Friday, November 9, 2018

Rebbe Nachman on Vaccination

By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

We present this selection from Rabbi Greenbaum’s work because it relates to the current crisis in the Orthodox Jewish world concerning the issue of vaccination. This excerpt is part of a larger discussion of Rebbe Nachman’s largely negative view of the medical world of his day.

It is undeniable that medical knowledge and expertise have expanded explosively since the end of the 18th century, and they continue to grow. Given that Rebbe Nachman’s critique of doctors is largely founded on their lack of understanding of the workings of the body, it is fair to ask whether his polemic was directed primarily against the primitive medicine of his time or whether it would still apply today.

Nowhere in Rebbe Nachman’s writings is there an explicit statement indicating that his warnings against doctors were restricted to his own time and place and would not apply if medical knowledge were to advance significantly. In fact, we see that Rebbe Nachman took a skeptical view of the growth of medical knowledge: “He said that there has already been so much research into medicine that the experts now know absolutely nothing, because after so much research they see that it is impossible to establish the truth” (Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom #50). It is significant that although Rebbe Nachman had always advised his followers to avoid doctors, his warnings became stronger than ever after his trip to Lemberg, whose Austrian-trained doctors were then among the most advanced in Europe.

On the other hand, there is one statement by Rebbe Nachman that places all his warnings against doctors into a very different light –a statement that provides a basis for those who wish to argue that his warnings simply do not apply to contemporary medicine. This is his statement urging his followers to have their children vaccinated against smallpox. This disfiguring and often fatal disease was then prevalent throughout Europe and Asia. A primitive form of inoculation had been in use for some time in Turkey, and spread to the rest of Europe in the 1720’s. However, it was not without its dangers, and the best that most people could do when there was an outbreak of smallpox was to flee.

It was not until the 1790’s that the English country physician Edward Jenner observed that those who had been infected with cowpox did not become infected with smallpox. In 1796 he performed the first vaccination on a young boy, and found that, despite the boy’s subsequent exposure to smallpox, he did not become infected. Knowledge of the new technique spread rapidly throughout Europe, and immunization against smallpox soon became a standard medical procedure. At first it was a subject of heated controversy within the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, but in 1804 a Dr. Shimon of Cracow printed a broadsheet entitled “A New Remedy,” in which he encouraged all Jews to have their children vaccinated as a preventive measure. Within a short time, hundreds of Jewish children were being successfully vaccinated, including those of leading rabbis and Torah scholars (Sefer HaBrit I, 17:2).

In the midst of this controversy, Rebbe Nachman came out in favor of vaccination in the strongest terms:

“Every parent should have his children vaccinated within the first three months of life. Failure to do so is tantamount to murder. Even if they live far from the city and have to travel during the great winter cold, they should have the child vaccinated before three months” (Avaneha Barzel p.31 #34).

Rebbe Nachman’s championship of vaccination is clear proof that his opposition to doctors and medicine was in no way bound up with some kind of retrogressive attitude of suspicion towards modernity and innovation per se. Here was a newly-discovered technique with a proven power to prevent a dangerous disease, and within a matter of a few years Rebbe Nachman came out emphatically in favor—Jenner first discovered vaccination in 1796, and Rebbe Nachman’s (undated) statement must have been made some time before his death in 1810.

Strictly speaking, vaccination is not so much a remedy as a preventive measure. Rebbe Nachman’s powerful endorsement seems to imply that he would have been no less in favor of tried and tested measures for preventing other diseases –unlike the Ramban, who says that “when the Jewish People are in a state of spiritual perfection... they have no need of medical procedures even as precautionary measures.” As we will see later, Rebbe Nachman himself saw his healing pathway of faith and prayer as the most powerful form of preventive medicine. Nevertheless, from his endorsement of vaccination, we can infer that Rebbe Nachman would not have been opposed to actual preventive medical techniques where they had proven their effectiveness.

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