Thursday, June 13, 2013

Karma and Chameleons


Upon arriving home one day last week, my wife told me that someone had been desperately trying to reach me. "Something to do with animals," she said, rolling her eyes. I had barely been in the house for a few minutes when he called again.

"Someone told me that you keep exotic animals... do you have a female chameleon?" he asked.


As it happens, I do have a female chameleon. Since chameleons are mentioned in parashas Shemini, I keep them in my nascent museum. But it's not the Israeli variety, which is illegal to catch, and fares very poorly in captivity. Instead, it's a very unusual variety from Africa, known as Jackson's three-horned chameleon, and in Israel, it's priceless and near-irreplaceable. It's not for sale, I told him. I was surprised that he wanted one; it's unusual for someone to attempt to breed chameleons. Which is the only reason why someone would specifically want a female chameleon, right?

Wrong.

He told me that he didn't want a female chameleon for breeding purposes. Nor to keep as a pet. He wanted it for a reason that you'd never, ever guess, not in a million years.

He wanted it to cure someone's cancer.

When I found my tongue again, I tried to explain to him that female chameleons don't cure cancer. But he wasn't interested in hearing what I had to say.

There are others cases of belief that diseases can be moved from people to animals. In Jerusalem, there are "kabbalists" who "transfer" jaundice from people to pigeons, provided that the pigeon is of the same gender as the person. But as Dr. Fred Rosner notes, it appears that the pigeons die not from absorbing the jaundice, but from being crushed in the hands of the healer. And the patient recovers because - well, people sometimes recover, especially with the help of a powerful placebo.

There is also a long-standing belief in the ability of lizards to cure disease. In 18th century America, doctors recommended that cancer patients swallow several lizards daily. My famous Stincus marinus is known in Hebrew as the "pharmaceutical skink" due to the ancient belief in its curative powers, and dead specimens can still be purchased today in the Arab shuk for this purpose. Certain types of geckos are recently being caught in vast quantities, due to a belief that they cure cancer and AIDS.

Some people will doubtless latch on to a news report that a certain compound produced by pregnant lizards may provide important information on the origins and treatment of cancer in humans. But this has nothing to do with curing cancer via eating a lizard, or placing it on a person!

I find the whole matter rather sad. I remember that when my father, z"l, was dying of cancer, the oncologist warned us against resorting to quackery. People in such situations are often so desperate that they try anything to change their karma. And others, sensing vulnerability, come out of the woodwork to peddle their snake-oil, and in some cases they have convinced themselves of its efficacy. At the time, someone called me to tell me about a special tefillah that works wonders in such cases. "Great!" I said. "What is it?" No, he said, it only works if he says it. "Okay," I said, "go ahead!" No, he said, he doesn't do it for free, only for payment. "Okay," I said, "but do I get a refund if my father doesn't recover?" No, he said, he can't absolutely guarantee that it works in every case. But he knew for sure that it was very powerful! A friend of mine told me that when his mother was dying of cancer, a rabbi tried to sell them mushrooms, for thousands of dollars, that would cure it.

Can it be categorically proven that chameleons and geckos and mushrooms don't cure cancer? No, of course not. But it also can't be categorically proven that there is no giant invisible pink fairy in Manhattan. The point is not whether something can be categorically disproved. It is whether there is the slightest reasonable basis to believe that it is true, such as to justify investing time, money and hope. The last one is tricky - placebos can be very powerful, and hope can be beneficial. Still, it has to be weighed against the costs, including the cost of false hope.

Cancer is a horrible, horrible illness. Sometimes, it can be cured. And sometimes, it can't - and chameleons won't change your karma. We are not in control of what happens to us - only of how we react to it.

(On a lighter note, check out my post about a penguin ba'al teshuvah, over at the Zoo Torah blog.)

51 comments:

  1. What is the heter to demand money for saving someone's life by prayer?

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  2. Even a doctor, who has permission to heal, technically can't demand payment.

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  3. "Can it be categorically proven that chameleons and geckos and mushrooms don't cure cancer?"

    I notice you left tefilla out of that paragraph, even though the same reasoning seems to apply.

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  4. Many years ago at a Shabbat table in Los Angeles I heard a much more elaborate version of the Yerushalmi pigeon cure for hepatitis: If I recall correctly, the pigeons were shechted and split open to be placed over the liver as a poultice; when the pigeon cooled down it was replaced by a fresh one. The patient of this tale was a FOAF of its teller, who included the detail that the first pigeons became quite black, and the treatment was finished when they stayed a normal dead pigeon color.

    But don't diss mushrooms, they're pretty interesting.

    As a medicinal food, maitake has several notable attributes. Foremost, several studies show it modulates glucose levels, which can be especially important for limiting the development of Type 2 diabetes (Kubo et al., 1994; Konno et al., 2001; Preuss et al., 2007; Lo et al., 2008). Diabetes causes neuropathy, renal (kidney) disease and retina degeneration. Nearly 8 percent of Americans have diabetes -- and this trend is accelerating. It is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. Although this preliminary evidence looks enticing, robust clinical studies are needed to prove effectiveness for diabetes control in humans. Since the use of these mushrooms for this purpose cannot be patented, funding will have to come from government grants or private sources.

    Maitake has also been widely researched for its effects on the immune system and various cancers. Several researchers corroborate that maitake causes apoptosis ("programmed suicide") of cancer cells and contains anti-angionenesis properties. That means they can restrict the proliferation of bloods cells that feed tumors. One reason may be that maitake mushroom fruitbodies are rich in complex polysaccharides, in particular the heavy and complex 1,3; 1,4; and 1,6 beta-D-glucans. In an interesting development for the dietary supplement industry, Wu et al. (2006) found that the mycelium of maitake produces a greater array of lower molecular weight sugars and exopolysaccharides (heteromanans, heterofucans, and heteroxylans) than the mushrooms. These molecules are known to activate significant immune responses, enhancing the ability of immune cells (neutrophils and natural killer cells) to kill and consume lung and breast cancer cells (Deng et al. 2009; Lin, 2011).

    One portion of these complex sugars, known as maitake's "D fraction" (a type of beta glucan) shows activation of a host defense response by stimulating proliferation of some immune cells. Since activity of these cells has also been documented with non-fractionated samples, other immune activating components are likely to be discovered in maitake besides this one form of beta glucan (Kodama et al., 2010; Stamets, 2003). However, in a 2009 critical review of the cancer-fighting properties of maitake by Ulbricht et al., the authors found the data intriguing but not necessarily convincing due to ambiguities in the design, reports, and markers used in the clinical studies to date. In other words, the jury is still out on whether or not maitake will significantly improve a patient's survival from cancer.


    The article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-stamets/maitake-mushroom_b_2908332.html) is referenced.

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  5. As is the one this information on enoki mushrooms is excerpted from (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-stamets/mushrooms-health_b_3069976.html):

    In 2009, the journal Immunology published a study showing that ingesting enoki extracts containing these substances significantly improved survival rates of mice infected with Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), a leading cause of cervical cancer. Two sets of mice were infected with the HPV oncovirus, and one set was given an extract of enoki mushrooms.

    Tumor protection assays showed that 60 percent of mice co-immunized with HPV-16 E7 plus Fve, as compared with 20 percent of those immunized only with HPV-16 E7, remained tumour-free for up to 167 days after challenge with the tumour cells.
    The positive immune reactions were augmented from expansion of HPV specific interferon (IFN)-gamma-producing CD4(+) and CD8(+) T lymphocytes cells (Ding et. al., 2009). In a later study by Yin et al. (2010), Chinese researchers found that three unique beta glucans found in enoki mushrooms (beta-linked glucose, galactose, mannose and fucose sugars) induced a significant increase in cellular nitric oxide expression from murine peritoneal macrophages. Nitric oxide production by immune cells is one of the key mechanisms that our bodies use to destroy diseased cells. Enhancement of these types of immune responses is seen consistently with many medicinal mushrooms that have been tested by cancer researchers.

    Paul Stamets, the HuffPo author, is certainly nogea badavar since his company makes mushroom products, some of which have been used in some of the studies he cites. But still, mushrooms are pretty interesting.

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  6. SQ - See Marvin Fox, Interpreting Maimonides, the section on tefillah.

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  7. Get the guy's name. I fear he may try to steal it, and it's better if he knows you can report him to the police.

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  8. "People in such situations are often so desperate that they try anything to change their karma."

    Some even pray to God. (Sounds like something a sarcastic atheist would say, but I'm actually a believer.)

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  9. Why use the Hindu term karma, instead of the Hebrew mazel or English fate? Just wondering!

    Though I agree with the sentiments of your article, I'm often frustrated by the hyper-rationalist "Skeptic" movement that insists that no forms of alternative medicine can work, because they don't approve of the theoretical explanation offered. It doesn't matter how many well-designed studies show the efficacy of certain therapies (such as acupuncture, or even chiropractic) -- because they discount the underlying theory for its nonconformity to standard Western biomedical models, they either ignore the studies or find a way to depict them as fundamentally flawed.

    There's a huge difference between quackery (such as certain special $1000/dollar prayers or claims that homeopathy reliably cures cancer) and established traditions of using complementary medicine for particular purposes. Even experimental treatments for major diseases based on diet, fasting, herbs or whatever, may be worth trying if there is no other alternative.

    There is so much we don't know. Some animal studies suggest, for example, that regular fasting might cure diabetes (in addition to prolonging life), and that antibiotics of all things cure a large proportion of lower back pain. 100 years from now our treatments and theories of why they work might differ considerably from what is believed now.

    Even so, it's definitely worth fighting vigorously against the worst quackery, especially when it causes great animal or human suffering. For example, bears in China have been suffering unspeakably horrible torture from people harvesting their bile, even though a synthetic version of their bile is widely available and has the same properties.

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  10. For the record, there IS an invisible pink fairy in Manhattan.

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  11. You know, when the caller tells this story, you’re the evil rationalist who refused to sell him the life-saving gecko.

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  12. Joe in AustraliaJune 14, 2013 at 6:24 AM

    Jackson's Chameleon is actually Trioceros jacksonii. The other fellow you mention may be what we now call Scincus scincus, the skink known as the sandfish.

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  13. "It doesn't matter how many well-designed studies show the efficacy of certain therapies (such as acupuncture, or even chiropractic)"

    Well, it matters because there isn't even one. There's never been any sort of study proving that anything other than modern Western medicine works in any way.

    Let's be honest: Asian medicine rests entirely on some mythical life force flowing through our bodies. It's bunk. I always have a sad chuckle when I see things like "certified practitioner" or "certified program" at universities. Certified by *who*?

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  14. When my mum ז״ל was ill, my father was told by a friend that she would definitely get better since that is what the Lubavitcher Rebbe had answered when he asked him (across all those mile, knowing nothing about her). After she died, a visitor to the shiva pointed out a problem with the mezuzah on our front door and said that was the reason she had died. If I wasn't a rationalist by nature, these two stories would have made me one.

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  15. "Why use the Hindu term karma, instead of the Hebrew mazel or English fate? Just wondering!"

    Because "Karma chameleon" is the name of a pop song from the 80s.

    "Jackson's Chameleon is actually Trioceros jacksonii. The other fellow you mention may be what we now call Scincus scincus, the skink known as the sandfish."

    Correct on both counts. (I wasn't saying that they were the same thing!)

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  16. What about acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and eating placentas? A certain Freelance Kiruv Maniac endorses that!

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  17. I believe Victor Stenger, one of the main religious skeptics, performed an experiment, where people would pray for terminally-ill patients. One set would know that someone is praying for them, another set wouldn't know, together with a control.
    He concluded that it's not clear that prayer even helps those who knew that someone is praying for them--i.e., even the benefit of knowing that someone is out there praying for you, is debatable.

    My simplistic answer to his "study" is: who says G-d is in any way obligated to respond to our prayers in the way that we want? Yehudah Waxman, the father of Nachshon Waxman ע"ה, was asked by a reporter after Hamas killed his son: "What about all those people praying for your son? It seems their prayers weren't answered." Yehudah Waxman replied: "G-d did answer. The answer was 'No'."

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  18. Yasher koach, Rabbi, it's a rare thing to see an orthodox fellow stick out his neck to speak up about quackery at a time when it's so prevalent and acceptable as "alternative" or "complementary medicine" not just among the observant (Jews, not Torono Zoo penguins) but in general society. A sensitive topic this, when even voicing indifference could lose one friends.

    It all began, this commenter believes fervently, when his own local drug store began selling copper bracelets about twenty years ago. "Customers keep asking for them," explained Phil the pharmacist (names have been changed to protect the innocent). Indeed. And so, from Phil's long-gone little pharmacy the crank-med infection swept over the world faster then Yersinia pestus and now we have posh homeopathic "pharmacies," looking more pharmacy-like than the real thing with the real medicines and we're seeing real physicians referring folks to their new "colleague," the chiropractor. And so it goes.

    All the best to Miss Karma (informally, Karmie), your lovable creepy-crawlie beastie, Rabbi. Do keep the old girl safe and happy in her playpen of imported driftwoods and pretty cork bark, away from the compounder's mortar and pestle. As for that ghastly "Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma-chameleon" jingle and the inevitable visual flashbacks of Boy George, if any one can recommend a purgative remedy, a potion, a horn of a rare beast, a bracelet.... anything?

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  19. As for that ghastly "Karma, karma, karma, karma, karma-chameleon" jingle and the inevitable visual flashbacks of Boy George, if any one can recommend a purgative remedy, a potion, a horn of a rare beast, a bracelet.... anything?

    I recommend the Four Tops. Merely substitute the great Levi Stubbs and "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch" for Boy George.

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  20. FYI, the mainstream "yeshiva view" doesn't put much stock in these "segulos" either.

    Segulos seem to be more of an Israeli phenomenon . . .

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  21. Yishai writes: I'm often frustrated by the hyper-rationalist "Skeptic" movement that insists that no forms of alternative medicine can work, because they don't approve of the theoretical explanation offered. It doesn't matter how many well-designed studies show the efficacy of certain therapies (such as acupuncture, or even chiropractic).
    ----

    That's funny. AS Nachum alluded to, the frustrating thing is that "alternative medicine" believers have persuaded the US government to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars investigating treatments with no plausible mechanism of action. None of these studies have found any alternative treatments to be effective, but of course that hasn't stopped quacks from advising people to use them.

    By the way, do you know what they call alternative medicine which has been scientifically proven to work? Conventional medicine.

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  22. "Yersinia pestus" that should be pestis but I do tend to pedantry.

    Some of the readers of this blog are no doubt old enough to remember the "low fat is good" delusion that dominated medicine for decades.

    Some key concepts: cis fatty acids are not physiologically equivalent to trans fatty acids; isocaloric does not equal isometabolic. Ignoring these facts -- long well established in the literature - was a way of life in medicine, and hence government and industry for decades. It was almost certainly a major contributor to the current epidemic of type II diabetes.

    For a fascinating case study of how these poorly founded ideas become accepted in medicine, read Gary Taubes' Good Calories, Bad Calories. On balance, you would probably have been better off getting nutritional advice from a chiropractor.

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  23. R' Natan, it appears that your opponents tend to either get indicted or go off the deep end. Now we have a reference to testimony from a woman who consulted with R' D. Kornreich and was told that she could eat her oven baked placenta - at least in the form of a pill. I don't know if that falls under the rubric of 'eiver min hachai' since it's expelled from the body, and swallowing a pill is not considered eating. However, it is included in the severe covenantal curse found in Deut. 28, "The woman who is most refined... will eat the placenta.. in the absence of anything else (food)..". Placenta eating with such a stigma (besides the natural revulsion of eating something from a person) is a strange thing for a rabbi to permit.

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  24. On the topic of bizarre medicinal treatments, the radvaz has a teshuva regarding the permissibility of eating the foreskin of an infant as a cure for a barren woman.

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  25. And the patient recovers because - well, people sometimes recover, especially with the help of a powerful placebo.

    A couple of nitpicks:

    "Jaundice" is a symptom, not a disease. The underlying disease is most likely a form of hepatitis that they are getting treated for or that is self-limiting and it is not surprising that they recover. IIRC, Dr. Rosner records one case where the underlying disease was cancer and the patient died. So I would make your statement a bit stronger and say that the vast majority are going to recover which pretty much "guarantees" success.

    Another factor in this is that part of the recovery is just waiting. The one person who I talked to who was convinced by this cure was told by doctors that he was going to recover if he just waited, but he was convinced because he saw signs of recovery "soon after" the "treatment".

    Finally, you may be overrating the so-called "placebo" effect: it would be better to call it "faulty experimental design". What people think of as the "placebo" effect actually encompasses lots of problems in experimental design. For example, if the experimenter knows who got the "treatment" and who didn't, may record the results differently. Alternatively, on subjective measures like "pain", the patient may not be feeling less pain, but may be influenced by expectations to say so. See here for some discussion and references.

    I don't think that there is much evidence that an actual placebo would improve survival rates in cancer patients.

    That said, if the person will be happier about their life, that may be worth it even if there is no "medical" effect at all. That seems to be the justification for the use of amulets on Shabbos according to the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch who believe that there is no actual medical efficacy. (Or I suppose they could have subscribed to the placebo effect theory as well).

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  26. Because "Karma chameleon" is the name of a pop song from the 80s.

    Aha! Now we see that it was exposure to outside influences in your youth that turned you to the dark side. If you had been cloistered in the shtetl, you would never have turned out this way :).

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  27. Yehudah P. - In a sample of one, it's reasonable to say God said "no". If however, we believe the promise that he answers to those that call out to him wholeheartedly, but it's then shown statistically that he answers "no" as often as he answers "yes" to those who don't - then what's the point?

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  28. In reply to ahg's question:
    I assume we can fill volumes with the answers that have been given to your question. But I just quoted Yehudah Waxman as an example, not as a sample. He also said that he's sure that, even if the tefillah isn't answered as we desired, Hashem somehow stores it away, as a merit for the person for whom we're praying.

    On a slightly different topic: I heard a story of someone who came to the Chazon Ish asking for a berachah for his child, who was born with a genetic illness (I think it was a Tay-Sachs baby, ל"ע). The Chazon Ish said, "You don't need a berachah, you need a miracle."
    What would be the purpose of prayer in such a case, from a rationalist point of view? Is there an instance where prayer is futile, a תפילת שווא?

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  29. Trying to answer my own question: Looking at the Wikipedia article on Tay-Sachs, I see that there are some avenues in trying to find a "cure" for the illness--I suppose therefore there is never a situation which is so forlorn that tefillah is unwarrented.

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  30. Regarding prayer statistics see the following link w comments

    torahmusings.com/2012/08/does-god-test-us/

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  31. Coincidentally with this topic, a puzzling incident at a shabbat luncheon was observed by this man. A guest, an ordinary looking orthodox fellow, "treated" another guest's arm by waving his palms over the alleged problem spot. The action involved a series of air-rubs, pulling and snatching of invisible objects and grimacing indicating a serious effort. Has anyone encountered such a spectacle before? Not unusual among some evangelical and charismatic Protestant factions, but never before observed among Jewish folk by this astonished witness.

    Our blog administrator needs to be urgently alerted to a dangerous crank remedy published here by one tesyaa for treating lingering effects of Culture Club music. He or she recommends substituting with an equally toxic doze of "the great Levi Stubbs and 'Sugar Pie Honey Bunch' for Boy George." (shudder) This would be a textbook example of the "like cures like" behind homeopathy and other quackeries. A stern response in the form of a vernacular expression from the 1980s comes to mind: One would rather chew on tin foil whilst shaving one's head with a cheese grater......

    This correspondent stands corrected and is grateful, Mr Yoel B......and no need to apologise for a passion for detail. You are deserving of a cute and cuddly Y. pestis stuffie, undoubtedly to be included in Rabbi Natan's natural history museum gift shop. Most definitely worth a peek and a giggle:
    http://www.giantmicrobes.com/ca/products/blackdeath.html.

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  32. "By the way, do you know what they call alternative medicine which has been scientifically proven to work? Conventional medicine."

    I suspect you're being overly generous. Are there any alternative treatments that have become conventional? Any at all?

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  33. "Let's be honest: Asian medicine rests entirely on some mythical life force flowing through our bodies."

    Actually, it's worse than that. This "life force" is also called "chi/qi","prana","vital force" or simply "energy". These concepts are not limited to the body, but include some "flow" throughout the universe and has definite pantheistic (i.e. עבודה זרה) implications. This idea is not limited to the East- indeed it exists in the somewhat subterranean world of Western mysticism.

    These ideas are implicit in much of alternative medicine: Homeopathy, Chiropractic, Reiki, Applied Kinesiology, Bach Flowers, Reflexology, Iridology, Acupuncture and countless others.

    Consider the theories of Masaru Emoto. He also believe in this "energy" idea- and that we can effect the energy by negative thoughts, and thus bring tragedy upon ourselves. In other words misfortune is to be attributed to bad vibes rather than to God.

    The words of the תוספות יום כיפורים on Yoma 83 are very pertinent here:
    אבל הרפואות שאנו אוסרין מדרכי האמורי הם רפואות שהמציאום תחילה האמוריים מכח שהיו עובדים ע״ז לשמש ולירח והיו אומרים לחולי זה יעשו רפואה זו ויועיל בסגולה מכח שברפואה זו יש בה כח כוכב פלוני, וכל כיוצא בזה מרפואות שהמציאום האמוריים בסגולה מכח דתם ועבודתם, על זה נאמר ובחוקתיהם לא תלכו

    This is very much a description of contemporary alternative medicine: start with a pagan/mystical theory and develop from it a treatment without concern for statistical proofs of efficacy.

    And nobody summarizes the halacha better that the ערוד השלחן on OC 301:
    אבל העושה מעשה שאין בו רפואה טבעית, וגם הנסיון לא התאמתו - אסור... משום דרכי האמורי...והדבר הברור בזה: תמים תהיה עם ד' אלקיך, ואין להשתמש רק ברופאים מומחים ובתפלה לה' ובצדקה שזה וודאי מועיל

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  34. " I'm often frustrated by the hyper-rationalist "Skeptic" movement that insists that no forms of alternative medicine can work, because they don't approve of the theoretical explanation offered. It doesn't matter how many well-designed studies show the efficacy of certain therapies (such as acupuncture, or even chiropractic) -- because they discount the underlying theory for its nonconformity to standard Western biomedical models, they either ignore the studies or find a way to depict them as fundamentally flawed. "

    This is one of the more common canards from the quacks: alternative medicine is rejected because the mechanism are not understood. Wrong. They are rejected because they don't work. While acupuncture has a remarkable placebo effect- it has not been shown to be more effective that placebo acupuncture (i.e. putting the needles in the wrong place.) Chiropractic too has, after 100 years not been proven to be more than effective than a placebo for conditions other than lower back pain. (And even for lower back pain- it's not better than conventional treatments.)

    That being the case, given that there's limited resources, it makes sense to spend more resources on possible treatments that actually make sense scientifically. It's simply a lie that the conventional scientists reject crazy treatments without trial. There have been experiments and the experiments failed. I would argue that the scientists are too open minded and are wasting precious resources when they study patently ridiculous treatments such as homeopathy etc....

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  35. I'm sorry, Ephraim, but you're wrong. And you're also a walking caricature of the phenomenon I decried. There are plenty of studies showing more-than-placebo effects of acupuncture and chiropractic, no matter how many times ideologues claim (as an article of faith) they don't exist. There's no point in listing studies for you, since this isn't really the place for it, but also because you'll inevitably find some bogus reason to disqualify whatever studies I happen to provide.

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  36. "There are plenty of studies showing more-than-placebo effects of acupuncture and chiropractic"

    Of course you'll find the odd study that will yield positive results. Statistically we will find some false positives. Studies for acupuncture and chiropractic are often of poor quality due to the difficulty of setting up a proper control group. The well designed study that does produce significant results must then be reproduced to verify the results are not a statistical fluke.



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  37. Alas , poor Ephraim cannot win this one.  Quackeries survive and thrive in a narrow ecosystem which claims immunity from empirical inquiry. To challenge them is to challenge claims of received authority, multiculturalism, freedom of religion,  history, tradition, faith, even sublime ineffable holiness.  The quack practitioners need not provide evidence of efficacy, as the active ingredients, curative properties and mechanisms under which they operate are undetectable by the crude, materialistic tools of science. What's more, the very act of skeptical observation sometimes nullifies the effect, offending it, causing it to hide from the emission of bad vibrations created by lack of spirituality and base thoughts which our primitive technology cannot detect yet. Only Special Knowledge, faith, strident claims by credible friends and volumes of miraculous testimonials need be consulted. The quacks need to only stay out of trouble by not claiming too much and not killing too many people, which is hard to do anyway with pure, distilled water containing nothing harmful or just nothing, with "organic" produce whose salient characteristic is expense or with vigorous back and neck massages which can only make one feel good... unless, on a rare occasion, one winds up with a damaged ligament or a torn blood vessel. For such we have insurance, settlements and non disclosure clauses. 

    In the orthodox Judeosphere, the magic-based, certifiably pagan remedies and their unavoidable underlying paradigms Ephraim is troubled by will remain unchallenged for as long as a critical number of quacks draw their parnassah from them, maintaining a massive, untouchable industry which feeds scores of families and institutions supported by them. Built up economic inertia is not easily deflected or challenged, nor is manufactured credibility. The pioneers and purveyors of the new syncretistic pastiche-Judaisms that superficially Judaize the cookiest of beliefs and "raise them up," do not need a conversions beit din and yet operate under license of authority. Thus, in this special universe  a chakra is a mandala, is an Orgone flow diagram,  is a sefira, is broken keilim raining pure sparks of packaged,  marketable Yiddishkeit. As congruous and authentic as Adom Olam sung backwards to the music of Wagner with a one string Japanese zither, but that's the proof of legitimacy.  Go on, brother Ephraim, try beating your head against all that!

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  38. Temujin, while your preaching will only be accepted by the choir, I can say as a choir member that you post was quite amusing.

    That said, all this is nothing new. The halacha talks about amulets and even amulet experts and proven amulets. Nevertheless, even those who thought that amulets were worthless medically permitted their use on Shabbos because of the psychological effect on the sick person.

    I think the best bet is encourage people to go to conventional doctors and get conventional treatments, vaccines, etc. Whatever odd things that they do on top of this (e.g. pigeon cures) is something not worth fighting in general as long as they don't displace conventional treatment.

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  39. Good day, Mr Ohsie, always glad to amuse...very curative, with plenty of anecdotal evidence to back it. And preaching to the choir has salubrious effects too, namely on one's self esteem, does it not?

    No major issues with amulets from this man, though. Provided they are not, ehem, straw men. An argument is certainly to be made for letting people seek comfort from such and not to berate them needlessly, just as one wouldn't take a Teddy from a sick child and lecture her about avodah zarah.

    The issue, though, was Ephraim's apt observation that the popular quackeries are founded on beliefs and world views different from Judaism. This interloper then piped in with the admittedly alarmist thesis that these veritable Trojan horses which have introduced deleterious foreign matter would be nearly impossible to dislodge now, as they have become a significant segment of the economy in the Jewish community. Furthermore, having been superficially "Judaized" to get through the gate and tarhet the Jewish market, they appear to be acceptable, by and large, to the religious authorities. The implication of that of course, would be that the worldviews these quackeries are based on will seep into Jewish thought and affect it which, I presume, many would agree is not a good thing. A much bigger issue than a hamza key chain or a little red string around the wrist.

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  40. Good day, Mr Ohsie, always glad to amuse...very curative, with plenty of anecdotal evidence to back it. And preaching to the choir has salubrious effects too, namely on one's self esteem, does it not?

    I agree, which is why I posted my appreciation. One might even compare it to a placebo :).

    The implication of that of course, would be that the worldviews these quackeries are based on will seep into Jewish thought and affect it which, I presume, many would agree is not a good thing. A much bigger issue than a hamza key chain or a little red string around the wrist.

    I guess that I'm saying that we survived amulets and we'll survive this as well.

    I get that a cure based on praying to an alternative deity is problematic. But I'm not sure that, from a psychological perspective, there is any difference between "life force" and carbon chemistry. One happens to be an accurate description and one inaccurate (or perhaps imprecise enough be even be empirical).

    Modern science also requires an initiation and special language to uncover the deep mysteries. It just so happens that since the answers are correct (or the best model that we know at the time and open to further refinement), you don't need any extra mumbo-jumbo to cover up the fact that it doesn't work, like you do with alchemy and similar efforts.

    And if you want to get a little deeper, is there any difference between a life force and the kind of "soul" that the Rambam describes as giving motive power to the human body? (I can't remember which term he uses for that but I think that it is "Neshama".)

    Since this involves predictions of the future, I could most certainly be wrong...

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  41. "I guess that I'm saying that we survived amulets and we'll survive this as well. "

    There are definitely halachic issues with superstitious treatments. They could very well be biblically prohibited as דרכי האמורי. I cited the Aruch HaShulchan because he gives the clearest halachic statement on the issue. If a practice is ineffective and is not scientific- it's forbidden.

    "I get that a cure based on praying to an alternative deity is problematic."
    Most superstitious medicine is not idolatry, however all are probably forbidden under the lesser prohibition of דרכי האמורי.

    "But I'm not sure that, from a psychological perspective, there is any difference between "life force" and carbon chemistry."

    Some centuries ago, when much of biology was a mystery it was quite common to believe in some sort of "life force" that animated inanimate matter. Today, this belief belongs in the domain of mysticism, and has implicit pantheistic connotations.
    This is not just theory. If you start investigating the beliefs of those who promote quackery, you'll often find they are in fact idolators.

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  42. "I guess that I'm saying that we survived amulets and we'll survive this as well. "

    There are definitely halachic issues with superstitious treatments. They could very well be biblically prohibited as דרכי האמורי. I cited the Aruch HaShulchan because he gives the clearest halachic statement on the issue. If a practice is ineffective and is not scientific- it's forbidden.


    I need to look at that Aruch HaShulchan, but it seems to me that he Shulchan Aruch (who was not loathe to classify a practice as Darchei HaEmori) didn't believe in amulets, but permitted them all the same. So maybe not "definite halachic issues", but possible halachic issues. Moreover, the practitioner and patients believe that it does work. Can we really say something is "Darchei HaEmori" because of a scientific error?


    "I get that a cure based on praying to an alternative deity is problematic."
    Most superstitious medicine is not idolatry, however all are probably forbidden under the lesser prohibition of דרכי האמורי.


    I need to look at the Aruch HaShulchan...


    "But I'm not sure that, from a psychological perspective, there is any difference between "life force" and carbon chemistry."

    Some centuries ago, when much of biology was a mystery it was quite common to believe in some sort of "life force" that animated inanimate matter. Today, this belief belongs in the domain of mysticism, and has implicit pantheistic connotations.
    This is not just theory. If you start investigating the beliefs of those who promote quackery, you'll often find they are in fact idolators.


    I don't disagree with your analysis of the scientific history, except to perhaps quibble that the final fusion of biology and chemistry (certainly when it comes to mind) came at about 100 years ago or so. But this is a quibble and a matter of judgement which I'm not even qualified to make.

    What I would argue is thus: if it was OK for the Rambam (who could not have known better), then someone today who simply is ignorant of the advances in science and of the reduction of biology to carbon chemistry, is basically in the position of the Rambam (except for the fact that they have the possibility to enlighten themselves that the Rambam did not have). If so, I still don't see how the belief in a "life force" can be theologically problematic. They could know better, and perhaps should know better, but not every falsehood is a negative theological statement.

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  43. David-
    I can't respond to your well founded points- because I have similar doubts. For the relationship between science and mysticism in regards to effective remedies that are poorly understood, see the Rambam in the Guide where he discusses the Mishna in Shabbat 67; and look at R' Yaakov Etlinger in Binyan Tzion 67.

    I would guess that vitalism was a stop-gap in the 18th century and was not problematic while the theory wasn't developed into a full fledged mysticism that runs contrary to Torah. I don't believe that vitalism today could be reliably divorced from pantheism. Today, the promoters (I'm not talking about the gullible masses who are clients) of such remedies are often mystics even if they attempt to hide behind a cloak of science.

    Some of the major figures in homeopathy tilt towards mysticism. Based on my analysis of a list of prominent homeopaths on Wikipedia, it could well be over 50%. Some are outright occultists, and one even called homeopathy "scientific Buddhism".

    The same is true for Edward Bach, who created Bach Flowers. He abandoned his medical background and delved deeply into a variety of pagan and mystical systems and came up with remedies by meditation alone- without experimenting at all. (I'm very upset that these remedies have a reliable hechsher!)

    Applied Kinesiology's origins are somewhat shrouded to me. However, the major proteges of the founder are all pagans/mystics. They are John Diamond, Alan Beardall and John Thie. They are also liars. When Beardal mentions "hand modes" he actually is referred to Hindu gestures called "mudras". Thie is nomially christain and but admits he draws influence from both western and eastern mysticism and uses "Buddha's hand" and a symbol for his theories.

    Another note: when the crackpots claim their cures are natural- what they actually mean is that they are not man-made. They may in fact be super-natural. The obsession with naturalness is also in my opinion problematic. Akiva proclaimed that the works of man are greater than the works of God. Torah requires us to improve upon, sublimate and transcend nature. Modern conventional medicine follows Akiva!

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  44. David,

    What a relief that Ephraim has grabbed the baton on this sub-debate, for this man would flounder badly over the most basic cheder-level Torah or halacha discussions. So onto the gleanings that have been kindly left behind.

    You said that, Modern science also requires an initiation and special language to uncover the deep mysteries. It just so happens that since the answers are correct (or the best model that we know at the time and open to further refinement), you don't need any extra mumbo-jumbo to cover up the fact that it doesn't work, like you do with alchemy and similar efforts.

    First of all, all science, as we understand it in the more formal manner, is entirely modern and Western. It is the first system of inquiry which requires its practitioners to systematically doubt their assumptions, to test them and present them for evaluating by others regardless of their language, culture or belief. While all scientific disciplines employ their "special language" when working with their subject matter, not to mention a variety of instruments, science as a methodology is elegantly simple and minimalist; anyone can play after taking an hour or two to learn its fundamental game rules. In a nutshell, scientific research deals with universally observable phenomena which can be empirically tested and which can be verified or falsified by anyone. Good science sticks to this rule, bad science violates it. By keeping this principle in mind, we can get a good idea about what science can do and what its limitations are.

    As an example, the Temujin Hypothesis... speculation really... that quackery in the Jewish community has been accepted because of its commercial role and that it will lead to changes in Jewish thought, can be approached scientifically, but is unlikely to ever produce a scientifically valid, empiracally verifiable theory. The reason is that not only would we have to quantify and qualify data, but we'd have to work out acceptable definitions and analytical models. Far more attainable goal would be to develop a scholarly thesis, with selected historical examples, apt analogies and logical and philosophical arguments. That would then be the Temujin Argument, which may be very persuasive and even correct...but it wouldn't be scientifically valid and wouldn't give us a decent hypothesis, much less a theory.

    A sad day for Temujin, but another victory for science, which relies no special knowledge, favours, esoteric wisdoms, a priori assumptions, philosophical rules, traditions or beliefs.

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  45. Our brother Ephraim said, Akiva proclaimed that the works of man are greater than the works of God. Torah requires us to improve upon, sublimate and transcend nature. Modern conventional medicine follows Akiva!

    Temujin had been tugging at his glorious, yak butter-dressed topknot in frustration, trying in vain to think of concrete examples of how quackery presents a danger to the Judaic worldview and nearly missed this superb illustration.

    Rabbi Akiva's teaching will appear as a shocking blasphemy to the pagan mind, implying that God's work is deficient. To the pagan mind nature, both the physical and the presumed spiritual bits thereof, is perfect, looming high above humankind, containing all that Man needs. Whatever is not to be found, Man doesn't need, must do without and is advised to accept fatalistically...an admirably circular argument, one must concede.

    Yet a key component of the Judaic worldview, this man has come to think, is the axiom that the universe was created for humankind, which has been assigned to dominate it responsibly and improve on it with guidance of the Torah. This is a crucial distinction, one which, many have argued, has led to an environment hospitable to science and its impressive accomplishments. Temujin feels better now and will celebrate with a slice of mutton, well tenderized and exquisitely flavoured and naturally salted between his saddle and his pony's flank....yum!

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  46. Ephraim and Temujin,

    I don't think that we have any fundamental disagreement. A few of additional points:

    1) Refuting quackery of all sorts is a necessary evil, but it is just that. There is something satisfying about being able to thoroughly demolish an edifice (built on false foundations), just as it is fun to swing a sledgehammer into a wall that is to be taken down. But there is a tendency to go further and ascribe the evils of the world to this sort of deception. In fact, it's possible to be taken in by hooey in, say, geology (think young earth), but be a perfectly adequate CPA. Where should this person spend his further precious time, in accounting or geology? Not every false belief maintained by an individual is harmful; rational ignorance is often rational.

    2) I agree that there is probably a correlation today between "experts" in modern forms of vitalism and other odd beliefs because, lets face it, vitalism today is an odd belief and it wasn't before.

    3) To pick one last nit:

    First of all, all science, as we understand it in the more formal manner, is entirely modern and Western. It is the first system of inquiry which requires its practitioners to systematically doubt their assumptions, to test them and present them for evaluating by others regardless of their language, culture or belief.

    The ancients had mathematics pretty well sewn up, and it also requires systematic doubt (in fact even more in some ways). The formalism had to be sewn up a bit, but Euclid's proofs are 100% valid, except for a few cheats were he lifted triangles and such. What they didn't have was understanding of the importance of empiricism especially of the quantitative sort. Also, of course there was backsliding with the fall of the Roman empire and the subsequent intellectual deification of Aristotle. People have been thinking hard for a long, long time and here have always been the "doubters" who have moved things along. It's just easier now.

    And lets face it: a lot of our "sciences" (economics?) are still in the pre-science stage compared to physics and chemistry. We grope just like the ancients did in many areas. And forget the (mis)-use of statistics in many fields.

    Does anyone really know how to eat in the most healthy way yet? I remain unconvinced.

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  47. Indeed so, David, no fundamental disagreements yes, but quibble on we must, lest we turn this blog commentary into an echo chamber and bore our gracious host.

    Regarding your first point, the problem with refuting quackery or with debunking is that it is left up to individuals, some of whom may find satisfaction in the process, but mostly to people who have been fed up with a nonsense. As things are, debunkers often face the challenge alone; there is little funding for such, it's hard work to ferret out fallacies, much of our knowledge is interpretive, there are expensive legal risks involved and in the end, there are few rewards in academia or the public sphere. Everyone knows Eric von Daniken; no one knows the names of those academics who debunked him thoroughly more then 20 years ago... and good old Eric's been back, on the educational cable channels of all places, with the same stale goods, as if all's hunky-dory. This man roots for a well funded, prestigious system of inquiry... a Department of Debunking at every university.

    One May certainly live a healthy and full life with a head full of ridiculous bubemeisen, but in the long term the cumulative effects on communities and societies are considerable in terms of resources, wasted work and disruptions. Ineffective or dangerous procedures or treatments which affect millions over the centuries and mass eruptions of pseudo-messianic movements and centuries-old persecutions based on lethal idiocies come to mind. Falsehoods hurt!.... one's catchy line for a Department of Debunking undergrad program poster.

    The perfect diet? Easy. Temujin recommends a general awareness of one's average calorie intakes and expenditures, moderate portions of meats, plenty of grains and leafy stuff, and for good cheer and comradeship with fellow warriors around the hearth, a goat skin of fiery kumiss now and again (this warrior has established empirically through a thorough experimental protocol that a drop or two of good Islay single malt with a bissel of shmaltz herring and zwiebel on a Tam Tam cracker offers a fair substitute.)

    Of course, the "perfect diet" depends on what your criteria are; longevity...which is what we all seem to want... or nature's apparent preference for optimal health and vigour throughout one's fertile years. The latter has been solved; varied diets with moderate amounts of animal fats and proteins and plenty of physical activity resulting in the long-limbed runner body type one sees in cave paintings of hunt scenes. A formula tested and established in the laboratory of life throughout our hunter-gatherer past which represents 99.9 percent of human history. The proof is in the pudding, the said pudding being a small band's spread from the warm cradle at the Olduvai Gorge to all the corners and climes of the planet.

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  48. Er, Temujin, why does Temujin refer to himself in the third person?

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  49. An archaic literary device with a long provenance in some languages and styles and an idiosyncracy, Rabbi. A way to depersonalize contentious commentary with a dollop of levity. Also a means to avoid a multitude of "I's" sticking out of one's text as so many cocktail toothpicks.

    If the Rabbi irritated, Temujin will, with sadness, abandon this affectation of his.

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  50. David, nearly forgot the math anomaly (tiptoeing gingerly around the use of the third person whilst awaiting a ruling). That's a good point and perhaps the solution to the mystery of why mathematics rarely led to a broader research methodology lies in the general reluctance by most pre-Modern civilizations to transfer general or abstract principles to practical and commercial applications. We may perhaps refer to the example of an oft-mentioned curiosity, that the three inventions which changed the West... gunpowder, the magnetic compass and the printing press... did little for their brilliant inventors, who used them primarily for religious purposes or curiosities.

    Similarly, mathematics in the West served esoteric purpose, as in numerology and divination, but stayed at a fairly basic level when it came to practical applications, such as in architectural design or accounting. There, trial and error and the experience of master masons and merchants played a greater role than an understanding of mathematical principles and their broader applications. People can accomplish spectacular feats with little in the way of theoretical knowledge or scientific principles, but we have a hard time believing this. This weakness can be exploited by characters like Von Daniken by reviving, burnishing as new and popularizing Nazi-era lunacies, such as that Aryan ancestral superman gods (converted to more believable space aliens) had to build the pyramids and other marvels...presumably tasks which ordinary people, especially of the more tanned variety, were unable to accomplish.

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  51. "From the midst of those [who feign fear of Heaven] stem all the charmers, whisperers, and “practical” Kabbalists, who hunt souls with their cunningness, and the mystics, who use withered wisdom that came from under the hands of unworthy students, to draw bodily benefit for themselves or for others. The world has suffered much
    from it, and is suffering still" (Rav Yehudah Ashlag, Disclosing a Portion, Covering Two).

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