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When Rabbis Quack
There is a forthcoming highly significant and very tragic publishing event which relates to the rationalist/ anti-rationalist divide in the Jewish community.
A few days ago I was sent a top-secret draft of a book that is going to be published shortly. I have no idea how the person who sent it to me obtained it; it certainly did not reach me with the permission of the author. It's so top-secret that every Rav to whom it was sent for a haskama had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and the manuscript was returned to the author afterwards.
The book is in Hebrew, written by a Rabbi Rafael Szmerla (or Schmerla), who is a Dayan in a Lakewood institution under the auspices of Rav Shlomo Miller of Toronto. The book is titled Ki Ani Hashem Rof'echa, and it is dedicated to advocating for alternative medicine. The chapters discuss auras, chi, reiki, energy healing, distance healing, meridians, acupuncture, applied kinesiology, emotional freedom techniques, dowsing, homeopathy, radionics, crystal healing, geopathic stress, feng shui (the mystical practice of it, not the furniture arrangements), iridology, reflexology, and other forms of quackery.
For almost all these things, the author manages to find sources in the Gemara or Rishonim which discuss them. He thereby simultaneously refutes the possibility of their being idolatrous and demonstrates them to be effective, which he further supports with quotations from quacks. (The only one that he rules unacceptable is feng shui.)
The author claims that those who argue against such alternative medicines due to their being "scientifically undetectable" have been influenced by "Greek philosophy" and will end up as heretics. He stresses that accepting the truth of these treatments even without a scientific justification is an essential part of Jewish identity, as per the declaration at Sinai of naaseh v'nishma, we will do even if we do not understand. And at the end of the chapter on radionics, he adds that relying on such treatments helps our faith in the Sages, who were scientifically far ahead of us.
The book concludes with an explanation of why it is called Ki Ani Hashem Rof'echa and an outright attack on modern Western medicine. Sicknesses are supposed to turn man toward God in prayer and bitachon, but modern medicine and the "arrogant doctors" instead turn people away from God. How many people, he bemoans, trust doctors more than Chazal?! The philosophy of modern medicine, he declares, "stands in complete contradiction to Torah values." The solution is to turn to alternative medicines, which are based on the idea of energies, which in turn are mystical/ metaphysical forces related to spirituality, which flow from God, and thus the practice of alternative medicine leads people to God.
The essential point that the author gets wrong is that the reason why the medical establishment is against all this quackery is not merely that there is no satisfactory explanation for how it could work. Rather, it is because there is no evidence that it works. Anecdotal evidence does not count for much, especially when you take into account the placebo effect. The only meaningful test of whether a treatment works is double-blind testing, something that all these alternative remedies invariably fail.
Unfortunately, this is something that the author explicitly rejects in a footnote in the concluding chapter. He states that requiring double-blind testing and rejecting anecdotal evidence due to the placebo effect stands 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.
Now, there are all kinds of silly superstitious sefarim that are published all the time. In the past, I have written about To Fill The Earth: 277 Segulos and Advice on Fertility Issues, In Personal Consultation with Maran HaRav Chaim Kanievsky, Shlitah, which includes such gems as "A dried pig's testicle, pulverized and ground up, will help a woman conceive; if the right testicle is used, a male child will be born; if the left testicle is used, a female child will be born." Such books are not necessarily worth getting worked up about. But this one is different, and much more problematic, for three reasons.
First, telling people to use ineffectual alternative medicine is not harmless, especially when it is accompanied with an overt rejection of conventional medicine. There is a real risk of people neglecting to treat themselves in a way that is actually helpful.
Second, there is likely to be a strong connection between rejecting conventional medicine and not vaccinating children. [UPDATE: I was just sent a lengthy responsum by Rabbi Szmerla in which he strongly opposes vaccinating children.] England's Jewish Chronicle recently published a fascinating and disturbing article about the very low rates of vaccination in the charedi Jewish community. This has catastrophic results; one charedi girl developed meningitis and required a triple limb amputation, r"l. The question discussed in the article is that it is not clear why vaccination rates are so low. One of the frum doctors interviewed says that his patients tell him that their rebbe told them not to vaccinate, but when he speaks to the rebbes they vehemently deny it. Others suggest that the charedi women are so overwhelmed with their children and with working to support their husband's bitachon that they simply don't have time to take their kids to the doctor. But it seems to me that there is another factor involved. This is a community that is taught to believe that the scientific establishment is the enemy. If the scientists are wrong about dinosaurs and about global warming and about spontaneous generation, they are probably wrong about vaccinations too.
The third reason why this book is particularly dangerous is has the most extraordinary range of haskamos. These include from Rav Moshe Shternbuch and Rabbi Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss of the Eida Charedis, Sefardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel of South Fallsburg, Rav Mendel Shafran, Dayan Gavriel Krausz from Manchester, and more. Now, these people are from the very right wing of charedi Orthodoxy, or other extreme anti-rationalist communities. However, there is also a glowing haskamah from Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, who is generally regarded as the most moderate (and most important) of all the American charedi Gedolei Torah. Unfortunately, while he has in the past demonstrated some rationalist sympathies (and it was his haskama to one of my books which was the reason why they were banned, due to his zealous opponents), he is already known to be strongly opposed to vaccines (see my post Frum Ways To Die).
In his haskamah to Ki Ani Hashem Rof'echa, Rav Kamenetzky begins by noting Chazal's statement that "the best doctors go to Hell" and explains that it is their arrogance which takes them there. He writes that we have to silence those who insist upon empirical evidence. While, he notes, there are charlatans/ idolaters in alternative medicine, nevertheless there are also divinely-placed forces that we should make use of to heal people.
My question is as follows. If and when there is, G-d forbid, an outbreak of measles or mumps in the frum community, or people who neglect conventional medicine in place of alternative therapies, and as a result children suffer amputations or deaths, who is responsible? Is it the Gedolim who advocate against conventional medicine in favor of alternative medicine, but who genuinely believe that these things work because they are too uneducated to know otherwise? Or does the responsibility lie with the other rabbonim and people in the charedi world, many (perhaps even most) of whom do not believe in alternative medicine, but who have given the Gedolim the elevated status to have a large following, and who will be too afraid to speak out against this sefer due its prestigious haskamos from Gedolim? There is a cheshbon hanefesh that needs to be done, and better sooner than later.
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