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Halachic Arbiter In A Medical Maze

Dr. Meir Levin

Among the many burdens shouldered by Rav Moshe Feinstein was his role as halachic arbiter in the rapidly-developing field of medicine. An astounding number of innovations spawned an equal number of questions. No matter what that subject — be it hearing aids, cancer drugs, reproductive medicine, or end-of-life issues — Rav Moshe ruled with clarity and authority. Three physicians who merited personal access to Rav Moshe recall the giant who served as the era’s halachic beacon.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

After World War II, the United States became an international leader in scientific and medical advances. The pace of medical progress was dizzying and, for many people, disorienting. Antibiotics, advanced surgical techniques, CAT scans, organ transplantation, drugs for cancer, and ventilators were just some of the innovations that rapidly became routine. Medical care was now being delivered in large impersonal hospitals by teams of specialists who had not previously met the patient or his family and had no knowledge, and sometimes no concern, for patients’ values and beliefs.

These developments spurred many difficult and novel halachic quandaries. Can a patient who is dying or has no chance of cure be taken off the respirator? Who can make decisions for a person whose mind is clouded or ability to make decision is impaired? Should doctors perform a risky surgery that can cure a terminal patient who will surely live for some time without the surgery that could kill him?

Observant Jews needed answers.

At the same time, increasing numbers of young Orthodox people were entering the field of medicine. They faced a system that was not sympathetic to their religious observance and that educated through total immersion in medical lore and impatient care. Decades earlier, doctors-in-training were required to live on the hospital grounds for several years, thereby gaining the name “interns” or “residents.” This ethos persisted into the postwar period. Interns and residents, though they no longer lived on hospital grounds, were working thirty-six hour shifts, sleeping very little, and functioning under the continuous scrutiny of their superiors. Religious Jews hoping to become doctors were beset by halachic questions. May a religious physician perform or participate in an autopsy? Can he or she dissect a cadaver in the anatomy class? Is it possible to attend conferences on Shabbos or even present medical research in them, and if so, how?

Because the consequences were so great — involving life and death — these medical students sought a rav who could authoritatively pasken (decide) new and complex sh’eilos. It was only natural that they turned to America’s premier posek, Rav Moshe Feinstein, or Reb Moshe, as he was affectionately known. In fact, for many years Reb Moshe served as the posek (decider) for the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, a prominent and influential organization at that time. AOJS, as it was known, included the Rephael Society, a society of religious doctors.

Whereas in Eretz Yisrael, a number of poskim dealt with medical halachah (including but not limited to Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Yitzchok Yaakov Weiss originally of Manchester, Rav Shmuel HaLevi Wosner of Bnei Brak, and Rabbi Ovadia Hadaya of Jerusalem), in America Reb Moshe was unique in his willingness to take responsibility for medical halachic issues. The entire burden of research and application in this complicated area dealing with its human aspects fell upon his shoulders.


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