Monday, May 30, 2022

Weaponizing Crocodiles Against Israel

Just when I thought I'd seen it all, here's something that took me completely by surprise - and what was subsequently revealed totally floored me.

How dangerous are crocodiles? The other day I was researching them and I received a nasty surprise. I didn't think that crocodiles were especially harmful unless you're actually encountering them in the flesh (unlike alligators, which even in the flesh are much more manageable). Little did I realize that I was about to discover how crocodiles are being used as a weapon against the Jewish People.

The Nile crocodile actually lived wild in the Land of Israel until the beginning of the 20th century. They were found in an area near Caesarea, which in antiquity was called Crocodilopolis by Strabus and Crocodilion by Pliny. The Roman settlement was subsequently destroyed in the Muslim Arab invasion of the 7th century, and when there were last crocodiles at the turn of the 20th century it was known as Zor al-Zarqa. Today, it is known as Nachal Taninim, the "Crocodile River." It's not entirely clear, though, whether the crocodiles that lived there were originally native to this country, or whether they were brought here by the Romans for entertainment and subsequently escaped into the wild. 

While researching the answer to this puzzle, I came across an article titled "Between Extinction and Dispossession: A Rhetorical Historiography of the Last Palestinian Crocodile (1870–1935)." It was written by Elizabeth Bentley, currently a postdoctoral fellow in social and cultural analysis at NYU, and it appeared in the Jerusalem Quarterly, an academic journal based in Ramallah and published by the Institute for Palestine Studies. Bentley is currently developing her article into a full-length book, titled "The Last Crocodile in Palestine: Envisioning Extinction in the Ruins of Empire.”

Bentley's article is about much more than just zoology. The author explains that through her "analysis of extinction rhetoric, this article attenuates pernicious forms of “slow violence” against Palestinian life and land that are not easily captured in news headlines." She argues that "the Palestinian crocodile extinction story is intertwined with violent histories of colonial resource extraction, racialized labor exploitation, and indigenous human dispossession." That's quite an extraordinary charge, so let's see how Bentley backs it up.

I. The Last of the Crocodiles

The article begins by describing how at the Jerusalem Zoo, the sign at the crocodile enclosure states that “In 1905, the last crocodile was hunted in Israel by residents of Jisar-A-Zarka.” It's obviously not an accurate sign, since Israel did not exist in 1905 (and neither did the town of Jisar-A-Zarka, which was built to rehouse the Ghawarna Bedouin tribe that had formerly lived in the crocodiles' habitat). But according to Bentley, there's something much more sinister going on: a Zionist plot to delegitimize the Palestinians.

"The Biblical Zoo’s account erases the web of historical relations that led to this extinction beginning with one crucial fact: the market for late Ottoman Palestine’s small and dwindling crocodile population was overwhelmingly driven by colonialists rather than the indigenous population. By invoking and isolating the Palestinian identity of the hunters who allegedly killed the last crocodile, the Israeli zoo poster implies that Palestinians were responsible for Nile crocodiles’ regional extinction."

Amazing. A single poorly-written sentence in a sign (which doesn't even appear in the Hebrew text) is now evidence of a "slow violence" campaign to slander Palestinians. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill!

But let's see how inaccurate the zoo's sign really is. Bentley is correct that, although the Ghawarna Bedouin were the ones who actually hunted the last crocodiles, the market for the last of the small and dwindling crocodile population was overwhelmingly driven by (European non-Jewish!) colonialists. But the reason why the crocodile population was dwindling was because of the Bedouin!

There's a reason why the Germans and French and British used Bedouin hunters. It's because the Bedouin already had a long tradition of hunting wild animals in general and crocodiles in particular. The Europeans didn't recruit hunters from the Old Yishuv! There has never been a tradition of hunting wild animals in Judaism, unlike in Arab and Bedouin culture, where it plays a very significant role. 

As Bentley herself notes, the Ghawarna were renowned as hunters. And the crocodiles were eating their goats and sometimes even their people, which gave them very good reasons for hunting them. Unlike mammalian predators such as lions, crocodiles never learn to fear humans. To this day, many hundreds of people are killed by crocodiles in Africa every year. Crocodiles and humans simply cannot coexist peacefully. That is why the crocodile population in Zor al-Zarqa was dwindling.

Thus, the Jerusalem Zoo's sign is not distorting anything. Yes, it was Europeans who paid for the last few crocodiles and accelerated their end, but it was the Bedouin who were both originally and ultimately responsible for their decline and extinction.

And it's not just crocodiles. The reason why the Syrian ostrich was driven to extinction across the entire region is because of the Bedouin (who believed that the bird's fat has medicinal powers). The reason why the Asiatic cheetah was driven to near-extinction across the entire region is because of the Bedouin (who became even more efficient hunters once they acquired guns). The reason why the Arabian oryx was driven to near-extinction across the entire region is because of the Arabs. The reason why the Syrian brown bear was driven to near-extinction across the entire region is because of the Arabs.

That's not to say that Zionism played no role in ecological destruction. Inevitably, when large numbers of people come to live in an area, this takes a toll on the environment. And in the early 20th century, as around the world, a lot of mistakes were made in environmental management. But Jews in the Land of Israel never targeted wild animals. They never stoned hyenas to death, as many Palestinians like to do, or stole birds of prey from the nest, as is common in Arab countries. And it was the Jews who pioneered wildlife and nature conservation in Israel, which is vastly superior to that in any Arab country.

II. The Distortion of History

Bentley is very concerned about the erasure of Palestinian (by which she means Palestinian Arab) history. "The crocodile served as a reptilian conduit for rewriting – and claiming ownership over – Palestine’s past, thereby de-Arabizing the history of the coastal marshlands. The more scholarly, research-based colonial literatures often included uneven literary historiographies of references to local geography and the crocodiles; these jumped from Greco-Roman to medieval Crusader to nineteenth century European-authored texts, omitting or glossing over periods in Palestine’s history characterized by Arab rule."

It's fair to criticize distortions of history. But it is extraordinarily hypocritical coming from Elizabeth Bentley.

The word "colonial" appears in the article a remarkable 103 times. Bentley does not apply it to the Muslim-Arab invasion of Palestine in the seventh century. But she does apply this highly-charged term equally to both European (British and German) colonialists and to Zionists. She makes no distinction whatsoever between Europeans who were extending their reach to foreign lands, and Jews who were fleeing persecution and returning to their ancestral homeland! (See this article by the ADL which details why the term "colonialism" is utterly misleading and wrong when used with regard to Zionism.)

In fact, Bentley does not even make any mention whatsoever of Jewish historical roots in Israel. Her only reference to the Bible is bizarre: "Palestine’s crocodiles are perpetually entangled in “naturecultures” – real or imagined – that do not readily lend themselves to fantasies of a pristine, empty land or an original biblical past." But in which way is the Biblical past a "fantasy"? There really was a Biblical history of Israel - in which Jews lived there! While there it's not clear if Biblical Israel had crocodiles, there is no doubt whatsoever that it had Jews. Bentley is critical of how Europeans de-Arabized history - and yet she equally de-Judaizes it!

III. The Zionist Crocodile Plot

The colonialists who paid the Bedouin to hunt the last of the crocodiles were British and German. But Bentley then smoothly transitions to Zionist colonialists. Bentley notes that a Zionist zoologist, Fredric Bodenheimer, observed in 1935 that no more crocodiles would ever be found, due to the swamps having been drained. According to Bentley, "because of Bodenheimer’s subject-position as a Zionist zoologist and the connection that he forms between Palestinian crocodile’s extinction status and the drainage project, Bodenheimer’s text reflects the continuation and evolution of the colonial zoological project in Palestine, which until this point was primarily executed by European Christians... The story of Palestinian crocodile extinction also continued on the ground through the environmental politics and policies of the Zionist settler-colonial project as it gained a stronghold over British Mandate Palestine." And so now the "colonialists" responsible for the extinction of the Palestinian crocodiles include the Jews.

Now, first let us note that no Jew was ever involved in any crocodile hunting. And the last crocodiles were killed before the swamps were drained in the 1920s. Furthermore, while part of the reason for draining the swamps was to reclaim land for development, the primary reason, for both the British and the Jews, was to eradicate malaria. And while the Ghawarna did not care to lose their land for the sake of eradicating malaria (since they apparently had a certain immunity), the other Arab residents of Palestine were certainly very much benefiting from its eradication. In some Arab villages, one of every six children would succumb to the illness within their first few months.

Yes, the Ghawarna received the raw end of the deal - as did many people around the world during the global population development of the early twentieth century (and the Ghawarna received a much better deal than did most Jews in Arab lands!). But the story of how they left is much more complicated than Bentley makes it appear. And the Zionists had absolutely nothing to do with the extinction of crocodiles.

IV. The Schmitz Transfer

In a 2020 workshop in Palestinian Studies at Brown University, Bentley invokes another aspect of the "Palestinian" crocodiles to slander Israel. This is with regard to one of the last crocodiles, whose hunting was commissioned by Father Ernst Schmitz, a German naturalist and priest. Along with many other taxidermy specimens that he had collected, it was housed in St. Paulus hostel’s basement museum, and was used for science education at the adjacent Schmidt School for Palestinian children. In 2017, the collection was transferred (or, as Bentley writes in quotation marks, "transferred," apparently to delegitimize it) to the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and Center for Biodiversity in Tel Aviv. Bentley presents this as another example of Zionists acting unjustly and effectively stealing from Palestinians. According to Bentley, "the German Association of the Holy Land (DVHL) invoked property laws to defend their decision to permanently loan the taxidermy to the Israeli museum." 

But you can check the statement from the DVHL online, and you can see for yourself how she is distorting things again. Bentley has completely omitted the real reason for the transfer. The DVHL explains that the reason why they transferred the collection is that it had been severely neglected in the basement of the hostel and was falling apart. It was the Steinhart museum that offered to both restore the specimens, and also to put them on display for the general public and give them much greater exposure:

At that time, the Association’s main concern was to protect such a valuable and unique scientific collection showing species that are extinct nowadays. Due to the fact that the Association lacked the means for the necessary restorations, and to avoid moving the collection outside the Holy Land, it arranged with the museum to have the collection maintained and restored at the expense of the museum. DVHL gave its consent that the animals are temporarily exhibited to the general public, so as to shed a spotlight on the fauna and historical species found in the Holy Land.

As I can attest from running the Biblical Museum of Natural History, taxidermy collections require specific conditions and care. Maintaining the appropriate temperature and humidity, protection from humans and most of all protection from insects are all of crucial importance. The transfer of the Schmitz collection was desired by its owners for the benefit of the collection, not part of a nefarious Zionist plot against Palestinians.

V. Conclusion: An Anti-Zionism revealed as Israelopathy

Among all the distortions in Bentley's scholarship about crocodilian settler-colonial violence against Palestinians, one stands above the rest. Muslim Arabs invaded Palestine in the 7th century. And the Ghawarna, as Bentley observes, were actually a quasi-Maroon community, largely descended from refugees who had fled oppression in Africa and elsewhere within the last few centuries. Yet she classifies the Ghawarna as indigenous Palestinians, whereas Jews fleeing oppression in Europe and returning to their ancestral homeland are "settler-colonialists"!

Such double-standards are close to the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. But personally, I dislike the misleading term "antisemitism," which was itself created to justify it. I prefer to use the more accurate term "Judeopathy," or, in this case, "Israelopathy" - a pathological obsession with delegitimizing and demonizing Israel using irrational and hypocritical arguments.

It seems that zoology is the latest (and perhaps most bizarre) expression of this obsession. I already published an article, "Is Zionism guilty of zoological extermination?" against such accusations by others. The urge to vilify the world's only Jewish state is always seeking new tactics, and even animals are brought in for this hateful task.

VI. Postscript: The Shocking Revelation

Of course, dishonest academic scholarship used for anti-Israel and antisemitic agendas are nothing new. And I was not at all surprised to learn that Elizabeth Bentley is also co-editor of Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging (Duke University Press 2021), in which her introduction notes that secular Zionism has "steadily made it impossible to imagine an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic," whereas an Islamist framework may be "critical to achieving a fully inclusive Palestinian political project or perhaps even an eventual one-state solution to the conflict." 

In this vein, she describes a chapter in which the authors sympathetically explain how the religious beliefs of the Islamic Jihad movement have contributed to the "anticolonial heart of Palestinian nationalist activism" and its "sacral politics of liberation." Palestinian nationalist activism, which cares negligibly about Palestinians who suffer in other countries or from the brutal regime of Hamas, and which is part of a larger Arab (and global) antisemitism that has persecuted Jews worldwide for millennia, is, we are told, actually about anticolonialism and liberation. It is not surprising that a person who makes effort to interpret everything about Zionism in the worst possible light simultaneously judges everything anti-Zionist in the best possible light. (Note that this article also describes the activities of both the PLO and Islamic Jihad, which included numerous targeted killings of civilians and children, as "military action against Israel.")

But then I learned something truly shocking.

Before writing this response, I decided to reach out to Elizabeth Bentley with some of my criticisms. She wrote a warm and friendly but unhelpful response in which she said that her article was limited in scope and she'd be happy to discuss the topic if we ever meet, but that meanwhile she does not have time to respond. But she prefaced this with a shocking revelation - that she is Jewish. And Orthodox. And a fan of my work! I was floored. (UPDATE: I subsequently discovered that she went to YU!)

Elizabeth Bentley is clearly someone who deeply cares about social justice. She's been involved with art projects for Israeli and Palestinian youth aimed at building peace across differences. And it's very hard for me to be harsh on someone who wrote so warmly to me. But it's heartbreaking that even a Jew who is connected to her Jewish identity can become so enmeshed in an Israelopathic worldview. It's tragic that such a person empowers haters of the Jewish People to legitimize Israelopathy by dressing it up as anti-colonialism. I will be sending her a link to this post, and I hope that she will reconsider her approach.


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Sunday, May 29, 2022

The Miracle Right In Front Of Us

When you point out to people that you can't actually prove anything from Chazal's account of the length of the lunar month, or from the Torah's list of animals that have one kosher sign, or from Rav Chaim Kanievsky having a grasshopper arrive in his house, they often get upset. As one kiruv worker put it to me: "So what else am I supposed to talk about, if I want to inspire people?!"

It's a pity - and a lack of broad historical perspective - that it's not sufficient for them that we have one of the greatest miracles in history right in front of our eyes. I can't put it any better than Rav Lord Sacks, ztz"l, in a moving description of how he felt once on Yom Yerushalayim in Jerusalem:

"Standing on the streets of the city, I watched youngsters from around the world, waving Israeli flags, singing and dancing with a joy that was overwhelming. As I watched the celebrations, I was overcome with emotion because suddenly I had a vision of the 1.5 million children who were killed in the Shoah not because of anything they had done, not because of anything their parents had done, but because their grandparents happened to be Jews.

"I remembered how 26 centuries ago, the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of the Jewish people reduced to a valley of dry bones. G-d asked shall these bones live, and Ezekiel saw them come together, take on flesh, and begin to breathe and live again. G-d promised Ezekiel he would open his peoples’ graves and bring them back to the land.

"I remembered the first reference to Israel outside the Bible on the Merneptah Stele, a block of granite engraved by Merneptah IV, successor to Ramses II, thought by many to have been the Egyptian Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus. It was an obituary, ‘Israel is laid waste, her seed is no more.’

"I thought how some of the greatest empires the world has ever known – Egypt of the Pharaohs, Assyria, Babylon, the Alexandrian Empire, the Roman Empire, the medieval empires of Christianity and Islam all the way to the Third Reich and the Soviet Union – were the superpowers of their day that bestrode the narrow world like a colossus, seemingly invulnerable in their time. And yet each tried to write the obituary of the Jewish people, and whilst they have been consigned to history, our people can still stand and sing Am Yisrael Chai. That was my second epiphany: The knowledge that what I was seeing on that day in Jerusalem was techiyat hamaytim, a collective people being brought back from death to life."

Of course, this isn't a miracle in the popular mystical supernatural sense of the term. Historians can chart every step of the way; God did not break the laws of nature for this to happen. Nevertheless, the end result - which was promised thousands of years ago, and which looked absurd for much of history - is nothing less than a miracle.

*  *  *

Unfortunately I now have to mention a negative aspect of Yom Yerushalayim - one that relates to my very own dati-leumi community. And let nobody say that I only criticize the faults of charedim. As I have written previously, the closer you are sociologically to people who cause problems, the greater your responsibility to condemn their actions.

There's a march that takes place every year on Yom Yerushalayim. It's great to celebrate this special day, and it's tragic that there are religious Jews who are so isolated from national history that they refuse to acknowledge it. But the presence of many of the more right-wing dati-leumi youth singing militant chants insulting Islam and about "death to the Arabs," and the decision to route the march through the Muslim Quarter, is wrong. 

First, it's just plain dangerous (though it can simultaneously be argued that by now it's even more dangerous to cancel this foolish mistake, as it would reward those who made threats as a result). Second, it's obnoxious and foolish. We won - we have Israel and Jerusalem. There's no need to be triumphalist and immaturely rub our victory in the faces of all those who lost as a result. Not every Arab is our enemy - but singing chants like this will certainly (and understandably) push them in this direction, quite aside from how it makes us look in the eyes of the world. 

Significant portions of the dati-leumi community have been heading in an alarming direction these past few years. Those of us who object to it have a responsibility to speak out.

*  *  *

Yom Yerushalayim Sameach! And stay tuned for a forthcoming post about a wild animal being used as a new weapon against Israel, that is simultaneously entertaining, fascinating, shocking and disturbing. If you'd like to subscribe to this blog via email, use the form on the right of the page, or send me an email and I will add you.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Why I will never vote Likud again

I used to be a Likud voter. I wanted to support a mainstream party that had a sensible position on matters of national security. After growing frustrated with Bibi's unbelievable egoism, and the submarine affair, and his putting his own interests ahead of the country's interests, and paralyzing the country with endless elections, I voted for Bennett instead. But even if Bibi leaves the Likud, I don't think I will ever going to vote for them again - and nor for the other right-wing and religious parties that have supported them over the last year.

The Bibi Bloc, consisting of Likud, Smotrich's party and the charedim, proclaimed from the outset that the Bennett-Lapid government is a "dangerous Leftist government which will harm Israel." They declared that their single overriding goal to bring down the government. And because they defined "bringing down the government" rather than "protecting Israel's interests" as the goal, this became a way to rationalize causing all kinds of harm: "the ends justify the means."

First, they voted against the Citizenship Law - the very law that Likud itself originally instituted for reasons of national security. They gleefully joined forces with the Arab Joint List to actively enable countless thousands of Palestinians to obtain Israeli citizenship (some of whom likely do so in order to make it easier to carry out terrorist attacks). For the sake of the goal of weakening a government that is harmful to national security, they sought to harm national security.

Then there was the rape law. When, God forbid, a woman is assaulted, any DNA from the attacker is held as evidence for three months, after which it is disposed of. The government proposed a bill to ensure that all samples would be stored permanently. This is particularly important because sometimes it can take a while for victims to summon the courage to come forwards. Such a bill is of obvious importance, and has absolutely no downside whatsoever. And yet it was voted against by all 51 members of the Bibi bloc.

There wasn't even any attempt to claim that there was any innate reason to vote against the bill. It was simply done because of a policy of opposing whatever the government proposes. In an interview, Likud MK Miki Zohar said “It is a pity that I had to oppose, it is a very important thing. But there is something more important than anything – that the State of Israel be led by people fit to do so.”

Then, this past month, there was the bill proposed by the government to help those who sacrifice the best years of their lives to serve the country by giving them stipends to cover two-thirds of the cost of higher education. Of course, the Arab Joint List opposed this, but they were joined by the Likud! Once again, the Likud rated opposing the government as being more important than helping those that need and deserve it. (After enormous backlash from the public, and Gantz offering them a ladder down from their tree, Likud and their partners eventually agreed not to oppose the bill, merely walking out when it was submitted.)

In a leaked recording from a closed-door Likud meeting, Miri Regev was heard saying as follows:

“We decided as a party that we’re going to be a fighting opposition and that we want to bring down this government. So there is no queasiness [when voting against] the disabled, and there is no queasiness with cases of rape, and no queasiness with battered women, and no queasiness with soldiers, because we all understand that this is the rationale.”

When the recording was leaked and uproar ensured, Regev didn't even apologize or try to walk back her comments. She felt no shame whatsoever.

It is a tragic, insane situation. This government has been in power for a year, and they haven't done anything anywhere near as harmful to right-wing interests as Bibi and the Likud have done over the years. It was the Likud (including Bibi) who voted for the disengagement from Gaza! Meanwhile, 51 MKs representing right-wing and religious communities seek to act against national security, against protecting women from rapists, against helping IDF veterans, all because it's allegedly more important to save Israel from a "dangerous" leftist leadership! Is there no point at which it becomes apparent that the opposition are themselves the ones inflicting the actual harm, in their lust for reclaiming power?

It's clear that the Likud's top priority is not Israel. Rather, it's the Likud. That is why I can't see myself ever voting for them again. And nor for Smotrich or any of their enablers. I agree with Likud MK Miki Zohar: "there is something more important than anything – that the State of Israel be led by people fit to do so."


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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Chazal and NASA

Did Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud) have supernatural knowledge of the natural world? Do their statements prove Torah MiSinai? One alleged "proof" to this effect is regarding the length of the lunar month.

The argument goes as follows: In the Gemara, Rabban Gamliel says that the average length of the lunar month is 29.530594 days. NASA, with years of research using satellites, telescopes, laser beams and supercomputers, calculated the mean length of the lunar month as 29.530588 days. The difference between this figure and that used by the Sages is only 0.000006! How could Chazal have calculated it to such accuracy? They must have had supernatural sources of knowledge.

This sounds amazing!

But is it true?

I've spent 25 years researching such alleged proofs based on incredible statements by Chazal. I approached them initially with a very trusting (and naive) perspective that since they are proposed by dynamic and brilliant rabbis, they must be true. Much to my dismay, every time I looked into such arguments, I found that they fell into one of three categories:

A) They were ambiguous statements that could be read in all kinds of different ways

B) They were things that non-Jews also knew, and do not require supernatural sources of information

C) They were things that are not actually true.

The lunar cycle argument is no different.

First, let us consider whether the claim is, on the outset, reasonable. Recall that Chazal did not know where the sun goes at night. Accordingly, it does not seem that they had supernatural sources of knowledge for astronomy.

Still, one could argue that perhaps the supernatural knowledge was only for particular things. So let's look at what Rabban Gamliel actually said, and the context in which he said it:

"The Sages taught in a baraita: Once the sky was covered with clouds, and the form of the moon was visible on the twenty-ninth of the month. The people thought to say that the day was the New Moon, and the court sought to sanctify it. Rabban Gamliel said to them: This is the tradition that I received from the house of my grandfather: The monthly cycle of the renewal of the moon takes no less than twenty-nine and a half days, plus two-thirds of an hour, plus seventy-three of the 1,080 subsections of an hour." (Rosh HaShana 25a)

Looking at the Gemara, we see that it is being misrepresented. Rabban Gamliel was not giving the average length of the lunar month. Instead, he was giving the minimum length of the lunar month. He explicitly says this ("takes no less than") and it's also the context, in which he was responding to a question about whether it could be Rosh Chodesh already. The lunar months actually vary in length by several hours, because the speed of the moon’s rotation around the earth is not uniform. And as a minimum length of the month, Rabban Gamliel's figure is several hours off.

But in any case, not only do we no longer have Rabban Gamliel's statement being scientifically accurate, we have an innate problem. The duration that he gives as being the minimum length of the month is actually the mean length of a lunar month, as used in the Jewish calendar! Several Acharonim already recognized this problem. It is therefore presumed that what we have here is a textual interpolation (see Sacha Stern, Calendar and Community. A history of the Jewish calendar second century BCE – tenth century CE, Oxford, 2001, p. 201). What Rabban Gamliel originally said - which makes sense as a response to the situation discussed in the Gemara - was that the monthly cycle is no less than 29 days. Much later, someone added the additional units of time to the text, mistakenly thinking that it should be "corrected" to the mean value.

There is no way to know when this textual interpolation took place. But what we do know is that, whenever after Rabban Gamliel the average length of the lunar month was known, the exact same figure was known in antiquity by other peoples - and even earlier.

The exact duration of the month found in the Gemara was already given by Ptolemy, in base-sixty notation, in the 2nd century CE. He in turn was quoting Hipparchus, from the second century BCE - nearly two hundred years before Rabban Gamliel. And Hipparchus in turn had received this value from the ancient Babylonians! There have even been discoveries of Babylonian cuneiform tablets which contain this number.

In summary: Rabban Gamliel's statement, as the minimum length of the month, is not actually correct. As a later interpolation of the mean length of the month, which was employed in the rabbinic calendar, it is correct - but the same value was already known much earlier by the Greeks and even earlier by the Babylonians.

So not only is this not a proof of Torah MiSinai - it's actually a worse problem. The people using this as a "proof of Torah" argue that such knowledge can only come from a Divine source! So, according to them, this is proof that the Babylonians had supernatural knowledge of the natural world, and evidence that their religion was the One True Religion! 

Fortunately for the rest of us, they are mistaken. You don't actually need supernatural sources of knowledge to come up with this figure. The Babylonians were simply very meticulous astronomers. By measuring the duration between eclipses, one can figure out the mean length of the lunar month. (See here for an extremely technical discussion.)

Now, if you're a person that likes these kinds of proofs, and you're thinking that I'm just a bitter, cynical person, consider this: I used to be just as starry-eyed a believer in these proofs as you. The reason why I became cynical is precisely because I was taken in by such proofs which turned out to be fundamentally flawed. As Rambam says, the problem with using flawed proofs is that when people discover the flaws, they lose confidence in everything you present. If you use such "proofs" with other people, you'll just be turning others into cynics.

Don't try to "prove" Judaism with gimmicks. It doesn't work and it can backfire badly. Instead, present the extraordinary history of the Jewish People, culminating in our miraculous return to our homeland, along with the incredible meaningfulness and value of a Torah-observant lifestyle. 

 

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Monday, May 23, 2022

The Latest Conspiracy Theory

Here's a nauseating claim made by someone in a comment to my post about Meron:

Have you researched the possibility that it was the government or police that was responsible for the deaths? There are countless write ups about this. Some say that the reason they were killed was so that people would say “chareidim are irresponsible” and use it as a pretext to take away power from their ideological enemies.
Why were the CCTV cameras disabled before the event?
Why were the bleachers damaged purposely in the days before the tragedy?
Why did people pour water on the slope and make it slippery?
Why did the police block off some of the exits?
Why were the police brutalising chareidim before the tragedy? On video btw.
All these need answering too.
 
Now, there are different ways of responding to such offensive stupidity. One is to respond, point by point, to each of the claims:
 
Q. Why were the CCTV cameras disabled before the event? 
A. They weren't. There is plenty of camera coverage.

Q. Why were the bleachers damaged purposely in the days before the tragedy? 
A. They weren't. They may well have been in poor condition, but that's just because of general incompetence in maintenance.
 
Q. Why did people pour water on the slope and make it slippery? 
A. They didn't. Water was spilled, not deliberately poured.
 
Q. Why did the police block off some of the exits? 
A. To try (possibly very incompetently) to make some order in the chaos.
 
Q. Why were the police brutalising chareidim before the tragedy?
A. Fights between police and charedim happen all the time. (It's generally because of extremist charedim that misbehave, as can be seen in plenty of videos from this week alone.)

But this point-by-point rejoinder neglects the larger issue here. This conspiracy theory about a secret government/ police plan to kill large numbers of charedim in order to make them look bad and remove power from them (whatever that means) suffers from the same basic problem as every conspiracy theory, whether regarding the Holocaust, Jewish control, Covid, the vaccine, or the "stolen" US election.

The basic logical flaw in all conspiracy thinking is that it negates both Occam's Razor and Hanlon's Razor. Occam's Razor states that a simple explanation for events is much more likely to be true than a complicated explanation. Hanlon's Razor, which is based on Occam's Razor, states that one should never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
 
Conspiracy theories look for the most complicated, sinister explanation of events instead of the simplest explanations. But the reality is that most events can be very simply explained by ordinary phenomena. In particular, it's always much more reasonable to attribute problems to the prevalent problem of human incompetence than to deliberate, malicious, complicated plans to create them. Conspiracies, on the other hand, require levels of organization and cooperation and secret-keeping which human beings are just not very good at, as anyone responsible for managing large teams of people can attest. 

Note too that the comment about Meron uses a tactic popular among conspiracy theorists, of making a list of (alleged) questions. Asking questions is a good thing when the questions are based on fact and the person asking actually wants the answers. But in these cases, it's a sneaky way of spreading disinformation while maintaining an appearance of intellectual honesty. The conspiracy theorist who presents a list of questions is not looking for the most plausible answers - he is looking to plant a wild accusation in people's minds. Presenting this in the form of questions means that when people ridicule it, the conspiracy theorist can accuse them of just trying to shut down open debate and suppress truth. (See this excellent article about the problem, and this article about how this disingenuous technique is used to great effect by Tucker Carlson.)
 
There are all kinds of psychological mechanisms which make conspiracy theories appeal to people. It's appealing to think that you have access to "suppressed" or "secret" information. And it can actually be psychologically reassuring to believe that events, including harmful events, are not random or unplanned (or, in the case of Meron, the result of charedi unwillingness to take professionalism seriously), but are the calculated result of a plan - even if it being planned by evil forces. And in the modern world of social media and electronic communication, it's very easy for people thus inclined to hook up with many other such people to reinforce their attitude.
 
It wasn't that long ago that conspiracy theories were a joke, fodder for a TV show called The X-Files, and nobody took them seriously. It's a pity that this flawed line of thinking is making a resurgence.
 
 

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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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