Alternative Medicine in Halacha By Rav Rephoel Szmerla
Reviewed by Daniel Shapiro
There are few contentious issues in modern halacha that touch on the very foundations of Judaism. The nusach hatefillah is well-established; the primacy of talmud Torah is undisputed; the ikarei emunah have been widely accepted as the thirteen defined by the Rambam. Most areas of machlokes nowadays revolve around the finer details of our mitzvos or new applications of ancient principles. But with the rising popularity of alternative medicine and the fundamental halachic concerns it has raised, this is about to change.
Nobody would question that avodah zarah is one of the three most serious aveiros in the Torah, but there’s very little discussion of its practical applications, because, by and large, there are none in our modern world. Likewise, there is no doubt about the severity of the prohibitions of kishuf (sorcery) and darchei ha’Emori (Emorite practices), but we hardly ever think about them in our daily lives, or see their relevance in today’s society. Until now.
Rav Rephoel Szmerla, a dayan from Lakewood, NJ, has presented the Torah world with a groundbreaking, seminal halachic work: Alternative Medicine in Halachah. It is hard to overstate the significance of this sefer. Most new seforim on halacha stand out in the way they distill, reorganize, or clarify well-established topics, often adding the opinions of recent poskim and some treatment of modern scenarios. This new work, however, delves into topics that have never before been clarified for the broader public, parts of the Torah that the average person knows nothing about beyond Chumash and Rashi.
The halachic issues surrounding alternative medicine are obscure, since the concerns raised are in the arena of avodah zarah and kishuf, and rarely in the past two thousand years have there been applications of these prohibitions to our daily lives. Some unusual cases are addressed in various teshuvos of Rishonim and Acharonim, but those are inaccessible to the layman, and difficult even for the seasoned scholar to extract practical conclusions from.
Rav Szmerla, an outstanding talmid chochom, former rosh kollel and posek who has spent over three decades steeped in the study of Gemara and halacha, has delved into these issues for many years, and has carefully researched and elucidated hundreds of original and often cryptic sources. The fifteen haskamos he received from some of our most esteemed poskim in Eretz Yisrael, England, and America are testaments to his integrity, scholarship, and yiras Shomayim.
Furthermore, he is uniquely qualified to apply these sources practically to a wide range of alternative therapies being practiced today, as he has personally studied some of these therapies in depth, and has had close contact with many practitioners of different modalities for the past twenty-five years. Rather than relying on hearsay or dubious internet research or magazine articles, he has made sure to obtain a first-hand, deep understanding of each topic before attempting to determine its halachic status.
Rav Shmuel Meir Katz, one of the foremost poskim in Lakewood, NJ, writes as follows in his introduction to the sefer:
“Even the ruling of the greatest posek would have little value if he lacked a thorough understanding of the subject matter… We find in Maseches Sanhedrin (5b) a remarkable example of how far our chachomim would go to understand the technical side of halachic issues: Rav said, I lived with a herdsman for eighteen months in order to know which is a permanent blemish and which is a temporary one.”
Rav Szmerla has thus done the Torah world an immense service by investing hours to thoroughly study and understand the precise nature of various forms of alternative therapies, and by devoting years of his life to researching and clarifying the relevant halachic issues surrounding them.
The majority of the therapies addressed in his sefer are based on two concepts: the aura, a subtle energy field that is said to surround and permeate the human body, and chi, a universal, life-sustaining energy that flows throughout the world and within our bodies. Since these two concepts are derived from Eastern spiritual traditions that often contain elements of avodah zarah, there are legitimate concerns that any therapies based on such concepts will be rooted in beliefs or practices antithetical to Judaism and will possibly be forbidden by the Torah.
Thus, Rav Szmerla begins his work by clearly defining these concepts, and explains that they are in fact topics of discussion in early rabbinic works. Rather than being the distorted imaginings of misguided belief systems, they are accurate descriptions of spiritual entities that our sages knew about and validated many centuries ago. The fact that those concepts were then adopted by idolaters and used in inappropriate ways does not invalidate them or make them forbidden to us, just as the sacrificial offerings of sun-worshippers does not forbid us from enjoying the light and warmth of the sun.
Rav Szmerla then proceeds, in the following ten chapters, to examine the nature and halachic status of various common alternative therapies and practices: hands-on healing, acupuncture, kinesiology, dowsing, homeopathy and flower essences, gem therapy, geobiology and feng shui, hypnotherapy, yoga, and shamanic healing. Some of these are unequivocally permitted, some only under certain conditions, and some are categorically prohibited.
Beyond the almost 200 pages of meticulous English-language presentation of practical halacha, there is a much larger, 350-page Hebrew section, modestly labeled “Appendices.” In fact, it is an entire sefer unto itself: thirteen exhaustive chapters that plumb the depths of a wide range of sugyos relevant to a halachic analysis of alternative medicine. After perusing this treatise, there can be no doubt in any scholar’s mind that Rav Szmerla has painstakingly examined every possible issue and concern that these practices raise.
The value of this sefer and the validity of its halachic conclusions are in no way predicated on a belief in the therapies in question. Even the most scientific-minded skeptic will appreciate the clarification of how these therapies claim to work, the principles they are founded upon, and the halachic ramifications that follow. Although most of these practices are not amenable to scientific inquiry, based as they are on concepts of energies and fields higher than physical matter, this does not automatically place them in the realm of idolatry or kishuf. As Rav Szmerla writes (p. 33):
“…the halachic definition of “natural” is not limited to the realm of scientific knowledge. In the eyes of halacha, any phenomenon that can be achieved without incantations or other such rituals is considered natural, whether it is understood or not.”
Scholars and laymen alike will gain immensely from this comprehensive exposition of an area of halacha that has never before been clarified in published works. A new conversation has been started in the halachic community, and this sefer speaks with a clear and authoritative voice. While controversy surrounding these issues will likely persist, Rav Szmerla has presented a rigorous case, and any scholars who wish to dispute his conclusions will have a high bar to meet, indeed.