no such thing as a machmir and a meikil. Anyone who talks in that language is not a posek." He also claimed that neither he nor any legitimate posek could ever change their approach over time. I discovered that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein ztz"l had long been bothered by such statements by R. Bleich, and wrote an article in which he emphatically pointed out that major Poskim such as Rav Chaim of Volozhin both used the terminology of machmirim and meikilim, and admitted to changing their approach over time. (Though I suppose that if R. Bleich can negate the existence and legitimacy of countless Rishonim and Acharonim and contemporary Poskim regarding abortion, he can do the same for Rav Chaim of Volozhin.)

The problem is this. Since R. Bleich teaches in YU, is very knowledgeable about certain areas of secular knowledge, and writes in a highfalutin style, many people in the Centrist and Modern Orthodox community assume that he is a great authority who shares their basic epistemology and worldview, rather than recognizing that this enlightened exterior conceals an anti-rationalist worldview and intellectually dishonest approach no different from the standard traditionalist charedi Gedolim. In the case of brain death, this has led to organs being unavailable for those who desperately need them, and now it may lead to women who desperately need abortions being unable to obtain them. It's unfortunate to have to expose the flaws in his approach, and it will doubtless lead to people slamming me as being "disrespectful", but it's important, and potentially even life-saving.


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Thursday, May 12, 2022

Lufthansa vs. Torah on Collective Responsibility

Everyone, even Lufthansa, acknowledges that they were wrong to prevent all charedi-looking Jews from taking a connecting flight due to the actions of some of those Jews. What they should have done was try their best to identify which people exactly were disobeying instructions and taken action only against those people. Fortunately, there is enough outrage to ensure that this will not happen again, and there's no need to dwell on that here. 

(I would be hesitant, however, to classify Lufthansa's actions as antisemitic. We have to be very careful about using that accusation; if it is used incorrectly, or even accurately but too broadly, then it weakens its power. It was a terrible mistake when people condemned actress Emma Watson of being an antisemite for voicing empathy for Palestinians. And in the case of Lufthansa, the employee herself said she would have done the same with Africans. Punishing all people with distinct cultural identity together for the crimes of a few is wrong, but not necessarily antisemitic, even if the people happen to be Jewish.)

While there is no shortage of people taking effort to address Lufthansa's wrongdoing, the same cannot be said for addressing the problems with the behavior of certain charedi Jews. I initially wrote an ill-advised, mistaken and widely misunderstood post, which I deeply regret, but I will try to do a better job now.

What does Judaism say about collective punishment? As with many things, the answer is not black-and-white. Historically there has been much discussion on this topic, in the context of Shimon and Levi's actions with the community of Shechem, the destruction of the Ir HaNidachas (idolatrous city), the Eglah Arufah, as well as the Plague of the Firstborn. You can find a useful overview of various different opinions at this link. But while specific interpretations of these episodes vary, the underlying values are fairly constant. 

It is generally considered wrong for the innocent to suffer for the crimes of others. (An exception, in both Torah and contemporary international law, exists in cases such as war, where there is no practical way to avoid this.) Accordingly, Lufthansa should not have punished the innocent Jews for the crimes of others.

However, classical Jewish thought simultaneously maintains that not everyone who does not physically commit the actual crime is free of blame. There is such a thing as communal responsibility. Even if humans (as opposed to God) cannot exact communal punishment, it is up to all of us to take on communal responsibility. Everyone has a responsibility to make sure that bad behavior is stigmatized and protested and punished.

Now, let us consider the case of charedi Jews ignoring Covid rules on airplanes. It was extremely disturbing to see how many people strenuously objected to my talking about it. They claimed that it was "lashon hara" or a sign of "self-hating Jews" or even "antisemitism"! 

There are two points to be addressed here: First, is it true that there is a disproportionate problem of charedi misbehavior on airlines? And second, even if it is true, should it be discussed?

With regard to the former, of course it's true. Anyone who denies it has either not flown much with charedim or is being dishonest. No, of course it's not everyone who is charedi. And of course there are also people in other cultural communities that do this too. But it is a much more prevalent problem with charedim than with other groups. 

Every cultural group has its own strengths and weaknesses. Los Angeles is full of junctions with 4-way stop signs, which work great in LA, but which would never work in England or Israel, for completely opposite reasons - in England, nobody would ever move, and in Israel, nobody would ever stop. Dati-Leumi society has an above-average problem with nationalistically motivated violence. Secular Israeli society has an above-average problem with people stealing stuff from hotels in foreign countries. No, it's not everyone, or even most people in these societies who are guilty of these things. But it's a significantly higher proportion than in other societies.

Charedi society in general, and chassidic society in particular, has its strengths - family values, commitment to tradition, enormous intracommunal charitability, etc. - and its weaknesses, which include a widespread disregard for civil law and wider societal etiquette. This is manifest in all kinds of ways. There's the notorious disregard for driving regulations, which I have seen in England, Israel and the US. There's the terrible disregard for engineering regulations, which led to 45 dead in Meron and 2 in Stolin. There's the obvious and very widespread disregard for Covid regulations, which many attempt to ideologically justify. And there's the various problems on airplanes, whether it's not sitting down when instructed, delaying entire flights out of personal misplaced religious prioritizing not to sit next to women, blocking aisles while making a minyan, leaving litter strewn around, faking Covid tests, and not wearing masks. All these things occur much more with charedim in general, and chassidim in particular, than with other groups. These are facts. (You can read some distressing and typical stories here.) 

Furthermore, it's not as though this is a surprising or unexpected phenomenon. The reasons for it are perfectly obvious (and even create a certain sympathy for it). Rules are only followed when one sees oneself as being part of the system which institutes the rules. Charedim in general, and chasidim in particular, do not see themselves as being part of that system. You can even find respected halachic journals presenting views that it's legitimate to disregard civil law and to steal from the state. To some extent, it's a cultural hangover from centuries of suffering when the government really was the enemy. They don't see secular rules as having any authority. Rules are for goyim.

Likewise, they see no need for conforming with social norms. You only conform with social norms if you are part of that society. Charedim, on the other hand, and especially chassidim, follow a general societal model of isolationism. They couldn't care less about what others say, because they consider themselves to be separate from (and above) everyone else. And safety rules are to do with physics and science and experts and professionalism, all of which are very far removed from the chassidish worldview.

The phenomenon is a fact and exists for obvious reasons. But is it wrong to talk about it? Isn't it lashon hara

As discussed in a post titled When Lashon Hara Is A Mitzva, the Chafetz Chaim is probably rolling in his grave at how his teachings have been used to perpetuate serious societal problems. The concept of the prohibition of lashon hara is to make the world a better place. Instead, people use and abuse it to suppress criticism of bad behavior, which thereby results in it being perpetuated.

There are different ways of stopping bad behavior. Ideally, there is a system of Batei Din that executes perfect justice, but in the world in which we live, that just doesn't happen. Likewise, rabbinic leadership accomplishes many things, but is very far from stopping all bad behavior, especially with certain types of wrongdoings. Just as happened with sexual and emotional abuse, the leadership of the charedi and chassidic world is simply not interested in cracking down on the problems discussed here.

So, there are two ways this can go. The rest of us can likewise turn a blind eye and shout "lashon hara" if people discuss it. And the behavioral problems will continue and get worse. And, sooner or later, the wider non-Jewish community will be discussing that which we refused to discuss, and will take actions that we do not like. Just as happened with abuse, and just as happened with the neglect of yeshivas to give their students an education that enables them to get a job. Refusing to publicly acknowledge our problems and call them out does not counter antisemitism - it fuels it.

Alternatively, we can all loudly protest these things, for all to hear. We can pressure Mishpacha and Ami to not only write articles about the terrible behavior of certain Lufthansa employees, but also about the terrible behavior of many people in the frum community. We can create a community which calls out and socially stigmatizes such behavior. In the short run, this may cost us some PR points, and may make some of us uncomfortable, instead of the martyring sentiment of complaining about the terrible antisemitic goyim. But in the long run, that is the only way to cure such problems, and to prevent worse ones.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Arachnophilia

In the previous post about my mysterious spider bite, I said that I would relate something that would be even weirder than my being involved in a weird arachnid phenomenon. And here it is, in full detail. I swear that everything that I write here is absolutely true, as crazy as it may seem.

First, the background. Over thirty years ago, as a teenager, I was very much taken by a movie called Arachnophobia. This ingeniously produced comedy-horror was about a newly discovered species of Venezuelan tarantula that accidentally hitches a ride in a coffin to a small town in America, where it hybridizes with a local spider to produce a litter of deadly offspring. The doctor around whom the story is centered struggles to explain the mysterious deaths, for which people are blaming him, until he finally realizes the arachnid explanation and has to tackle the spiders - which is particularly stressful for him, given that he suffers from arachnophobia.

Although rated PG, the suspense and shocks in that film were extremely intense; if you didn't suffer from arachnophobia going into it, you certainly suffered from it coming out. But in my case, it was simultaneously accompanied by a developing arachnophilia (love of spiders). I was fascinated by exotic creatures, and so I was determined to overcome my fears. I went out and bought a tarantula, which I named Big Bob and kept carefully hidden from my mother in my closet. And I was still obsessed with the movie, and I kept daydreaming: what would happen if an unknown species of dangerous spider were to materialize in my neighborhood? What if I was like the doctor in the movie, aware that there was a mysterious arachnid phenomenon and nobody believed me? I spent literally years dreaming about this.

A few years later, I was studying in yeshiva in Jerusalem. One day, we happened to find a tarantula in the street! I promptly captured it and housed it in a cage in my apartment. The other students in the yeshivah were variously fascinated or horrified by it, especially since it would sometimes rear up in attack mode (as seen in this picture), and some of them wanted me to get rid of it. I told them that I was eagerly waiting for it to shed its skin. When tarantulas molt, they shed their entire exoskeleton as a single piece, which basically looks like a complete tarantula. It's a remarkable phenomenon, and I couldn't wait for it to happen.

Meanwhile, the weeks went by, and the tarantula still hadn't shed its skin. Then, one day, I noticed a strange black object in the cage, sort of like a matchstick that had been burned along its entire length. I concluded that it must be the molted skin of a single leg of the tarantula. It was disappointing that it was shedding its exoskeleton piecemeal, but I explained to my roommates that I could perhaps glue the pieces together.

The next day, there were three more of the long black things. Okay, the skin of three more legs. But then the next day, there were about seven more!

What on earth was going on? Where had these objects come from? Later that day, one of the students at the yeshiva came to me gagging in hilarious amazement - he explained that he had seen the spider actually excreting them! Rather than being the molted skin of the legs, the black objects were apparently some sort of bizarre intestinal parasite!

One of the yeshivah students, whom we shall call Jamie, urged me write to London Zoo and ask them what was going on. I didn't want to; I didn't even know what species of spider it was. But in the end, after repeated urging by Jamie, I did write a letter.

Several weeks went by. I didn't receive a reply from London Zoo. No more of the mysterious black objects emerged. The spider turned a rather strange grayish color. Meanwhile, I did some further research, and discovered that it was a species named Chaetopelma olivaceum (parvanit shechorah in Hebrew) but I could not discover anything about the black objects that it had excreted.

Then one day, my parents, who lived in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem, called me in shock. They had returned from a trip abroad to find a letter mailed from London Zoo. It stated that this phenomenon had only ever been documented once before, and it was of such great scientific interest that they were sending out a team to Israel to examine it! The letter also stated that on the previous occasion when this had happened, the spider had turned extremely aggressive and dangerous. I was urged to make sure that the cage was well secured. Needless to say, my parents were extremely distressed by this.

My first thought was that someone at London Zoo was having a laugh at my expense. But it is a respected and serious institution - was that likely? Furthermore, from the parts of the lengthy letter that were read out to me over the phone, clearly there was expertise here. The letter correctly identified the species as Chaetopelma olivaceum and noted that in the previous instance of this phenomenon, the spider had turned gray - which had happened after I sent my letter to them!

I informed the other students at my apartment about the letter, including the warning about the spider's potential behavior, and panic ensued. One of the students, a very quiet and serious masmid, started screaming and thrashing around and had to be physically restrained. Others were yelling at me to get rid of the tarantula. I was very flustered and couldn't believe what was happening. My childhood daydreams about being the center of a mysterious arachnid phenomenon were actually coming true!

Because I was having a hard time wrapping my head around it all, I decided that I had to see the letter from London Zoo for myself and read it in full and carefully. I went to call a taxi that would take me to my parents house to get the letter. As I was about to make the call, Jamie stopped me. "Don't do that," he said, "It's all a joke."

Here is the extraordinary truth of what had actually happened.

I hadn't actually mailed the letter to London Zoo myself. Instead, Jamie had said that he was traveling to England and could mail it from there. But he hadn't actually mailed it. Instead, he went to London Zoo, made up a story about doing some sort of project, and got a sample of their letterhead stationery. Jamie then returned to Israel and engaged in spider research, so that he would be able to identify the spider and write a convincing letter about a bizarre and dangerous phenomenon. While he was doing his research, the spider turned gray, which he was able to incorporate into his fake letter. He then mailed the letter to his brother in England, and had his brother travel to London Zoo and mail it to me from there, so that the envelope would be postmarked as coming from the Zoo. (If you're thinking that this is is an utterly insane amount of effort to put into a practical joke, I am inclined to agree.)

Meanwhile, the entire yeshiva had been in on this all along. Including the quiet and serious masmid who had been screaming and thrashing. And as for the black objects in the spider's cage - they were matchsticks, carefully burned and blackened along their entire length.

You might be as lost for words as I was. At the time, it was quite embarrassing. And I was mortified when, a few years later on a date, a girl mentioned a crazy story she had heard about a practical joke involving a spider that took place in some yeshiva with a gullible fool. Of course, while Jamie didn't realize this, I was the most ripe person for such a joke, having long daydreamed about being involved in a mysterious arachnid incident!

But think about how much weirder this makes the strange spider bite that I received two weeks ago. What are the chances that a guy who has a childhood obsession with mysterious arachnid phenomena, and who is the later the subject of an extraordinarily intricate practical joke about a mysterious arachnid phenomenon, ends up actually really being the subject of a mysterious arachnid phenomenon?!

It's a proof! Of something. I just have no idea what. Maybe it's God's sense of humor. Or maybe it's the Gemara's principle that בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה ,מוליכין אותו - a person is [supernaturally] led down the path that he wishes to travel!

Meanwhile, I've made a decision. We have two beautiful large furry tarantulas at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, each with a leg span of around five inches. But I'm gonna get some even bigger ones! 


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Tuesday, May 10, 2022

What Bit Me

Thank God, I am now fully recovered from the bite that I received two weeks ago and which led to my spending a night in hospital. Fortunately, blood tests showed that there was no cellulitis and no infection, despite the fact that my arm was disfigured from wrist to armpit. (Accordingly, the various antibiotics that I received intravenously, while prudent in case of infection, turned out to have been needless.) Nor was there any allergic reaction. In fact, aside from a few days of nausea, the only effects during the entire week was one day in which there was generalized pain in my arm. Nevertheless, I am very grateful for all the good wishes that I received, as well as for the Photoshop images that I put to use in the collage above.

But there is still the question of what actually bit me. I keep having to explain to people that it wasn't anything at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, notwithstanding the fact that I handle tarantulas and snakes there on a regular basis. Meanwhile, I wrote to a leading arachnologist (spider expert) in Israel, who wasn't sure how to explain it and referred me to another arachnologist. The second arachnologist was mystified and referred the question to other specialists at universities in Israel. There is no agreement as to what it was. But there is one explanation that, all things considered, seems most likely, or at least, least unlikely.

Two puncture holes are normally characteristic of snakebite, but there is no way that a snake bit me without my noticing. Centipedes have forcipules, two front legs that are modified into stingers that pierce the skin and inject venom, but such bites are painful, whereas I felt no pain at the place of the bite at any stage. 

This is why I concluded that it must have been a spider. But which spider? Israel has one species of tarantula, which I sometimes find in my garden, but its bite does not generally have severe effects, and it is extremely unlikely that I was bitten on my arm by one. The only two spiders in Israel which have a bite that has severe effects are the Mediterranean black widow (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus, pictured here) and the Mediterranean recluse (Loxosceles rufescens). Of these two, it is the black widow which is generally said to leave twin puncture holes, which is why I initially presumed that I had been bitten by a black widow.

However, this explanation was problematic. First of all, while there are black widows in Israel - in fact, a colleague from the museum saw one in Beit Shemesh the other week - they rarely enter houses and even more rarely bite people. Second, the distance between the two puncture marks, three to four millimeters, seemed too great for the fangs of the black widow.

At this point I consulted an arachnologist at a US museum, who insisted that the widespread belief that highly visible twin punctures are produced by spider bites is a myth that has little basis in reality. Even big tarantulas have fangs that, while large, are very thin at the end, and do not generally leave visible holes. A small spider, like those in Israel, would not leave twin punctures from its two fangs.

So, what two-fanged creature bit me? Two people had an intriguing explanation. They argued that I wasn't bitten by a creature with two large fangs. Instead, I was bitten by a creature with two small fangs - twice, a few millimeters apart.

If that's what happened, then the rest of the symptoms are easier to explain. The two relatively large holes are the result of the skin immediately around each bite being affected by the venom. And the lymphangitis (the discoloration and swelling of my lymph channels up to my armpit) is consistent with the effects of a bite by a Mediterranean recluse.

The Mediterranean recluse, also known as the violin spider, is very similar to the infamous brown recluse of the USA. There are notorious cases of recluse bites leading to very serious necrosis (the internet has some absolutely hideous pictures). However, such cases are actually quite rare, and death is rarer still, with only a single case known. 

Aside from their unusually toxic cocktail of venom which occasionally results in severe necrosis, the particularly novel aspect of recluse spiders is that their bite is usually painless. And interestingly, recluse spiders typically bite humans only as a desperate last line of defense as they are being crushed between the flesh and something else. This happens most frequently indoors, as a result of rolling over on the spider in bed, or putting on clothing which contains the spider. All this is perfectly consistent with the bite that I received, which happened unnoticed, and was on my arm, under my sleeve.

Still, this is far from a definite conclusion. It seems that recluses usually bite once, not twice. One of the leading arachnologists that I consulted said that it just didn't look like a recluse bite. And so it remains something of an enigma.

Yet the weirdest aspect of all this is not that I received a weird unexplained bite. Nor is the weirdest aspect that the person who receives a weird unexplained bite just so happens to be a person who runs a natural history museum with weird animals, which didn't bite him. The weirdest aspect, the very weirdest aspect, is something so utterly weird that I will devote the next post to it.

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Monday, May 9, 2022

Outrageous Antisemitism or Par for the Course?

UPDATE: This post was ill-advised and widely misunderstood. But I will say this: While Lufthana acted wrongly, it is absolutely true that there is a serious, widespread and systemic problem with how many charedi Jews, particularly chassidim, behave on airlines. Anyone who denies this has either not flown much with such groups or is being dishonest. Yet when anyone - even other frum Jews - mentions this, there are cries of "lashon hara!" and accusations of "antisemitism." If we don't address our own problems, then we shouldn't be surprised if others address them in ways that we don't like.

 

There is outrage among many frum Jews about an incident involving Lufthansa. Around 150 charedim who flew to Germany from JFK were denied permission to board a connecting flight to Hungary, where they wished the visit the grave of a chassidic rebbe. The Lufthansa official explained that since a number of them had refused to wear masks on the flight from JFK, none of them would be allowed to board the next flight (presumably due to the difficulty of identifying which of them exactly would cause problems).

This resulted in outrage. How dare Lufthansa punish all the Jews on the flight for the actions of what one frum person claims was just one or two passengers? Such collective punishment, it is argued, is clearly antisemitism.

I would first like to observe that it is extremely unreasonable to believe that it was only "one or two" passengers who did not wear masks. As pointed out in a past post, When Chassidim Fly, anyone who flies regularly on El Al flights from JFK knows full well that charedim, and especially chassidim, are frequently non-compliant with airline instructions, especially regarding Covid restrictions. In fact, in the comments on the Vos Iz Neias story, several people insist that one should not obey the rules about masks! In a group of 150 chassidim, there were presumably a considerable number that were not masking.

Still, presumably there were also many chassidim who were compliant. Is it legitimate for them to be punished for those who were not compliant? Is such collective punishment not antisemitic?

I'm not going to answer this question directly. Instead, I would encourage people to consider a similar situation.

Not all Palestinians are terrorists or even support terror. Nevertheless, all Palestinians frequently pay the price for the significant number of Palestinians that do engage in terror. Whether it's lockdowns or other legal restrictions, there are measures that are taken against the collective due to the impossibility of targeting only those that are causing problems.

Is this right or wrong? My point here is not to take a position either way. But I am darn sure that every single frum person who is shouting "outrageous antisemitism!" at Lufthansa for their collective treatment of the chassidim is perfectly fine with such collective treatment of Palestinians. They would undoubtedly say that it's par for the course. When there is a significant number of people who cause problems, and there is no way to single out those people, then the larger community which houses and produces them must pay the price in order to prevent those problems from occurring again.

Well, seeing as that is what they would say with regard to Palestinians, why should Jews be any different? As they say in Britain, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.


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Sunday, May 8, 2022

A Cherem on Alternative Medicine

My, this is an interesting development. Rabbi Rephoel Szmerla's book Ki Ani Hashem Rofe'acha, which was published in English under the title Alternative Medicine In Halacha, has been banned. The letters of condemnation were written by a range of rabbonim, and are accompanied by letters of retraction from some of those who wrote approbations, along with general letters of condemnation of energy healing and Eastern medicine (note that this presumably not preclude the legitimacy of certain evidence-based non-Western medicine). You can download the collection of letters from some twenty rabbonim, at this link. I also received a critique of the book written by Niv Hadar, a colorful character who is sort of an Israeli frum version of James Randi, which you can download here. (UPDATE: It seems that these letters came out a few years ago; I'm not sure why they only just reached me.)

Now, in my post When Rabbis Quack, I criticized this book very harshly. And so you might think that I am thrilled with the cherem. But actually, while I think this cherem is overall a good thing, I can't personally be so happy about it. The reason is that by and large, the rabbonim banning it are not doing so for rationalist reasons.

The main reason why Alternative Medicine in Halacha is problematic is that it promotes an anti-scientific view that is literally dangerous to human life. It urges for the validity of anecdotal evidence over double-blind trials. It negates the significance of the placebo effect. It denounces modern Western medicine as standing in complete contradiction to Torah values. It comes as no surprise whatsoever to discover that the author is an anti-vaxxer.

The letters of condemnation, on the other hand, focus on a different charge: that the book promotes idolatry, darkei Emori (occult practices) and the usage of prohibited supernatural forces. I'm not convinced that the first charge is any more true of this book than of various kabbalistic works (interestingly, the book does condemn certain practices, especially shamanism, as outright idolatry). With regard to foreign practices which attempt to wield supernatural forces, on the other hand, the book is certainly guilty as charged - but what is the actual reason why these things are forbidden? As someone inclined towards rationalism, I would say that the problem is exactly as Rambam says: that these things are quackery and nonsense. But the rabbonim issuing the condemnation are more in line with Ramban's view, that they may indeed work but are prohibited. In fact, they take a specific anti-rationalist approach with regard to Szmerla's attempt to interpret Elisha's revival of the boy in terms of healing energies, which they denounce as trying to undermine the supernatural miraculous aspects.

The condemnation is nevertheless a well-deserved embarrassment to the rabbonim who originally endorsed the book, which include those that are part of the Lakewood Suicide Squad and who banned my own books, such as Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rav Shlomo Miller. Unfortunately, this also includes Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, who despite being generally among the more enlightened of charedi gedolim, is nevertheless very much in the anti-rationalist camp on medical matters.

The bottom line is that the cherem is overall definitely a good thing. The condemnations are against Eastern, alternative, non-evidence-based medicines, and promote Western medicine. In fact, in a most significant statement, the Giluy Daas signed by a number of rabbonim (and co-signed by Rav Chaim Kanievsky) includes a "general rule: one must be concerned about any medical practice that does not function absolutely naturalistically, according to the opinions of the generation's scholars."

Yet the frum community is rife with superstitious and pseudoscientific practices that do not function naturalistically. As noted in another post, Rav Chaim Kanievsky himself endorsed a book of segulos which included such things as eating dried, pulverized and ground pig's testicles to conceive - the right testicle for a boy, the left testicle for a girl. No doubt many people will differentiate between Eastern superstitions and holy segulos. Still, naturalistic is naturalistic. Perhaps the cherem on Alternative Medicine will have the beneficial effect of encouraging people to think along more scientific lines. Lives will be saved as a result.


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Friday, May 6, 2022

New Book Ban

There's an extraordinary new book ban. It's one that I think is actually a good idea, even though the reasons why many rabbonim are banning it are not necessarily the best reasons. 

The book being banned is one that I wrote about in a post titled When Rabbis Quack, which turned out to be the third most-read post on this blog of all time, with over 20,000 views. Due to the significance of this event, I am reproducing that post in its entirety below. In the next post, which I plan to write after Shabbos, I will describe the ban and its significance.

When Rabbis Quack

Posted on Jan 18, 2017

There is a forthcoming highly significant and very tragic publishing event which relates to the rationalist/ anti-rationalist divide in the Jewish community.

A few days ago I was sent a top-secret draft of a book that is going to be published shortly. I have no idea how the person who sent it to me obtained it; it certainly did not reach me with the permission of the author. It's so top-secret that every Rav to whom it was sent for a haskama had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and the manuscript was returned to the author afterwards.

The book is in Hebrew, written by a Rabbi Rafael Szmerla (or Schmerla), who is a Dayan in a Lakewood institution under the auspices of Rav Shlomo Miller of Toronto. The book is titled Ki Ani Hashem Rof'echa, and it is dedicated to advocating for alternative medicine. The chapters discuss auras, chi, reiki, energy healing, distance healing, meridians, acupuncture, applied kinesiology, emotional freedom techniques, dowsing, homeopathy, radionics, crystal healing, geopathic stress, feng shui (the mystical practice of it, not the furniture arrangements), iridology, reflexology, and other forms of quackery.

For almost all these things, the author manages to find sources in the Gemara or Rishonim which discuss them. He thereby simultaneously refutes the possibility of their being idolatrous and demonstrates them to be effective, which he further supports with quotations from quacks. (The only one that he rules unacceptable is feng shui.)

The author claims that those who argue against such alternative medicines due to their being "scientifically undetectable" have been influenced by "Greek philosophy" and will end up as heretics. He stresses that accepting the truth of these treatments even without a scientific justification is an essential part of Jewish identity, as per the declaration at Sinai of naaseh v'nishma, we will do even if we do not understand. And at the end of the chapter on radionics, he adds that relying on such treatments helps our faith in the Sages, who were scientifically far ahead of us.

The book concludes with an explanation of why it is called Ki Ani Hashem Rof'echa and an outright attack on modern Western medicine. Sicknesses are supposed to turn man toward God in prayer and bitachon, but modern medicine and the "arrogant doctors" instead turn people away from God. How many people, he bemoans, trust doctors more than Chazal?! The philosophy of modern medicine, he declares, "stands in complete contradiction to Torah values." The solution is to turn to alternative medicines, which are based on the idea of energies, which in turn are mystical/ metaphysical forces related to spirituality, which flow from God, and thus the practice of alternative medicine leads people to God.

The essential point that the author gets wrong is that the reason why the medical establishment is against all this quackery is not merely that there is no satisfactory explanation for how it could work. Rather, it is because there is no evidence that it works. Anecdotal evidence does not count for much, especially when you take into account the placebo effect. The only meaningful test of whether a treatment works is double-blind testing, something that all these alternative remedies invariably fail.

Unfortunately, this is something that the author explicitly rejects in a footnote in the concluding chapter. He states that requiring double-blind testing and rejecting anecdotal evidence due to the placebo effect stands in direct contradiction to Chazal, who only required that a treatment appear to work on three occasions to declare it effective. Which is indeed true, but it is also the reason why, in Chazal's time, life expectancy was very low and mortality rates were horrifically high.

Now, there are all kinds of silly superstitious sefarim that are published all the time. In the past, I have written about To Fill The Earth: 277 Segulos and Advice on Fertility Issues, In Personal Consultation with Maran HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlitah, which includes such gems as "A dried pig's testicle, pulverized and ground up, will help a woman conceive; if the right testicle is used, a male child will be born; if the left testicle is used, a female child will be born." Such books are not necessarily worth getting worked up about. But this one is different, and much more problematic, for three reasons.

First, telling people to use ineffectual alternative medicine is not harmless, especially when it is accompanied with an overt rejection of conventional medicine. There is a real risk of people neglecting to treat themselves in a way that is actually helpful.

Second, there is likely to be a strong connection between rejecting conventional medicine and not vaccinating children. [UPDATE: I was just sent a lengthy responsum by Rabbi Szmerla in which he strongly opposes vaccinating children.] England's Jewish Chronicle recently published a fascinating and disturbing article about the very low rates of vaccination in the charedi Jewish community. This has catastrophic results; one charedi girl developed meningitis and required a triple limb amputation, r"l. The question discussed in the article is that it is not clear why vaccination rates are so low. One of the frum doctors interviewed says that his patients tell him that their rebbe told them not to vaccinate, but when he speaks to the rebbes they vehemently deny it. Others suggest that the charedi women are so overwhelmed with their children and with working to support their husband's bitachon that they simply don't have time to take their kids to the doctor. But it seems to me that there is another factor involved. This is a community that is taught to believe that the scientific establishment is the enemy. If the scientists are wrong about dinosaurs and about global warming and about spontaneous generation, they are probably wrong about vaccinations too.

The third reason why this book is particularly dangerous is has the most extraordinary range of haskamos. These include from Rav Moshe Shternbuch and Rabbi Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss of the Eida Charedis, Sefardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel of South Fallsburg, Rav Mendel Shafran, Dayan Gavriel Krausz from Manchester, and more. Now, these people are from the very right wing of charedi Orthodoxy, or other extreme anti-rationalist communities. However, there is also a glowing haskamah from Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, who is generally regarded as the most moderate (and most important) of all the American charedi Gedolei Torah. Unfortunately, while he has in the past demonstrated some rationalist sympathies (and it was his haskama to one of my books which was the reason why they were banned, due to his zealous opponents), he is already known to be strongly opposed to vaccines (see my post Frum Ways To Die).

In his haskamah to Ki Ani Hashem Rof'echa, Rav Kamenetzky begins by noting Chazal's statement that "the best doctors go to Hell" and explains that it is their arrogance which takes them there. He writes that we have to silence those who insist upon empirical evidence. While, he notes, there are charlatans/ idolaters in alternative medicine, nevertheless there are also divinely-placed forces that we should make use of to heal people.

My question is as follows. If and when there is, G-d forbid, an outbreak of measles or mumps in the frum community, or people who neglect conventional medicine in place of alternative therapies, and as a result children suffer amputations or deaths, who is responsible? Is it the Gedolim who advocate against conventional medicine in favor of alternative medicine, but who genuinely believe that these things work because they are too uneducated to know otherwise? Or does the responsibility lie with the other rabbonim and people in the charedi world, many (perhaps even most) of whom do not believe in alternative medicine, but who have given the Gedolim the elevated status to have a large following, and who will be too afraid to speak out against this sefer due its prestigious haskamos from Gedolim? There is a cheshbon hanefesh that needs to be done, and better sooner than later.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The Sacrifices We Don't Think About

Someone forwarded to me a campaign to have people learn Daf Yomi in memory of fallen soldiers. It's a nice way of connecting people in new ways to this important day, despite the fact that according to classical Judaism, you can't actually donate the reward for your Torah study to someone else, just as you can't be nice on behalf of someone else. But if the goal is to think about the sacrifices made, then while having people note a random name before their studies is better than nothing, it's more valuable to spend time actually thinking about the sacrifices made.

Yom HaZikaron this year marks the lives of 24,068 people that were lost in defense of the Land of Israel since 1860, the year that the first Jewish settlers left the secure walls of Jerusalem to build new Jewish neighborhoods. There are an additional 4,216 civilian terror victims. 

The losses are agonizing, but there are even more sacrifices that people don't necessarily think about. While Yom HaZikaron officially (as far as I can ascertain) commemorates only those who lost their lives, there are of course many thousands of others who have been terribly injured, in many cases with their lives effectively destroyed, to a greater or lesser degree.

This year, it occurred to me that such tragic sacrifices are themselves even greater than we realize. When we think about the horrifically injured, we think about people who have lost limbs. But there is an entire additional category of people who suffered no physical injury whatsoever, and yet are genuine suffering victims.

I'm talking about those who psychologically suffer. Tel Aviv and numerous other cities in Israel are no longer having fireworks displays on Independence Day, due to concerns about military veterans who suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Unfortunately, many people don't understand the seriousness of this.

Recently I read a bestselling but very sad book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk, a pioneer in the field of psychological trauma. It's a very painful read about how deep trauma, whether from abuse or military action, can cause the most terrible damage to a person. This can surface a while after combat, and can last for decades.

The tragedy of PTSD was brought home to me this morning, when a friend told me that he is collecting money for a local combat veteran. This man, in his sixties, was on the front lines in the 1982 Lebanon War. He was a hero who saved lives, and he was not physically injured. But he saw his friends die, and he was unable to continue his own life. He is incapable of working and every day is a struggle.

There's not much we can do for those who are no longer in this world, but there's a lot that we can do for the people who are still alive but who have suffered so much as a result of their heroic actions on our behalf.


Sunday, May 1, 2022

Back Home!

What a relief. After a long night at Shaarei Tzedek they finally kicked me out this afternoon. I feel fine, though my arm still looks horrific.

For those who want the medical info: When I first got to hospital last night, the doctors thought that the antibiotics weren't given a proper chance to work and they put me on a higher dosage via IV. But then they finally decided that since I didn't have any fever or anything beyond nausea, there was no cellulitis infection. Instead, the spreading swelling and discoloration on my arm is simply my body reacting to the venom of whatever bit me. Accordingly, there is no point to antibiotics. It's now spreading away from my lymph channels and shoulder and toward my hand, which they decided was fine. Eventually hopefully it will just disappear.

As to what bit me - it's a bit of a mystery. It could not have been a snake, since it is absurd to propose that a snake bit me on my arm without my noticing. It was not a scorpion, since there were twin punctures. Some sort of spider is the best candidate. The two spiders in Israel with a severe bite are the Mediterranean black widow and the Mediterranean recluse. The latter's bite looks very different. The black widow does two puncture holes, but I think that my holes are a little far apart. Also, I had none of the usual symptoms of a black widow bite. It's an enigma!

But there's something that I must reiterate, since they even brought it up in the ER:

IT WAS NOT ANYTHING AT THE MUSEUM! We do not keep any seriously venomous reptiles or invertebrates. Because any zoo that claims that they have never had any escapes is lying!

Thanks to everyone for their good wishes!

This Is Bizarre

This is just so strange. I've wrestled alligators and swam with sharks and been pounced upon by leopards and had physical interactions with full-grown lions, leopards, bears, hyenas, wolves, cheetahs, eagles and countless snakes and scorpions and tarantulas. I've been bitten by boa constrictors, hyraxes, monitor lizards, turtles, squirrels, snookum bears, and even small lions and leopards. But the only thing that has made me need serious medical attention is a bite from a tiny spider that I didn't even notice and had nothing to do with my museum or my work!

I was admitted to Shaarei Tzedek last night. I am not in pain at all, just a little queasy and my arm is slightly horrendous. There are lots of people with much, much worse medical conditions than this! This one just looks horrific, but it's not currently a serious condition. They are treating me with IV antibiotics and they expect to release me very soon.

Meanwhile, here is a lovely picture and a horrible picture. The lovely picture is of one of the two charedi gentlemen who came into the emergency room waiting area last night to distribute pizza. The horrible picture is my arm!


 


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...