Lessons from a tragedy

The tragic death two weeks ago of a one-year-old baby girl in Ashdod triggered tense confrontations between haredi demonstrators and police in Ashdod and Mea She'arim. Southern District Attorney Iska Leibowitz initially insisted on nothing less than a full autopsy, after the infant lost consciousness from a high fever and died. But the familiar scenario of confrontations over autopsies had a new twist this time. Leading rabbis reached an agreement with the police under which the police agreed to rely upon blood samples, spinal fluids and X-rays in place of an autopsy. Before those tests could be performed, however, unknown parties cut their way through the metal bars on the window of the room in which the infant's body was being held and took it for burial. In the past, anyone who succeeded in thwarting the police and spiriting a body away would have achieved folk-hero status in parts of the haredi community, and could have counted on not being censured in the mainstream haredi press. Not this time. THE TWO-PAGE report in Mishpacha's Hebrew newspaper was typical. The story quoted only those who opposed the snatching of the body. More than once the demonstrators were referred to as outsiders from Jerusalem and Ramat Beit Shemesh. Even more surprisingly, the police were described as having acted with great restraint, and even "silk gloves." The report stressed that the local rabbis, including the heads of both the Belz and Gerrer communities, had requested that the demonstrators disperse while negotiations were ongoing with the police. Those demonstrations, according to the Mishpacha reporter, provided cover for those who succeeded in breaking into the room in the local cemetery where the body was being kept. In addition, local activists were quoted as fearful that the snatching of the baby's body would damage the trust painstakingly built up between local rabbis and the police over a period of time, and ultimately result in dozens of autopsies that could have been avoided in an atmosphere of trust. A beeper message sent in the name of the Badatz and leading haredi rabbis of Jerusalem and Ashdod called upon all those with knowledge of the whereabouts of the infant's body to make every effort to return it to the family. They warned that the taking of the body could only result in hilul hashem - the desecration of God's name - and damage to the cause of all those involved in the struggle for kavod hamet, honoring the dead. The refusal to portray the events in Ashdod last week as a black-and-white morality tale - i.e., a clash between law enforcement authorities totally insensitive to the concerns of Halacha and heroic defenders of the faith - attests to a certain maturation on the part of the haredi community. From what one can garner from haredi news reports, the local rabbinic authorities in Ashdod never suggested that the police had no legitimate interest in ascertaining the cause of death. Rather they sought a way to reconcile the requirements of Halacha with the interests of the law enforcement authorities. BUT WHY exactly did the police have any interest in a tragic death where there was not a shred of evidence of parental abuse? The baby lost consciousness after running a high fever, something that likely happens hundreds of times a day around the world. Apparently the police had suspicions that the baby's parents had not followed a doctor's standard prescription of antibiotics to treat an infection, and had instead relied on an unlicensed alternative healer to cure her. I have absolutely no idea whether those suspicions are justified, and pray that they are not. But the general issue of whether the haredi community is too credulous when it comes to every form of alternative medicine is one deserving of discussion. We are all fond of quoting the statement by the rabbis of old that "the best of the doctors wind up in hell." And few of us will reach middle age without a horror story or two concerning the hubris of doctors who thought they knew everything and failed their patients on that account. At the same time, the Torah explicitly mandates that a person pay the medical expenses of someone he has wrongfully injured. And when a great Torah figure is in a life-threatening situation, we can be sure that someone will pay to fly the top specialists to his bedside. A healthy skepticism about the all-knowingness of Western doctors is warranted. But too frequently the flip side of that skepticism is too great a credulity regarding "alternative" treatments founded on no empirically tested scientific theory and buttressed by no clinical tests. I remember Rabbi Nachman Bulman, of sainted memory, once commenting to me about someone he observed going from one alternative remedy to another, that such behavior had the taint of idol worship about it. He was not referring to the fact that many alternative healing regimes have their roots in actual idol worship, but to the willingness to leap at every new therapy - the more preposterous the better. As the wisest of all men put it, "A fool believes in everything" (Proverbs 14:15). OF COURSE, it is unfair to lump all forms of alternative medicine together. There is obviously a big difference between going to a Harvard-trained doctor, who worships next to you in synagogue and uses acupuncture techniques that have been applied to hundreds of millions of Chinese over millennia, and going to someone who claims that his body's electro-magnetic waves have magical healing powers. Torah Jews base their lives upon their intense belief in God, Whose existence cannot be demonstrated by our five senses. Sometimes that leads us to the logical fallacy of concluding that the less empirically supported or scientifically based a particular therapy is, the better. That can be a fatal fallacy.