Sefer Review: Alternative Medicine in Halacha

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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.

25 COMMENTS

  1. To be a chazan you need to be able to carry a tune.
    To be a pasken you need to have shimush
    Please don`t forget that the Torah gave a Rofeh reshus LeRapos.
    Medarf ehrsht zein ah “Rofeh” uhn noch dem siz bakumen dee reshus LeRapos.

  2. Yankel miller said, Badchunas doesn’t go over automatically to the son(s), Rosh yeshiva, etc. does, why? because to be a badchan darf min kennen.

  3. Szmerla quotes Richard Gerber as a scientific authority.

    To grasp what type of new-age missionary Gerber really is, research the profoundly unhinged New-age icons he lists as those who had a profound influence on his “thinking” including Alice Bailey, Leadbeater, R. Steiner, D. krieger… and a channelled spirit named Seth (no, we did not make this up) (p.19,par.2).

    He also dedicated his book to “the vast spiritual Hierarchy…”(apparently referring to the Theosophist notion thereof).

    The Hierarchy are the purported forces who are believed to seek to “gradually dissolve” *Orthodox* Judaism (Bailey, Externalisation of the Hierarchy p. 544,551).

    Presumably, that’s ok with some people who live in our neighborhoods, as long as it’s gradual *enough* for them to make a few million dollars off Orthodox Jews while their faith is being dissolved.

  4. Before making assumptions about a book, it is necessary to understand the subject matter. The posted review would benefit greatly from an introduction to the basics of both the halachic and the factual issues addressed by the book.
    Additionally, before even touching Halachah, the book is packed with distortions of facts — and of the positions of those Rabbonim and New-Age critics whom he seeks to “refute.”
    For example: the author mis-portrays and falsely dismisses the well-known opposition of HaRav Yisroel Belsky ZT”L (p.29,note 8; p.75-7 note 49). On p. 76-77, he seeks to whitewash a popular New-Age healing system of its New-Age and Taoist Avoda Zorah elements, by relying on an ALLEGED phone conversation with the founder of that new-age system (p.76-77) — contradicting what that founder published in his OWN training manual, studied by frum students/practitioners [in the section on on conscious and ‘energetic permission’].
    Rav Aharon Kotler warned decades ago that the greatest threat to the Jewish People is not antisemitism ,or even assimilation, but rather ‘Ziyuf HaTorah,’ perversion of Torah (Mishnas Reb Aharon, vol. 1, part 2, ch.3, #6).

  5. Most of if not all of these “treatments” are nonsensical New age “treatments” which have no scientific basis.
    It is a shame that “fruma” Yidden are supporting these kind of snake oil treatments.

  6. Good evening Matzav – Thank you for this review.

    My wife loves to use homeopathy, but is can be more expensive than the medicine from the pharmacy.

    Can you let me know who the this reviewer is? This seems to be the very first time that Daniel Shapiro has written for Matzav.

  7. Till seeing this book, I didn’t understand all the maar mikomos in the Torah that talk about kishuf being a problem in ikvisa dimishicha

  8. my husband is going to Biegelisen tonite and i will ask him to bring up a copy tomorrow.

    does the book discuss Santería?

    I have always wondered if there are Santería is mutar.

    When I lived in washington heights, many of the non-jews practiced it, and never saw any sefer discuss is.

    • Santería is a system of beliefs that merges aspects of Yoruba religion brought to the New World by enslaved Yoruba people along with Christianity and the religions of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

      • thanks Sender –

        I remember in washington heights when we lived there, how some of the non-jews who did Santería would schecht chickens.

        They said it had real healing powers.

        i wanted to know if rav Szmerla’s sefer dealt with Santería.

        i know Santería is considered by some to be voodoo. but if rav Szmerla permits the other things, i just wanted to know what his approach to Santería is.

  9. Mrs. Perlowitz,
    I know someone who had been familiar with Santeria in Washington Heights. It apparently is considered akin to Voodoo. If it doesn’t work, there’s no reason to consider it. IF it does work, it is not al pi teva, and thus likely a genuine form of kishuf. The Steipler [Karyono Di’Iggresa 1:6] is inclined to prohibit kishuf ‘healing’ practices – based on the very danger itself involved in such occult practices.
    If you can get any of the public shiurim of Rav Yisroel Belsky [eg. his Hakhel tape, or irgun shiurei Torah tape on the topic], or his sefer, he was uniquely equipped to address these issues. Rav Belsky provides the proper Torah perspective on New Age therapies AND ideas: stay away.
    Some are prohibited as Darkei Emori, others a form of kosaim or kishuf, others as Avodah Zorah.

    And the accompanying ideas “explaining” such practices “al-pi teva” (sic) are a smeltering compost of kefirah and avoda zorah myths, absurduties, and phantasms — which is precisely a secret to their mass-appeal to those who opt to believe in those overtly preposterous, New-Age “explanations” [see Rambam Moreh 3:29].

  10. This review is a bigger chilul Hashem than the book itself.

    1)The fact that many of the Rabbonim who gave haskomos have withdrawn them, and others have forbidden Jews to own this book, and the booksellers from selling this book, is testimony to the fact that even the people who the author thought he had won over to his side, have seen through his lies and ignorance.

    2)Thank you for writing that he is a practitioner, some of the people who gave haskomos did not know this, but this shows what his true agenda really is!

    3) Sczmerla's half quotes are deliberately designed to fool the innocent frum Yid into falling for his kefirah. One small example. He writes on page 46 that "Buddhism is not a religion centered on the worship of a god, but a way of life based on the quest for enlightenment through meditation and negation of the self". He makes it sound so tame. The truth – Buddhism is similar to Taoism and they are both absolute kefirah – the tachlis of which is to have NO god! Indeed, the tachlis of them is for the worshiper to bring himself in his koach hadimyon to the madreigoh of god, and to be god and to control the world through his/her koach hadimyon. Any and every book or article on the subject says what it is. Szmerla and his ilk seem to be the only ones in the world who does not know this.

    4) In their circles prana is a neevad. It is the energy of the sun, not the sun that we know, but the sun that Nimrod was busy worshiping, and prana is worshiped by those Easterners today. In Reiki they intend it to do what they want – ie they channel it and control it. Ascertaining that any nivroh has its own ability to control is kefirah.

    5) In Yaaros Devash droshoh 4 The Rebbe Rav Yonoson writes that the purpose of building the migdal bovel was to connect the Sar Haaretz with the Sar Hashomayim, through their powers of sorcery, so as to unite these two powers, making it very hard to separate them and to break their bond”, and lehavdil elef alfei havdolos Paul Wildish YS in his Book of Chi writes similarly “There is heaven, the yang energizing force which streams from above. There is earth, the receptive, creative, material world below. And there is Man, humanity, designed to be the balancing and integrating factor between
    heaven and earth. Identical language – integrating the forces of heaven and earth! No New Age-mitechiloh ovdei avodoh zoroh hoyu – they are the old age, we are the new age!

    6) We say the Eibershter is the life force and manhig lchol hebreuim and they say chi is – afra lefumayhu!

    7) He writes that Rav Belsky misunderstood the procedure of asking permission from the energy before starting a healing session. Nonsense! Rav Belsky read the same sources as anyone else can read. The Health Kinesiology Manual teaches that “before starting to work with the
    patient’s energy systems one must ask permission of the energy to work with it. They write:

    What is permission? Conscious permission is the person’s verbal agreement to work with you.
    Energy permission, even through muscle testing, is the confirmation that the person’s body,
    mind and energy system is ready, willing and able to work with you. Always obtain both levels of
    permission to work before you continue with the HK session”. If this is not clear to Szmerla then

    it shows how little he knew anything about the subject he is writing.

    8) It also shows how little Szmerla understands that he is disagreeing with world class poskim,
    who he himself quotes. From Rav Belsky at the bottom to the Steipler who unequivocally stated
    in a printed teshiva that remote healing is kishuf and to the Sefer Hachinuch who describes
    pendulum or muscle testing as koseim and to the Rambam and the Ramban and most rishonim
    who describe koseim practices the way Szmerla does but with the bottom line being that it is
    osur as opposed to Szmerla who, as per the training of his guru rebeim, claims it is absolutely

    mutar!

    8) On page 63 he compares muscle testing responses in the practitioner’s koach hadimyon and koseim,
    to the lie detector, which is detecting PHYSICAL changes in the body, not imaginary changes in the
    person’s imagined energy fields, detectable only to the trained koseim or faker.

    9) Last but not least, the entire concept of energy healing, is based on manipulating the energy
    emanating from the sun or the earth that hovers around the person as an aura, which Szmerla, using his
    overactive koach hadimyon says is the same as what the seforim refer to as the babuah, is arguing
    outright with the Bnai Yissocher on Sukkos that says that only a Jew has a Babua, not the goy, so Szmerla
    is arguing with the Heilige Rebbe Rav Meilech as well.

    Enough said.

  11. Response to “Emes:”
    Thank you. Its seems like you abbreviated your response, relative to what you could say on this topic, on which you have done good research.
    one note: Paul Wildish, in his landmark new-age work “the book of chi,” also describes the universal energy as being not only the Borei [the Creator and constant Animator of the Universe], but also the ‘Manhig’ of the universe, making the stars go around etc. That confirms- even more – that when new-agers use the terms “universal energy,” chi, et. al.they are referring to what is a divinity notion — attributing their heretical beliefs [ie. physicality, subject to location, change, etc., as in channeling, manipulation] to that Universal life force energy.
    This is one of the greatest distortions of the book: it whitewashes the kefirah, the heresy, of the New Age notion of chi/ universal energy.
    And the one attempt to refute it is on p.39 of Szmerla’s book, where Szmerla quotes [clearly out-of-context] a well-known, and thoroughly halachically-unreliable, New-Age missionary [Gerber], to provide his “Hechsher bli-pikpuk” to the [1] concept of chi, and to [2] the morass of chi-attributed new-age therapies. Moreover, Szmerla reveals his weakness on this most central issue by failing to produce anymore that a single solitary [mis-quoted] source to “prove” that universal energy isn’t a heretical notion.
    [Btw, Szmerla’s authority on matters scientific, Gerber, later is the very book quoted by Szmerla, believes in billions of gods; in case anyone lost a few, he can probably suggest where to replenish them…]
    Thus, his book is the ultimate vindication for those warning against the [financially-fueled] pandemic of New-Age missionary propaganda flooding into the minds of so many less-informed and naive people.
    M

  12. Reply to Moshe L. Breker, and Yankel:
    Moshe Leib,
    Thank you, that review by Ben Rothke is, in a significant way, the best I have seen online so far.

    Yankel,
    Mr. Hoffman’s review was definitely different, but not nearly “different enough” to make a “difference” – in impacting the minds of those in gravest need of proper information, ie. those that do perceive [accurately or not] somewhat of an effectiveness in these methods, that goes beyond the pervasive factors of placebo, natural recovery rate, and common fakery.
    That audience needs to understand that these New-Age methods – and their avodah-zorah/ kefirah [heresy] -related attributions of effectiveness – are prohibited on various Halachic grounds, EVEN if [or *especially* if] they indeed do have some inherent effectiveness.
    Granted, these methods do NOT operate as consistently as a truly natural or scientific technique would. But those studies refuting the “teva” / “scientific” description do NOT exclude the possibility of occasional effectiveness beyond placebo et.al. Ie., kosaim and kishuf [forms of the Occult] could sporadically work, but not like a scientific method would [since the Occult operates on different, paranormal rules not subject to scientific inquiry].
    And THAT occultic phenomenon may be what many, many frum people are being duped by.
    And the reason they are being duped is, in part, because fraudulent marketing propaganda wordsmiths with [even some with black hats] cover up the connection to, and simanim [indicators] of kosaim and kishuf.
    thereby, many innocent people don’t even consider the occult as a possible explanation for the ‘miracles’ they ‘see.’
    What also must be clarified about the book is:
    It’s not JUST that the book perverts the metziyus, the facts, with regard to HOW effective these methods are.
    It’s entire worldview is off. In fact, the author’s reveals his own worldview to be a New-Age one, where every other mystery or phantasm is ‘explained’ by a “Universal Field Theory(sic)” of some mysterious “universal life-force energies” floating around and about.
    This far-Eastern oriented worldview is at odds with basic foundations of both Torah and da’as/ seichel [“reason”].
    The book seeks to put a frock and gartle onto basic divinity precepts [chi, yin, yang] of foreign religions, from Taoism to New-Age religion. He whitewashes New-Age missionaries, like Gerber and Scott.
    And he pretends he “proved” things that he fails to actually prove. He passes off rhetoric and hyper-edited New-Age marketing propaganda for “proof.” And he makes the reader think that the reason they don’t “understand” the “proof” is because they didn’t plumb the depths of his Ageless Wisdom.
    His writing is impressive — because he managed to dupe enough people who drop their guard — after seeing approbations [without reading them to carefully, and certainly not following up with a proper investigatory checkup directly with the signatories]. Thereby, most unsuspecting, trusting readers didn’t feel have reason to suspect that they need to check into every quote, claim, implication, and insinuation and vituperative he makes – before accepting it — “haskomos” nonwithstanding.

  13. The Chi energy meridians were proven by modern science- see the following article from the government website of he NIH. These methods are not just ancient buba maasahs, they are being rediscovered now, and Hashem is allowing us to access so that we can find relief where modern medicine has failed us or made us dependent on excessively expensive drugs.

  14. Chi Energy meridians were proven by science already in 2013, see the following article from the NIH government website

  15. Abelah,
    1.) Firstly, thank you for the reference, but please realize that your highly declarative assessment of Hashgachas HaShem [Divine Providence] in regards to these issues would benefit greatly from additional and careful reflection.

    2.) Secondly, that source you cited { https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3838801/ }, proves absolutely nothing of the sort. That fact is demonstrated for anyone who actually reads the words of that article.
    Even if we are to assume, for the sake of argument, that the article is reliably accurate regarding its reported results — it very clearly does NOT prove anything whatsoever about Ch-i Energy. Literally, NOTHING.

    3.) What is does suggest is possible evidence of some sort of physical phenomenon that could be interpreted as corresponding to pathways claimed by Taoists and New Agers as pathways, PATHWAYS that THEY IMAGINE are traveled by their unproven, *spiritual,* kefirah concept of a Universal Life-force Energy divinity, Ch-i, imagined to flow through the universe, and through every body, afar le’pihem.

    4.) Of course, this study is not even true “proof” of meridian pathways themselves, even when separated from the kefirah/avoda zorah notion of Ch-i.

    5.) This type of extreme, unabashed misrepresentation of data, evidence, and studies is what passes for “proof” throughout the New-Age movement, now including some otherwise frum people – and especially in the aforementioned book reviewed above.

    6.) To say studies like this prove, or even suggest, the mere existence of Ch-i, is akin to the following “proof:”
    A deep 14 inch wide hole is found in the ground someplace in India.
    Some locals then report that a UFO landed, anchoring itself in the ground with its metallic legs, then opened up a side-hatch, and descending 12 foot wide ramp, releasing a horde of purported “aliens,” who proceeded to kidnap an entire herd of elephants [on the endangered species list, lo-olainu], and blast off with their booty!
    And the clear “proof” to this heinous crime committed against the Environment is — the hole left in the ground — by one of the legs of the UFO, of course…

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