A Cherem on Alternative Medicine
My, this is an interesting development. Rabbi Rephoel Szmerla's book Ki Ani Hashem Rofe'acha, which was published in English under the title Alternative Medicine In Halacha, has been banned. The letters of condemnation were written by a range of rabbonim, and are accompanied by letters of retraction from some of those who wrote approbations, along with general letters of condemnation of energy healing and Eastern medicine (note that this presumably not preclude the legitimacy of certain evidence-based non-Western medicine). You can download the collection of letters from some twenty rabbonim, at this link. I also received a critique of the book written by Niv Hadar, a colorful character who is sort of an Israeli frum version of James Randi, which you can download here. (UPDATE: It seems that these letters came out a few years ago; I'm not sure why they only just reached me.)
Now, in my post When Rabbis Quack, I criticized this book very harshly. And so you might think that I am thrilled with the cherem. But actually, while I think this cherem is overall a good thing, I can't personally be so happy about it. The reason is that by and large, the rabbonim banning it are not doing so for rationalist reasons.
The main reason why Alternative Medicine in Halacha is problematic is that it promotes an anti-scientific view that is literally dangerous to human life. It urges for the validity of anecdotal evidence over double-blind trials. It negates the significance of the placebo effect. It denounces modern Western medicine as standing in complete contradiction to Torah values. It comes as no surprise whatsoever to discover that the author is an anti-vaxxer.
The letters of condemnation, on the other hand, focus on a different charge: that the book promotes idolatry, darkei Emori (occult practices) and the usage of prohibited supernatural forces. I'm not convinced that the first charge is any more true of this book than of various kabbalistic works (interestingly, the book does condemn certain practices, especially shamanism, as outright idolatry). With regard to foreign practices which attempt to wield supernatural forces, on the other hand, the book is certainly guilty as charged - but what is the actual reason why these things are forbidden? As someone inclined towards rationalism, I would say that the problem is exactly as Rambam says: that these things are quackery and nonsense. But the rabbonim issuing the condemnation are more in line with Ramban's view, that they may indeed work but are prohibited. In fact, they take a specific anti-rationalist approach with regard to Szmerla's attempt to interpret Elisha's revival of the boy in terms of healing energies, which they denounce as trying to undermine the supernatural miraculous aspects.
The condemnation is nevertheless a well-deserved embarrassment to the rabbonim who originally endorsed the book, which include those that are part of the Lakewood Suicide Squad and who banned my own books, such as Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel and Rav Shlomo Miller. Unfortunately, this also includes Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, who despite being generally among the more enlightened of charedi gedolim, is nevertheless very much in the anti-rationalist camp on medical matters.
The bottom line is that the cherem is overall definitely a good thing. The condemnations are against Eastern, alternative, non-evidence-based medicines, and promote Western medicine. In fact, in a most significant statement, the Giluy Daas signed by a number of rabbonim (and co-signed by Rav Chaim Kanievsky) includes a "general rule: one must be concerned about any medical practice that does not function absolutely naturalistically, according to the opinions of the generation's scholars."
Yet the frum community is rife with superstitious and pseudoscientific practices that do not function naturalistically. As noted in another post, Rav Chaim Kanievsky himself endorsed a book of segulos which included such things as eating dried, pulverized and ground pig's testicles to conceive - the right testicle for a boy, the left testicle for a girl. No doubt many people will differentiate between Eastern superstitions and holy segulos. Still, naturalistic is naturalistic. Perhaps the cherem on Alternative Medicine will have the beneficial effect of encouraging people to think along more scientific lines. Lives will be saved as a result.
(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.)