About That Brazilian Strawberry Salamander...
Gosh, I didn't realize that it would get that much attention. The Biblical Museum of Natural History's Facebook post about the "Brazilian Strawberry Salamander" received over a hundred thousand views! The majority of people realized that it was an April Fool's Day prank, but a very large number of people thought that it was real. It was even shared to a Facebook group called "God's Wonders - No Photoshop"!
Aside from the very cute image, it seems that this was a perfect fake hybrid creature, much better than the "crocoparrot" or other Photoshop creations on the internet. The Brazilian strawberry salamander struck the perfect balance between the plausible and the outrageous. In fact, had it not been April 1, many more people would have fallen for it. I think that there is a valuable Torah lesson to be learned here.
The longstanding conflict between rationalism and mysticism, which received notable expression in the controversy over my books, had a major focus on Chazal's knowledge of science (or lack thereof). The notion that the Sages of Talmud were mistaken in accepting the existence of mice that grow from dirt, lice that grow from sweat and salamanders that grow from fire was deemed unthinkable and heretical. My opponents variously insisted that these creatures really do exist, or that the Sages never actually believed that they exist and all the rabbinic commentaries misunderstood them.
What lies behind this position? It's the fear that if the Sages mistakenly believed in creatures that do not really exist, this reflects badly upon them. Some people are afraid that it would make them look foolish or gullible.
Yet the Brazilian strawberry salamander demonstrates otherwise. Nowadays, even the least educated person has an incredible knowledge of the animal kingdom, having seen countless animals in photos or on TV. And yet there were still many people who thought that the Brazilian strawberry salamander was real. And why not? The information was shared by a respectable source. And, as several people pointed out, there are plenty of real creatures that are only slightly less incredible. Why shouldn't there be a salamander that grows from strawberries?
Kal v'chomer, how much more so, was it perfectly reasonable for the Sages of the Talmud to accept the existence of mice that grow from dirt and salamanders that grow from fire, the existence of which was attested to by the leading naturalists of the day. In fact, it would have been downright bizarre had the Sages not believed in such creatures! The fact that we now know that such creatures do not exist is not the slightest reason to lessen our respect for the Sages of the Talmud. There is no reason to try to convince ourselves that either such creatures do exist or that the Sages never believed in them.
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