Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Daas Torah of AntiVaxxers

Somebody emailed me two publications from the Jewish anti-vaccination group called PEACH (Parents Educating and Advocating for Children's Health), one called The Vaccine Safety Handbook and the other called All Your Vaccine Questions Answered. They are beautifully produced, with highly visually appealing layout, and an abundance of information. I fear that they will make a large impact.

Now, I didn't read through them carefully. And I will make an honest admission: I really don't know much about vaccinations. I certainly don't have rejoinders for every point made in these booklets.

Nevertheless, I am confident that the global medical and pharmaceutical community is correct about the importance of vaccines. And, flicking through the anti-vaccination publications, some things jumped out at me as examples of their deeply flawed epistemology.

One was a quote from Bill Gates at a 20190 TED Talk, printed under the heading "Vaccination for... Depopulation?" The quote read, "The world today has 6.8 billion people. That's heading up to about nine billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care and reproductive health services, we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent."

"It's all just for PR. Really, he wants to KILL CHILDREN"
Oh my God! Vaccinations are part of an effort by the most powerful billionaires to kill people and reduce the world population!!!

Of course, this isn't what Gates actually said at all. I knew that even before checking the Snopes article to see exactly how it was distorted. But it's not just that it's a distortion of what he said. The point is that if you think for a moment that Bill Gates, a man who works full-time to give away most of his billions to charity, wants to commit mass murder, and moreover, that he would state this in a public lecture, then your critical thinking skills clearly need an upgrade.

The other thing that jumped out at me was a letter from one of the main rabbinic forces behind the antivax crowd, Rabbi Rephoel Szmerla from Lakewood. I've discussed his views in my post When Rabbis Quack, in the context of his book Alternative Medicine in Halacha. That book, aside from promoting quasi-idolatrous "energy healing" nonsense, makes the dangerous and utterly false claim that "Contemporary medicine is the product of modern science, which denies the existence of Hashem and His Omnipresence." Szmerla also rejects the modern scientific techniques of requiring double-blind testing and rejecting anecdotal evidence. His reason is that these stand in direct contradiction to Chazal, who only required that a treatment appear to work on three occasions to declare it effective. Which is indeed true, but it is also the reason why, in Chazal's time, life expectancy was very low and mortality rates were horrifically high. And if you're going to go with anecdotal claims which are not supported by double-blind testing, then you're open to every single quack remedy ever.

Anyway, in this antivax publication, the letter from Rabbi Szmerla states in part as follows:
...Although the medical establishment claims that only a few adverse effects have been proven to be related to vaccines, Hashem who knows the reality will hold the responsible parties accountable even for what is yet unrecognized by science (here he sources the Gra - N.S.). Although many people do not view the moral responsibilities of a school this way, we know that Daas Baalei Batim Hefech MiDaas Torah. Vaccines are not 100% effective, which is why vaccinated children sometimes contract those diseases and can carry their germs. In other words, vaccines are only a form of hishtadlus. Ultimately, it is only Hashem's protection that guarantees the safety and health of our children. It is only by acting according to His will - not the medical doctors - that a school and its students can be worthy of his protection.

This paragraph contains so much dangerous nonsense. Let's start with his trying to scare people that Hashem will punish them for adverse effects from vaccines even if science does not yet recognize them. His source for that is the Vilna Gaon's statement that one is punished for sinning even if the sin is accidental or one is forced to do it, since aveira gorreres aveira and one would not have been put in that situation if not for an earlier sin. Now, first of all, the Gra's view is not conventional, to put it mildly. Second, for a school to do the best it can for the health and safety of its students is not an aveira, it is a mitzva!

Then he invokes the notion that "Daas Baalei Batim Hefech MiDaas Torah" - that Daas Torah is the opposite of popular belief. He seems to utilize this to mean that there is no reason to reject something, even if it goes against all conventional wisdom. In other words, "let's be completely irrational, it's a mitzvah!"

Finally, Szmerla argues that being protected from illness only comes as result of following Hashem's will, not that of doctors. He thereby insinuates that the two are mutually exclusive. But the halachah is very clear, that Hashem's will is that we are supposed to follow the opinion of doctors! We even transgress Shabbos and Yom Kippur if doctors say so!


I don't think that my blog post is going to sway the antivaxxers, for him this is a deeply-held identity. Still, I do think that it would be valuable for someone to produce an equally detailed and professionally-produce rebuttal to the antivax publications.

24 comments:

  1. Shimon Perez and Yossi Belin claimed that Arafat and Abbas didn't really he want's to destroy Israel. I guess people hear or don't hear what they want.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8BobKXkrt8M

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Although the medical establishment claims that only a few adverse effects have been proven to be related to vaccines, Hashem who knows the reality will hold the responsible parties accountable even for what is yet unrecognized by science "

    Straw man argument.
    Who says any parties have anything to be responsible for.

    ReplyDelete
  3. You should not have included links to the PDFs of antivax lies. Describe them, sure, but do not spread them.

    ReplyDelete
  4. You needn't fear they will have a big impact. They sent out their stuff like last year or something. Old news

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anyone know the origin of the phrase "Daas Baalei Batim Hefech MiDaas Torah"?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Years ago R' Harry Maryles' blog ran a piece like that, and then brought several examples where the former was right in every major turning point in Jewish history in the last few centuries.

      Delete
    2. It isn't a Mishna, Gemara, or anything like that. In fact it has nothing to do with how it is used today. In Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 3:3 see commentary Meiras Eynayim where dayanim are warned not to sit on a Bais Din with unknown co-dayanim since they may be unlearned and rule against you 2-1 and the outcome of bais din will make you look bad. It is professional advice for dayanim, since Torah learners and unlearned baal habatim often see things differently.

      Delete
  6. Who needs this rebuttal? Who will benefit? These anti vaxxers are not open to that kind of stuff

    ReplyDelete
  7. Isn't the current measles epidemic an eye-opener for at least some of them?

    ReplyDelete
  8. Friendly SpelllcheckerDecember 2, 2018 at 7:41 AM

    "One was a quote from Bill Gates at a 20190 TED Talk" -- Time traveler?

    ReplyDelete
  9. R. Hershel Schachter explains the Sema about "Daas Balei Batim" in a 2007 Torah Web article("It's Just Plain Common Sense"):

    "In connection with this idea many will refer to the words of the Sema (in his commentary to Choshen Mishpat) that the "sechel of the baal habayis" is just the opposite from the "sechel of the Torah" (in yeshiva parlance a "baalebatishe svora" usually refers to a common-sense argument.) In yeshiva circles a witty comment is attributed to the Ohr Sameach: when a talmid chacham can not figure out any given halacha, let him ask a baal habayis, and then do the opposite. The halacha will always be the opposite from what the baal habayis will think that it should be. The story goes that on one occasion the talmedei chachamim did not know what the halacha should be in a certain instance, they asked a baal habayis, and he happened to give the right answer. They approached the Ohr Sameach and asked him, but didn't you tell us that the sechel of the baalei battim will always be the opposite from the sechel of the Torah? Whereupon he answered that the baal habayis must have had a bad day! He was not thinking straight for a baal habayis!

    ...Needless to say, all of these exaggerations are ridiculous. The Sema never meant to say that the sechel of baalei batim is always the opposite from sechel haTorah. A layman who is not familiar with the intricacies of physics or biology will often be mistaken if he will apply common sense to those disciplines; and the same is true of the self-contained discipline of Torah. But very often we will use common sense in establishing halacha! The Talmud tells us that by way of sevorah we can establish a din de'oaraisa!"

    ReplyDelete
  10. Still, I do think that it would be valuable for someone to produce an equally detailed and professionally-produce rebuttal to the antivax publications.

    Dr. Paul Offit does just that, with several books (and a few YouTube videos) on the subject.

    ReplyDelete
  11. " His reason is that these stand in direct contradiction to Chazal, who only required that a treatment appear to work on three occasions to declare it effective."

    Three kids had vaccinations. None got measles and none got side-effects. Therefore, Daas Torah requires vaccinations. QED.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Another reason I don't believe in "dass toyreh." It's avodah zarah to think a mere human is infallible in any way.

    ReplyDelete
  13. This is getting way out of hand. Right now Jerusalem already has an outbreak and Beit Shemesh is very close second. By next year the numbers could already be catastrophic. At what point will anti-vaxxers wake up and realize that they are collectively to blame for the tzaras they are causing klal yisrael.

    Where do Rabbanim get to the right to abuse Torah by telling people to go against the recommendations of the medical community. If a Doctor tells you that you must eat on Yom Kippur otherwise you will die and your Rabbi suggests that you ignore the advice of your doctor because "Daas Baalei Batim Hefech MiDaas Torah" and "ultimately, it is only Hashem's protection that guarantees the safety" then your Rabbi is chayav benafsho. The same thing here. Rabbi Szmerla comments are confusing and possibly against Torah and he may ultimately be chayav benafsho when people really start dying (chas vshalom).

    ReplyDelete
  14. Nasan are you suggesting that the people to whom was said "ki huh chochmoscho" are sharing the same conspiracy theories with the Taliban?

    ReplyDelete
  15. Dass Torah is superior to Daas balei batim? Really? But the rabbis of antiquity adopted the medicine, mathematics and science of their age. And they continue to do so. What does that say about their vaunted Daas Torah? Years ago I remember BMG was on the financial ropes. They imported lawyers and accountants and we're rescued. I don't see why they needed to do that, with their far superior understanding.

    ReplyDelete
  16. >" Szmerla also rejects the modern scientific techniques of requiring double-blind testing and rejecting anecdotal evidence. His reason is that these stand in direct contradiction to Chazal,
    Except that Chazal famously conducted an experiment with Cleopatra's slaves using pretty much blind testing to determine the legitimacy of the outcome.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Rav shmerla is condemning himself, if God forbid something happens because of his (mis)guidance he ruled that he will be responsible even in a case unrecognised by science. What a contrast with the injunction of Rav Nachman of Breslev to travel to Odessa in order to vaccinate children against the small pox.

    ReplyDelete
  18. The Antivaxers know the ruling they want before asking the question. They're not interested in rabbinic authority here. They're armed with objections and questions and say to ask a rabbi aquainted with the "facts."

    ReplyDelete
  19. The origin of much of this anti-vax nonsense is connected to a now discredited paper by Andrew Wakefield. Here are the facts of the case:

    In the original paper, Wakefield and 12 coauthors claimed to have investigated “a consecutive series” of 12 children referred to the Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine with chronic enterocolitis and regressive developmental disorder. The authors reported that the parents of eight of the 12 children associated their loss of acquired skills, including language, with the MMR vaccination. The authors concluded that “possible environmental triggers” (i.e. the vaccine) were associated with the onset of both the gastrointestinal disease and developmental regression.

    Even IF the effect were real (i.e. the children were suffering from the maladies that were claimed) it is never good to base a larger claim (i.e. that vaccinations are the culprit for said maladies) when the sample size of the research is not larger than the actual group of researchers who are investigating the major claim.

    Surely, even someone with a basic education can understand that a single investigation with a tiny sample size should not be used to over throw decades of research and clinical experience that not only are vaccinations safe but that they have and continue to save countless lives. All medicines and treatments have drawbacks but the overwhelming success of vaccinations in the 20th and 21st centuries is THE story in recent medical history.

    ReplyDelete
  20. These PEACH people are making a fuzz about vaccination complications. These are regrettable accidents but statistically their incidence is 1 of 600000, complications of measles are 1 of 5000. These people are spoiled, they take for granted the privilege of bringing all their children under the chupah and forget that before the war even with the progress in hygiene 30% of children were still dying in infancy from infections like tuberculosis and diphtheria which are now (for how long with these fools) eradicated by vaccination. There are far more people crippled by polio or even measles than by vaccination. And with the progress of genetic profiling it will soon be possible to pinpoint the people that shouldn’t be vaccinated or must use an alternative vaccine, or people who shouldn’t eat an healthy diet of vegetables and fruits which is beneficial for others but can kill them. On these kind of progress has Rav Nachman of Breslev said once that the Creator does govern His world every time better. I dare to interpret this in this manner, because of dwindling faith we are more and more unable to rest upon prayers and miracle so He bestow more knowledge in the world to help us in a natural way.

    ReplyDelete
  21. These PEACH people are making a fuzz about vaccination complications. These are regrettable accidents but statistically their incidence is 1 of 600000, complications of measles are 1 of 5000. These people are spoiled, they take for granted the privilege of bringing all their children under the chupah and forget that before the war even with the progress in hygiene 30% of children were still dying in infancy from infections like tuberculosis and diphtheria which are now (for how long with these fools) eradicated by vaccination. There are far more people crippled by polio or even measles than by vaccination. And with the progress of genetic profiling it will soon be possible to pinpoint the people that shouldn’t be vaccinated or must use an alternative vaccine, or people who shouldn’t eat an healthy diet of vegetables and fruits which is beneficial for others but can kill them. On these kind of progress has Rav Nachman of Breslev said once that the Creator does govern His world every time better. I dare to interpret this in this manner, because of dwindling faith we are more and more unable to rest upon prayers and miracle so He bestow more knowledge in the world to help us in a natural way.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Why do people think that a Talmid Chacham is also an expert on science and medicine? I can think of two reasons: 1) many people simply do not trust science; 2) they are just plain ignorant of science and medicine. For some reason, they think that it does not take any special education and training to know about, and be able to pontificate about, science and medicine but they do know that it does, on the other hand, take a great amount of education to be able to pontificate about Halacha. It has been beaten into them that, no matter how many times their eyes tell them otherwise, rabbinic leaders are not to be questioned... about anything. Strange.

    I've read an article that analyzes such people and you find among them a great many who also believe at least one conspiracy theory. They are not stupid -- that's a terminal condition -- but they are ignorant and they refuse the cure. One could say leave them to their own special misery, and we should, except when their ignorance clearly effects others. But no amount of facts and reason will move them because, at its core, their devotion to their illogic and unreason is emotionally-based and that is hard to fight.

    ReplyDelete

Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

Is This Book In Cherem?

Is my new Hebrew book, Yitzurei HaPele B'Midrash UveMada , in cherem ? It might seem clear that it is. After all, it's a direct He...