When Rabbis Quack - In Print
Several months ago I critiqued an as-yet unpublished Hebrew manuscript on alternative medicine by a vaccine-opposing rabbi called Rephoel Szmerla. The book has since been published in English, under the title Alternative Medicine in Halachah, and was the subject of this week's cover story in Mishpacha magazine (which was somewhat of a puff-piece for the author, but also interviewed physicians who firmly disputed the validity of alternative medicines).
The book's 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 claims to refute the possibility of their being idolatrous and demonstrates them to be authoritative and also 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 such treatments even without a scientific explanation or even a double-blind test of their efficacy 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.
My critique of the book, When Rabbis Quack, warned of the danger in encouraging people to use alternative medicine and discouraging conventional medicine. It became the most-read post of all time on this blog, with nearly 20,000 hits, and it also reached some important people in the charedi community. I would like to think that I can take some of the credit for the published version of the book having the following first paragraph:
The purpose of this sefer is to clarify the halachic status of various alternative therapies. It is not my goal to encourage people to discount conventional medicine. Indeed, rejecting standard medical treatment will sometimes constitute a transgression of the commandment, You shall take great care of your lives (Devarim 4:15). In the case of a serious condition, one should seek rabbinic guidance before pursuing alternative therapies in lieu of conventional care.
This is a welcome statement, albeit that I do not think that people with serious conditions should ever refrain from conventional care, and I dread to think what kind of "rabbinic guidance" readers of this book might seek; it could well be Rav Chaim Kanievsky rather than Rav Firer.
Still, the thrust of the book unfortunately stands in stark contradiction to this disclaimer. It is not just about "clarifying the halachic status of various alternative therapies" - it argues for their efficacy (using such absurd "evidence" as contagious yawning being a demonstration of the influence of energy from "auras"). And it is not only all about not only encouraging people to believe in all kinds of quackery, but it also encourages them to see conventional medicine as problematic in that it leads people away from belief in Hashem. The penultimate paragraph of the books declares that "Contemporary medicine is the product of modern science, which denies the existence of Hashem and His Omnipresence." That statement is not only utterly false, it is also dangerous.
The Mishpacha article concludes with a quote from Rabbi Szmerla about the unreliability of science, arguing that just as scientific theories from 100 years ago have been disproven by modern science, "What will happen in the next 100 years? Anyone who believes modern science has all the answers is naive." Now, I don't think that anyone believe that modern science has *all* the answers, but that doesn't mean that there is any reason to take quackery seriously.
We've heard such dismissals of modern science before, and as before, it demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the history of science. Science does not "keep changing"; rather, it keeps being refined. First it was discovered that the earth is spherical; then it was discovered that it is a slightly flattened sphere; then it was discovered that it's slightly more flattened at one side then at the other. At no point will science change its mind and decide the earth to be flat. Likewise, at no point are the fundamentals of physics and physiology going to be utterly overturned.
Telling people that scientists don't know what they're talking about is plain silly. Telling people that with regard to medical science is actually dangerous.
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The original critique of Rabbi Szmerla's book can be read at the following link: When Rabbis Quack. On a different note, you can read my article about the Balfour centennial at this link, and you can download my monograph on the Chicken Wars at this link.