Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Not Advocating for Vaccination - And Will Still Not Love Rav Shmuel



My good friend Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein has written a piece "Why I Love Rav Shmuel - And Will Advocate Vaccination Nonetheless" in which he attempts to distinguish between his personal respect for Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky and his opposition to his recent comments opposing vaccinations. According to Rabbi Kamenetsky: “There is a doctor in Chicago who doesn’t vaccinate any of his patients and they have no problem at all. ... I see vaccinations as the problem. It’s a hoax. Even the Salk vaccine [against polio] is a hoax. It is just big business.” While I accept Rabbi Adlerstein's general premise of distinguishing between opposing specific ideas advocated by a person and rejecting the person as a whole, the serious problems raised by Rabbi Kamenetsky's position force the thoughtful person to take a harsher line and view his "sin" as not merely venial, but mortal.

An essential part of living in a society (particularly a liberal one that values diversity) is the ability to create two circles of opposition. One implies a narrow rejection of a particular belief or action while valuing the person's many other worthwhile attributes; the other places the person completely beyond the pale. For example, I recognize that many intelligent people of good support the expansion of government healthcare. I may oppose such a position, but my opposition, in no way, takes anything away from the positive opinion I hold of them in other fields. Thus, I would defend them to my fellow libertarians by saying: "you should ignore what they believe in regards to healthcare and just focus on the worthwhile things they have to say." Similarly, members of Hamas engage in social support programs within their community in addition to being terrorists. That being said, a critical part in recognizing Hamas as a terrorist organization is precisely that willingness to not draw a line between Hamas the social welfare organization and Hamas the terrorist organization. This would even apply to members of Hamas, who are solely involved with the social side. All must be condemned as terrorists without any account for any positive aspects. Hamas' "good" work does not lesson its evil. On the contrary, its evil is such that it makes it as if the good never happened. It is even possible that, under such circumstances, the good itself is transformed into evil as it serves to render the entire enterprise all the more perverse.

I must confess that I have yet to come up with an intellectually rigorous method for deciding who belongs in which circle. A step in the right direction would be to ask whether the problematic position directly affects other areas. For example, support for government does not directly connect to a person's personal charity. By contrast, Hamas' social welfare programs are all part of an ideology that seeks to destroy Israel. Furthermore, one should take into account the possibility of the positive being used as cover for their more problematic agenda. I am not worried that supporters of healthcare will use their personal charity as moral cover for their government agenda. By contrast, I do worry about Hamas using their social programs as moral cover.

Even if we lack clear lines, it is important that we recognize the existence of both people who must be tolerated despite their errors and those who must be rejected for them. There is not another person in the world that I agree with about everything. As my opinions on many issues have changed over the years, I do not even agree with my past selves. Thus, if I am going to live with other people and even with myself, I must be willing to tolerate the existence of at least certain types of errors. That being said, we live in a world in which there are truly dangerous people who mean us very real harm. Others possess radically different values and seek to build a society in their own image on the ruin of our society. Clearly, tolerance as a blank check that does not insist on something in return will quickly turn into a suicide pact that benefits only the least tolerant in our midst.       

In what circle should we classify Rabbi Kamenetsky? Let me admit that I take his comments personally on two accounts. As an Asperger, I have no wish for autism to be used in any campaign against the medical establishment. Why did Rav Shmuel have to walk shomer negiah arm in arm with Jenny McCarthy? Also, a number of years ago, I challenged Rabbi Kamenetsky on his willingness to offer approbations for works on Jewish history considering that he has no professional training in the field. I asked him if he would be willing to write an approbation to a medical book. He responded that he would not as he had no expertise in medicine. I tried to press him on why he did not hold himself to a similar standard regarding history. He did not give me a clear answer; I assume that, unlike medicine, he did not see history as a field operating based on clear rules to be mastered before wading into any discussions on the topic. The fact that Rabbi Kamenetsky has now placed himself in middle of a medical debate means that he lied to me regarding his belief as to his lack of qualification.

All that aside, there are good reasons to reject Rabbi Kamenetsky across the board simply for his comments as they directly relate to larger issues of scientific methodology and ultimately raise questions regarding his commitment to a halachic process. If you read Rabbi Kamenetsky carefully, you will see that he does not merely reject vaccinations, but the scientific method as well. I recognize that more knowledgeable people than me worry about the health risks of vaccines and that, in theory in least, one might be able to make a scientifically rigorous case against them. Like most people in the anti-vaccination movement, though, Rabbi Kamenetsky foregoes this debate in favor of claiming that the scientific establishment is not only wrong, but that they are engaged in a hoax, in essence that they are conspiring against the public. To claim conspiracy implies a rejection of the scientific method as anyone who accepts this method most also accept that it borders on the impossible for there ever to be a sustained conspiracy in science. Instead of science, Rabbi Kamenetsky, turns to the anecdotal evidence of an unnamed doctor in Chicago. Anecdotal evidence is among the most worthless kinds of evidence in existence. Scientific medicine requires double blind trials. Rabbi Kamenetsky clearly does not believe this and, if placed in charge of scientific establishment, would operate it in a very different fashion.

For the sake of clarity, let me say that I take no scientific position regarding vaccines. I am not a scientist and, therefore, am not qualified to have an opinion. As a non-scientist, who accepts the scientific method, though, I am forced to operate with the current scientific consensus on the assumption that it is the product of the scientific method. This is the case even though, as a historian, I am aware that any scientific consensus is subject to change. Even if I thought that vaccines were a bad idea, I would still be willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of children for the sake of defending the scientific method by upholding scientific consensus even when it is wrong.

If we accept my argument so far then we should reject Rabbi Kamenetsky's authority on all scientific issues. This would mean, not only evolution, but also anything regarding medicine. No religious believer in the scientific method can accept him as an impartial arbitrator as he operates under a clearly very different set of premises.

Let me take this a step further to argue that even those Jews with no particular allegiance to the scientific method should reject Rabbi Kamenetsky as a halachic authority as there is good reason to be suspicious of his allegiance to any consistent halachic methodology. We already know that Rabbi Kamenetsky has, at the very least, been passively tolerant of a trend within the Haredi world toward charismatic authority that certain specific individuals are subject to direct personal divine inspiration and should therefore be listened to. For one thing, this position makes a mockery of Rabbi Adlerstein's claim of the non-absolute nature of religious authority within the non-Hasid haredi world. Charismatic authority is as absolute as that of the almighty. Furthermore, charismatic authority is ultimately contrary to halachic authority (even if believers in charismatic authority might by observant in their day to day lives). The moment you grant the merest hint of legitimacy to charismatic authority then you open a Pandora's Box in which any illiterate child can trump the most learned rabbis and every line in the Talmud merely by claiming to have received divine inspiration.

Rabbi Kamenetsky's comments regarding vaccines are relevant here because they strongly suggest that, at least when it comes to science, he does not believe in following any clear principled method, but relies on charismatic authority. Where else does he get the idea to take it upon his shoulders to contradict mainstream science relying simply upon his own authority? (This would be consistent with the common Haredi acceptance of charismatic authority when applied to medicine. For example, the Chazon Ish is widely claimed to have been a great expert in medicine without ever having studied medicine.) Normally, the further one goes from one's field of professional expertise, the more important it is to consciously rely on clear methodology. The reason for this is that, without professional training, the field's methods will not have sunk to an unconscious level to allow a person to operate on their instincts. If Rabbi Kamenetsky is so contemptuous of any methodology as a matter of principle that he would forego them when it came to a field outside of his professional expertise then we should assume that he has written himself a large blank check to do whatever he wants and ignores methodology when it comes to halacha.


Consistency demands that Rabbi Adlerstein make a choice between defending not only the scientific method, but also the halachic process and sacrificing Rabbi Kamenetsky. Even though, I believe that Rabbi Adlerstein is mistaken in not rejecting Rabbi Kamenetsky, I still respect him. For one thing, the food and conversation at his house are simply too good. He is a wise man and worth listening to. One can even gain some valuable insights from analyzing his apologetics on behalf of Haredi religious authority figures.   



  

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