An Orthodox community is in the midst of a philosophical crisis that’s pitting hard-line rationalists against New Age-leaning mystics — and the publication of a new book by a well-known rabbi has exposed and intensified the struggle.
In his recently published “Alternative Medicine in Halakhah,” Lakewood, New Jersey rabbi Rephoel Szmerla gives Jewish legal justifications for a range of New Age therapies — like yoga, homeopathy, reiki and crystal healing. Critics of the book say it’s part of an alarming growth of such practices in Orthodox circles; its proponents say it provides much-needed religious resource on therapies that are already widely used.
“Rav Rephoel Szmerla, a dayan from Lakewood, NJ, has presented the Torah world with a groundbreaking, seminal halachic work,” Daniel Shapiro wrote in a glowing review on the website Matzav.com.
But to people like Natan Slifkin, an Orthodox Israeli scholar and science writer, the book represents a “dangerous turn” away from science and towards what we derides as quackery. “There is a forthcoming highly significant and very tragic publishing event which relates to the rationalist/anti-rationalist divide in the Jewish community,” he warned in a blog post about the book before it came out. If religious Jews begin to eschew the “scientific establishment” for healers or other therapies, Slifkin wrote, “there is a real risk of people neglecting to treat themselves in a way that is actually helpful.”
But this a not some simple squabble between authors. It’s the latest chapter in what Alan Brill, chair for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University, calls a clash of two different Orthodox world views.
Judaism, of course, has a strong mystical tradition that dates back centuries. Kabbalah is so popular that the practice has been taken up by non-Jews. And the contemporary Orthodox world has been “wrapped up in New Age,” Brill said, for decades. The 1970s Baal Teshuva movement, when many nonobservant Jews become more religious, brought an influx of spiritual seekers into Orthodoxy. These newly Orthodox Jews, Brill said, infused the movement with a new openness to experimenting with alternative medicine.
More recently there’s been a backlash against such New Age strains.
The Orthodox world is generally divided between Modern Orthodox and Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox. Haredim are then further divided between Hasidim and Yeshivish. This tension between the rationalists…