Sunday, March 8, 2020

#2317: Refael Szmerla

Rabbi Refael Szmerla (Rafael/Rephoel Schmerla) is a a Dayan in Lakewood, New Jersey, unhingedly deranged fundamentalist and advocate for various types of quackery, including, perhaps most obviously, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. And given his position, his views on quackery and vaccines have to some extent been met with recognition in certain circles in which it is considered uncouth to criticize an authority figure like him, a situation that reflects what is, of course, a familiar recipe for disaster.

His views on medicine – Szmerla doesn’t have the faintest trace of expertise or qualifications in science or medicine, of course – are laid out in his book Ki Ani Hashem Rof'echa, in Hebrew, which goes through auras, chi, reiki, energy healing, distance healing, meridians, acupuncture, applied kinesiology, emotional freedom techniques, dowsing, homeopathy, radionics, crystal healing, geopathic stress, feng shui, iridology, reflexology, and other forms of quackery. And Szmerla endorses them all (except feng shui) by finding sources in the Gemara or Rishonim that, with a liberal dose of motivated reasoning and shoehorning, might be interpreted as discussing them. And (imaginary) support from religious texts is, of course, all he needs: the practices mentioned can therefore neither be religiously misguided nor ineffective. (He also backs up his conclusions with some quotation from various quacks and conspiracy theorists.) Meanwhile, those who argue against such practices, claims Szmerla, have been influenced by “Greek philosophy” and will end up as heretics – of course, scientific evidence for whether or not the practices in fact work is very far from Szmerla’s radar – and accepting the quackery is, as he sees it, an essential part of Jewish identity – indeed, using radionics instead of real medicine helps cement our faith in the Sages, who were ostensibly scientifically far beyond modern medicine. 

And like many books of quackery, Szmerla’s ends with a direct attack on modern medicine: sickness is important since it turns man toward God in prayer, whereas modern medicine’s “arrogant doctors” turn people away from God with a philosophy that “stands in complete contradiction to Torah values” – as opposed to alternative medicine, which is largely based on mystical energies and spirituality. At least he recognizes that the practices he recommends are not science-based – indeed, he explicitly states that requiring double-blind testing and rejecting anecdotal evidence due to the placebo effect stands in direct contradiction to Chazal, who ostensibly only required that a treatment appear to work on three occasions to declare it effective [no idea] – so he can, in fact, not be accused of pseudoscience. But for Szmerla contradicting science is a good thing. (Of course, it also means that the defense he provides might not be quite what more mainstream promoters of quackery really would have wished for.)

The antirationalist position (young-earth creationism, dinosaur-denialism, global warming denialism etc.) Szmerla espouses is relatively common in charedi communities, which is surely part of the reason for the low vaccination rates in some of them – even someone considered among these groups to be “moderate”, Rav Shmuel Kamenetzky, has endorsed antivaccine conspiracy theories, stated that “the best doctors go to Hell” because of their arrogance, and written that we have to silence those who insist upon empirical evidence whereas altmed quacks are divinely-placed forces that should be recruited to heal people. And Szmerla himself is of course firmly antivaccine. He is part of The Vaccine Coalition, a Coalition of Non-Vaccinating Parents in Lakewood, New Jersey, founded by Szmerla, Malkiel Kotler and Shmuel Meir Katz, and supported e.g. by Elya Ber Wachtfogel of South Fallsberg, who is apparently something of a powerful figure in local charedi communities. We haven’t even bothered to check what kind of information these unhinged kooks promote to people in their communities. Given his comments on doctors and medicine in general (the “sickness brings you closer to God through prayer” part), it seems not too far-fetched to suspect that Szmerla wants children in his community to suffer from vaccine-preventable and potentially deadly diseases.

Diagnosis: So, ok. You may be inclined to just point and laugh at this silly fundie character. The problem, though, is that Szmerla, as mentioned, wields some authority in certain communities, and his recommendations have real, bad consequences for real people. Dangerous.

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