`212 Trusting Doctors in Halachic Responsa Part 2
Chananya Weissman

July 4, 2022

 

The Gemara in Nidda 22B discusses the case of a woman who experienced peculiar discharges. It was unclear whether or not they were stillborns, and by extension whether or not she had the status of a childbearing woman. The sages consulted the doctors, who claimed that it was blood from an internal wound.

This short Gemara is a springboard for much discussion on the extent to which we trust doctors and decide questions of Jewish law based on their words. Despite many variables that come into play, it is unequivocal from our poskim (decisors of Jewish law) that our reliance on doctors is highly circumscribed. That the sages turned to the doctors is something unusual that needs to be reconciled; it is an exception, not a rule.

This Gemara is not viewed as evidence that doctors are authority figures or wield any authority over the public. Rather, there are times when doctors may have useful information that we take into account in determining the facts of a case. The question is not when we go against the “expertise” of doctors, but when the information we receive from doctors is considered credible altogether.

Here are a few responsa that illustrate this.

The Chasam Sofer writes as follows on this Gemara: “Even though the doctors said to us that this woman has a wound, which implies that they testified to this effect, nevertheless this is merely their judgment, but for what do we need them and their words? There is no significance to their words except that we can know that there is something like this in the world, and to that extent we can trust the doctor – even according to the poskim that we do not rely on doctors when it comes to violating prohibitions.”

In other words, Chazal turned to the doctors only to know if, based on their actual knowledge and experience, a certain phenomenon existed – not to decide for them whether or not the woman in question experienced it, with the halachic implications that would entail. To this extent the Torah is lenient and allows us to trust doctors, even according to the poskim who categorically dismiss the words of doctors if they urge us to do something that is prohibited.

The Chasam Sofer's words are hot acid on anyone who claims that the Torah commands us to “follow the science”, “trust the experts”, and hand our lives over to them. Such a notion is antithetical to the Torah, and those who claim otherwise don't have a leg to stand on. If they are rabbis of stature, they have forfeited their worthiness to this stature, and almost certainly have been corrupted. This matter is too clear for anyone with a modicum of Torah knowledge to get it so wrong.

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The Toras Nesanel 4:9 cites this Gemara in his response to a different question, and writes as follows: “The Talmud stated plainly 'And the sages asked the doctors', which teaches that two doctors are needed [to corroborate the information]. In our case there was one doctor and a wise woman, who is also considered a doctor, and superior to him, because there is no wise person like one who has experience, for she knows better and is more of an expert, because she is involved with her [the patient under discussion] every day, and is not ashamed to check her very well. There is no comparison between one who imagines things with his mind's eye to one who literally sees with his eyes.

“And this is a stake that will not slip, that questions of doctors should be asked by those who have investigative hearts, as it says 'And the sages asked the doctors'.”

There are two fundamental principles here:

1) The weight given to a doctor's opinion in a particular case is not based on the pieces of paper on his wall, the honorifics he can boast, or even his general knowledge. We may take all that into account, of course, but there are no free passes. No doctor can browbeat us into accepting his opinion just because he's a big shot. Either he knows what he's talking about in this particular case, or he doesn't.

In fact, a person with wisdom gained from hands-on experience carries more weight than a doctor whose knowledge is merely academic. The credentials aren't what really matter – it's the wisdom.

Practically applied, someone who has successfully treated many people for covid-like symptoms over the last two years has far more credibility than even the “best doctors” who read scripts and make proclamations from on high. When it comes to wisdom and hands-on experience, there is no pulling rank.

2) When we seek information from doctors, we don't send yes-men to receive instructions. We send intelligent, inquisitive people who are capable of understanding, analyzing, and challenging the information. The doctor doesn't have the last word. We cross-examine him, and only then decide the worthiness of his opinion.

Doctors don't make decisions for us. We examine the information they provide us and decide for ourselves.

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The Chasam Sofer further clarifies the weight of doctors' words in Yoreh De'ah responsa 158. This is a lengthy, complicated letter regarding a woman who experienced pain during marital relations and sought medical treatment from expert doctors. The details and Torah analysis are outside the scope of this article, but the Chasam Sofer outlines several fundamental principles in the course of his response:

1) It is highly dubious for a doctor to judge what medication a person should receive without examining the individual patient in question. Chazal taught us that not every body reacts the same way to every drug (Nidda 30B), and therefore we cannot rely on a doctor to blindly claim that any drug is “safe and effective” for a patient he has never even seen.

The Chasam Sofer notes that some authorities are lenient if a doctor has personally cured someone else with this particular drug, but he finds this highly questionable. After all, he writes, if we can blindly rely on a drug for one person just because it worked for another person, why do we need the doctor altogether? The second patient might as well take the drug on his own. Rather, we are forced to conclude that a doctor must see his patients and provide individualized care. There are no blanket rulings that anyone or everyone should take a drug just because the doctor is a fan of it (let alone a paid endorser).

2) The Chasam Sofer emphasizes that the words of non-Jewish doctors carry far less weight when matters of Jewish law are in question. In other words, just because a bunch of globalist heathens urge us to shut down our holy places and curtail Jewish life doesn't mean we listen – even if they recruit Jewish-looking “influencers”. In fact, we disregard them.

3) There is no comparison between trusting doctors about drugs and trusting doctors to violate Shabbos or Yom Kippur if they claim a patient's life is in danger. In the latter cases, the words of doctors are sufficient to establish reasonable doubt that the person's life is in danger, and therefore we can treat him on Shabbos or feed him on Yom Kippur.

When it comes to drugs, however, we need absolute clarity. If a doctor assures us based on his understanding and study that a drug will be effective, this is nothing more than false and erroneous imagination. We certainly do not violate the Torah based on his claims. Even if he claims he already cured someone with this drug, we suspect that he might simply be promoting himself and the drug in question. It has to be clearly established to us.

It must also be noted that the latter cases refer, once again, specifically to someone who is already ill. Those who claim that perfectly healthy people should be treated like deathly ill patients and injected with “vaccines” are distorting this source like missionaries.

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The Rivash in responsa 147 lays down the law clear as day.

“...We cannot rule in cases about our Torah and its commandments according to scientists and doctors, for if we trust their words then the Torah does not come from heaven, God forbid, for so they have taken for granted with their fictitious proofs. And if we were to rule in cases of treifos [animals that were found to have grave injuries, and whose meat is therefore not kosher] according to medical wisdom, you would fetch a high payment from the butchers...[for they would rule contrary to Torah law regarding which injuries are life-threatening and which are not]...There is no doubt that they would mock us over this. May boiling gold be poured into their mouths.”

The Rivash, it should be noted, was a towering posek who lived in the 1300's. Rabbis today cannot dismiss his words in favor of the heretical “experts” of today – even if rich and powerful people really, really want them to.

Regarding rabbis who attain their positions through bribery and hobnobbing with the rich and famous, the Yerushalmi Bikkurim 11B is most instructive:

“Rabbi Mana scorned those who were appointed for money. Rabbi Immi would recite the verse about them “gods of silver and gods of gold you should not make for yourselves”. Said Rabbi Yoshia, and the tallis upon him is like a saddle on a donkey. Said Rabbi Shiyan, one who is appointed for money, we do not stand [in respect] before him and we do not call him Rabbi, and the tallis upon him is like a saddle on a donkey.”

How many rabbinic donkeys have been braying on behalf of the government and the pharmaceutical industry, in exchange for some carrots? We do not respect them, and we do not continue to call them rabbis. Whatever honor they previously earned has been forfeited.

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Finally, the Chavos Yair in responsa 192:101 sums it up best with a parenthetical remark, to which no further comment is necessary:

“What good is the approval of the doctor when he says a potion of death is a potion of life?”

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