A frequent correspondent of mine, Dr. Moyshe Kalman, writes a column in a Jewish newspaper on medical issues of interest to the Jewish (primarily Orthodox) community. In a column in November, Dr. Kalman wrote about the controversial "alternative" medical treatment called Reiki.
The old, mainstream holistic therapies such as Osteopathy and Acupuncture have been established and observed for over a hundred years, in the case of Osteopathy and three thousand years and in the case of Acupuncture have become well rooted. While they many not be “conventional” they are grudgingly accepted as a recognizable form of medical treatment almost universally. Now, however, sneaking into our lives in the wake of this wave of New Age Mysticism are many “spiritual healing” methods which not only do not have any basis what so ever in physical, empirical medicine, but come from very dubious sources, indeed. One which has become very wide spread in our community is Reiki (pronounced “ray key”).According to the 1992 Reiki Handbook, Reiki treatment can cure diseases ranging from brain damage to diabetes to all sorts of infectious diseases.
According to the Wikipedia article on Reiki, the method was "rediscovered" by a Japanese Tendai Buddhist named Mikao Usui. He "claimed that, through a mystical revelation, he had gained the knowledge and spiritual power to apply and attune others to 'Reiki's' healing energy. Mikao Usui claimed that he could enable his students to enlarge their access to the energy through certain initiations. Usui taught that attunement to the energy enhances and refines a person's ability to connect with this already occurring natural healing energy. Through such initiations, students are said to become clearer channels for Reiki, and this theoretically enhances the quality of treatments that student (or practitioner) provides."
However, Reiki remains controversial. There is currently no proof that Reiki's results are any more effective than a placebo. Unlike many other forms of "alternative" treatment, no scientific study (i.e. double blind with proper safeguards) has been performed to verify any of Reiki's claims. The existence of "Reiki energy," the basis of the treatment, has yet to be demonstrated. Again from Wikipedia:
The existence of Reiki energy has not been scientifically proven, and thus the scientific community ascribes anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of Reiki therapy to the placebo effect and a combination of post hoc reasoning and the regressive fallacy. Some critics go so far as to suggest that the treatment is little more than a con scheme to fleece gullible desperate sick people. They cite stories and give examples of stories of people who have paid huge "energy payments" to so called Reiki "doctors" - there have allegedly been cases where even unsuccessful attempts at treatment cost tens of thousands of dollars. Proponents of Reiki claim that they can detect and manipulate this energy, but a means to measure it or even objectively demonstrate its existence to the satisfaction of the scientific community has yet to be found. The predominant opinion among the scientific community is that the sensations felt by practitioners and patients of Reiki are psychologically subjective or the result of self-deceit.Dr. Kalman voiced suspicion about Reiki and concluded by asking whether there is any place in Judaism for Reiki.
Doctors, academics, and consumer advocates have expressed concern when patients with serious diseases such as cancer choose Reiki solely as a means of treatment over trained doctors. In some cases people reject conventional medicine completely and solely practice Reiki, and this is deemed as a highly untrustworthy and potentially dangerous practice even within the Reiki and wider alternative health community.
In response to Dr. Kalman's article, a major rabbinic figure,* Av Beis Din his community, wrote a letter to the newspaper identifying himself as a Reiki practitioner (technically called a Reiki Master) and defending the practice. He wrote:
Reiki & Dowsing are wondrous and wonderful gifts given by Hashem, provided they are not abused or misused, but practised the correct way. I myself have Boruch Hashem helped numerous people, both adults and children, who suffer from allergies to varying degrees, but had no idea to what they were allergic. By means of dowsing, I ascertained which foods, and often non-foods, trigger the allergies. Many, though by no means all, have been greatly helped and often cured...Halakhic Issues
Boruch Hashem by means of Reiki I can de-allergise foods, materials, medication etc. I put my hands on them for a short while and the allergy disappears. Do not ask me how it works, as I have no idea what the answer is. But does it really matter? Do we understand everything else? Does it not border on arrogance to dismiss something merely because we do not comprehend it? The fact is that I often helped people with this method...
As to the argument that Reiki & Dowsing cannot be scientifically proven – so what? Are there not numerous things in our Emunah which cannot be proven in a laboratory, including the very existence of G-d?
It is clear that there are no halakhic issues with Reiki. Even though it originated in Buddhism, as long as it is not outright idolatry it is permissible for the sake of healing (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayim 301:27).
And as long as practitioners are clear on their qualifications and honest in their claims, there is no issue in taking money. Charging money to desperate people is permissible if they understand what they are paying and receive the services for which they pay.
Is it possible that Reiki works? Of course it is. There are studies documenting the effectiveness of many "alternative" treatments, chief among them acupuncture. While the metaphysical theories behind the treatments may not be correct, they have been fine-tuned through many years of trial and error to the point that somehow they work. But does that mean that Reiki works?
I'm no expert in medicine but I do know a little about statistics. Anecdotes just don't prove anything. People are often cured without any treatment at all! Perhaps Reiki even reduces people's chances for healing. Test it out and see.
I have personally seen people get all involved in "alternative" treatments with minimal benefit, but they insist that they are getting better. Finally, when they are convinced to try more conventional treatments, they are healed much more thoroughly and quickly.
Regardless, it is certainly disheartening to see a respected scholar denigrate science and medicine. Yes, belief in Judaism is important. But does mean that belief in everything is valid? Since I believe in God without proof, therefore I have to believe in everything without proof?
Given the unfortunate proliferation in the realm of "alternative" treatment of misled and sometimes misleading people, and the obvious willingness of desperate people to try anything, it seems appropriate to show restraint in diverting their time, money and hopes from proven treatments.
* I have chosen to refrain from naming the Dayan. However, I think it is worth noting that a few years ago he was a vocal supporter of facilitated communication.