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Reconciling Religious Law of Orthodox Judaism with Medical Practice

Sometimes it is difficult to reconcile value systems that pull a person in opposite directions. Specifically in medicine, where the laws and nature of the work are so sensitive, yet also so important, it is within normal daily function to default to the ethics and American system of law. However, for Orthodox Jews, it is not that simple. Certain laws, such as the laws pertaining to the Sabbath, can make practicing medicine quite tricky.

For example, in general, Orthodox Jews do not drive on the Sabbath. This makes going in an ambulance or driving to the emergency room very difficult. Additionally, one is not allowed to inflict a wound on the Sabbath — this would make surgery nigh impossible. How can someone who values his or her orthodoxy to the utmost extent go to the hospital when necessary or be a doctor, which by definition requires those in the profession to perform the nature of their work which could conflict with the Sabbath?

Luckily, Judaism is very sensitive to humanity and the value of human life. The Bible maintains that a human life should be valued more than practically anything else, and therefore one can engage in whatever practice necessary to ensure that someone stays healthy. The Bible in Leviticus 18:5 states, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” The implication of the clause in this verse “he shall live by them” is that the commandments of the Bible were made for people to follow, only to the extent that one does not endanger his life for them. The Talmud in Tractate Yoma explains that this verse can be expounded to teach that the obligation to preserve human life overrides following almost all of the other commandments. Thus, in the case of the Sabbath, we see that while Orthodox Jews normally follow certain rules on this holy day, if anyone is in danger, he or she may certainly use the necessary means to seek medical attention.

While the aforementioned verse indicates that a patient can transgress the Sabbath to seek medical help when his or her life is in danger, it is still important to consider the doctor’s perspective in the matter as well. So, we turn to Exodus 21:19, which states that “he shall provide for healing.” The Talmud in Tractate Blessings page 60a interprets this verse to mean that God gives doctors permission to heal others.

Therefore, we can combine these two concepts together to understand how in fact Judaism and Orthodox practice in fact works seamlessly with medicine. Firstly, we have established the fact that there is a commandment to live by the commandments, which shows us that one needs to abide by the laws up to the point of “Pikuach Nefesh” — where one’s life is in danger. Secondly, Judaism views a doctor as someone who is an extension of God in the healing process. Thus, whenever someone is in danger and requires medical assistance, a doctor is not only allowed to do what is necessary, but is also charged with the responsibility to go and save someone’s life.

It is evident that Judaism clearly cares about individual lives and each person’s health and safety. While one may view the framework of law as rigid and unchangeable, it is beneficial to view the two systems, medical law and religious law, not as two separate entities that do not overlap. Rather, it is much more worthy to line up the similarities between the two to establish the ways in which the systems can work together. By doing so, one does not need to compromise any of his or her beliefs and can follow devoutly in his or her religious practice while serving as the best doctor possible.

Aaron Schweitzer Aaron Schweitzer (1 Posts)

Pre-Medical Guest Writer

University of Pennsylvania

Aaron Schweitzer is a pre-med guest writer originally from Los Angeles. Currently studying Biological Basis of Behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, he participates in research that focuses on the neural pathways of chemotherapeutically induced nausea. Hoping to pursue a career in medicine, he is particularly interested in the dynamics that exist between between medical ethics and medical practice.