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Is Divining Divine?

Rabbi Avraham Neuberger and Yaakov Yisroel Privalsky

In the last decade or two, many practices of alternative medicine have gained popularity among frum Jews worldwide. As they became commonplace, rabbanim began to deliberate whether some of them were prohibited under several possible prohibitions. Rabbi Avraham Neuberger takes a comprehensive look at alternative practices in general, and at one common practice in particular.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

As alternative medicine begins to gain traction in the mainstream, and specifically in Jewish circles, halachic questions abound as to the acceptability of various methods of healing. We are taught in the Torah that avodah zarah, sorcery, and witchcraft are forbidden. On the other hand, medicine is encouraged and saving lives is a mitzvah. To this end, when examining the sorts of healing that the scientific world does not recognize, we are walking a tenuous tight rope under which could very well be a lethal minefield.

A good analogy from the world of conventional medicine would be the recently resurrected debate on brain death. If, in fact, brain death is deemed halachic death, then harvesting the organs of a brain-dead person is permitted and is in fact a mitzvah, in that many lives can be saved. If, on the other hand, brain death is not deemed death then harvesting the organs is nothing short of murder. The issue of alternative medicine is a similarly high-stakes question. On the one hand are serious prohibitions related to avodah zarah. On the other hand, if these practices are permitted, many noninvasive therapies are available to us (though their efficacy is subject to fierce debate).

The issue of alternative medicine is also highly charged due to the inherent tension that exists at it core. Those who are pro-science tend to have a disdainful view toward practices that are inconsistent with orthodox medicine, and are thus predisposed to prohibit them. People whose education and culture are less infused with the ascendancy of science are more open to the validity of these practices.

One thing should be perfectly clear at the start: The permit and mitzvah to heal oneself is certainly not linked exclusively to a therapy that passes “the scientific method.” According to the scientific method —  as we all recall from our high school years —  a statement can be said to be fact only if one forms a hypothesis, conducts an experiment with predictable results, and then analyzes the results. For a therapy to be permitted under halachah it need not undergo that process. The Rambam, whose denial of all unnatural forces is well known, is generally associated with scientific medicine. Yet the Rambam wrote treatises on health based on the writings of Galen, whose biology was rooted in the idea of the four humors — a concept that has long since become extinct because it did not pass the test of science. Certainly, nobody would accuse the Rambam of committing kishuf and the like! Perforce, the scientific method is not needed to permit the practice of medicine. What, then, is the guideline?

Each alternative medicine practice requires its own analysis, but in this essay we will confine our examination to the practice called “dowsing,” or its more common name, “the pendulum method.” 


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