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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.