Lessons from a Tragedy

The tragic death last week of a one-year-old baby girl in Ashdod triggered tense confrontations between chareidi demonstrators and police in Ashdod and Meah Shearim.

Southern District Attorney Iska Leibowitz initially insisted on nothing less than a full autopsy, after the infant lost consciousness from a high fever and died. But the familiar scenario of confrontations over autopsies had a new twist this time. Leading rabbonim reached an agreement with the police, under which the police agreed to rely upon blood samples, spinal fluids, and x-rays, in place of an autopsy.

Before those tests could be performed, however, unknown parties cut their way through the metal bars on the window of the room in which the infant’s body was being held, and took it for burial.

In the past, those who succeeded in thwarting the police and spiriting the body away would have achieved folk hero status in parts of the chareidi community, and, could have counted on not being censured in the mainstream chareidi press. Not so this time.

The two-page report in Mishpacha’s Hebrew newspaper was typical of the chareidi press. The story quoted only those who opposed the snatching of the body. More than once the demonstrators were referred to as outsiders from Jerusalem and Ramat Beit Shemesh. Even more surprising, the police were described as having acted with great restraint and even “silk gloves.”

The report stressed that the local rabbis, including the heads of both the Belz and Gerrer communities, had requested the demonstrators to disperse while negotiations were ongoing with the police. Those demonstrations, according to the Mishpacha reporter, provided the cover for those who succeeded in breaking into the room in the local cemetery where the body was being kept.

In addition, local activists were quoted as fearful that the snatching of the baby’s body would damage the trust painstakingly built up between local rabbis and the police over a period of time, and ultimately result in dozens of autopsies that could have been avoided in an atmosphere of trust.

A beeper message sent in the name of the BaDaTz and the rabbonim of Jerusalem and Ashdod called upon all those with knowledge of the whereabouts of the infant’s body to make every effort to return her to the family and warned that the taking of the body could only result in Chilul Hashem and damage to the cause of all those involved in the struggle for kavod hameis (the honor of the dead).

The refusal to portray the events in Ashdod last week as a black and white morality tale – i.e., a clash between law enforcement authorities totally insensitive to the concerns of halacha and heroic defenders of the faith — attests to a certain maturation on the part of our community. From what one can garner from the news reports in the chareidi press, the local rabbinic authorities in Ashdod never suggested to the police that they had no legitimate interest in ascertaining the cause of death. Rather they sought a way to reconcile the requirements of halacha with the interests of the law enforcement authorities.

BUT WHY exactly did the police have any interest in a tragic death where there was not a shred of evidence of parental abuse? The baby lost consciousness after running a high fever, something that likely happens hundreds of times a day around the world.

Apparently the police had suspicions that the baby’s parents had not followed a doctor’s standard prescription of antibiotics to treat an infection, and had instead relied on an unlicensed alternative healer to cure her.

I have absolutely no idea whether those suspicions are justified, and pray that they are not. But the general issue of whether our community is too credulous when it comes to every form of alternative medicine is one deserving of discussion.

We are all fond of quoting Chazal’s statement “the best of the doctors go to Gehinnom.” And few of us will reach middle age without a horror story or two concerning the hubris of doctors who thought they knew everything and failed their patients on that account. At the same time, the Torah explicitly mandates that a person pay the medical expenses of someone he has wrongfully injured. And when a great Torah figure is in a life-threatening situation, we can be sure that someone will pay to fly the top specialists to his bedside.

A healthy skepticism about the all-knowingness of Western doctors is warranted. But too frequently the flip side of that skepticism is too great credulity about “alternative” treatments that are founded on no empirically tested scientific theory and buttressed by no clinical tests. I remember Rabbi Nachman Bulman, zt”l, once commenting to me about someone he observed going from one alternative remedy to another that such behavior had the taint of avodah zara about it.

He was not referring to the fact that many alternative healing regimes have their roots in actual avodah zara, but to the willingness to leap at every new therapy – the more preposterous the better. As the wisest of all men put it, “A fool believes in everything” (Mishlei 14:15).

Of course, it is unfair to lump all forms of alternative medicine together. There is obviously a big difference between going to a Harvard-trained doctor, who davens next to you, and uses acupuncture techniques that have been applied to hundreds of millions of Chinese over a millennia, and going to someone who claims that his body’s electro-magnetic waves have magical healing powers. And modern medicine is just beginning to tap the curative powers of traditional folk remedies. The discovery of quinine to treat malaria, for instance, is but one famous example.

Torah Jews base their lives upon their intense belief in Hashem, Whose existence cannot be demonstrated by our five senses. Sometimes that leads us to the logical fallacy of concluding therefore that the less empirically supported or scientifically-based a particular therapy is the better.

That can be a fatal fallacy.

Originally published in Mishpacha Magazine June 7

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7 Responses

  1. Ezzie says:

    Excellent, excellent piece. It is in direct contrast with yesterday’s events, but it’s at least a hopeful sign.

  2. Chaim Markowitz says:

    I find it somewhat ironic that you wrote this editorials in a magazine that is constantly promoting alternative medicine and therapies.

    I am curious what your opinion is about these types of articles that appear in Mishpacha.

    Note: Please don’t publish this comment

  3. SephardiLady says:

    G-d Willing cooperation will be the wave of the future.

  4. Nachum says:

    The Tiferes Yisrael comments that “Tov HaRofim LeGehinnom” means “a doctor who thinks he’s the best.” That is to say, a doctor with hubris, who doesn’t consult his colleagues on difficult cases- exactly your point.

  5. Michoel says:

    I think Rav Bulman’s statement could also be understood as follows: Part of the drive toward alternative therapies comes from a desire to see oursleves in control. All we need to do is to tweak a small imbalance of some sort and that will allow our body to “heal itself” as the common phrase goes. This is sometimes couched in frumeh lashonos such as “all illness is fundamentally spiritual in nature.” This can be akin to avodah zara because it is an off shoot of kochi v’otzem yadi. Going to a top physician, on the other hand, sometimes bespeaks a recognition that “I am not in control”. The One Above gave me an illness.

    That being said, I think it is strongly incumbent on the frum medical community to lead the way for the rest of the medical community in showing the importance of humility. The gaavah of doctors is a michshol sh’ain c’mohu and can real undermine the ability of rational folks to have confidence in them.

    For the record, I do use a few alternative therapies that work well for me and I generally try to strike a balance in these things.

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    Yasher Koach on addressing a major issue-the popularity and promotion of alternative medicine a/k/a quackery 101 within the Charedi world. especially as one poster has noted within Mishpacha Magazine. No less a Gadol and Posek than R A Z Weiss has viewed the entire panopoly of alternative therapies as unproven and unreliable, and not worthy of being deemd a refuah for which one could violate Shabbos. R Weiss emphasized that noone can or should rely upon such remedies when mainstream medicine and physicians offer a cure that is documented. If we lived in an age where we did not have to rely upon doctors, Michoel’s statement would be well taken. Since as the Ramban in Parshas Mishpatim stresses, we have never been on such a level, seeking the best medical care is a chiyuv, nit a kiyum or a midas chasidus. The simple fact is that by seeking a physician’s services, you are relying upon the physician’s expertise as opposed to his or her personality or midos tovos because you don’t have the knowleddge that the doctor has. I would state that we as consumers should remember that fact when we seek medical advice, as opposed to seeking a doctor who is humble but incompetent.

  7. shmuel says:

    There are medical treatments which have been PROVEN effective via well conducted (ideally double blind) studies. There are medical and some “alternative” treatments which have been PROVEN ineffective via the same methodology. Unfortunately there are a large number (perhaps the majority) of treatments that have not been clearly demonstrated to be one way or the other. Conventional medicine is commited (at least in theory) to demonstarting the efficatiousness of one regimen vs another. Unfortunately, most practioners of CAM (complimentary and alternative “medicine”) are commited to avoiding such testing. Using unproven treatments is at best speculative and at wost detrimental.

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