Can you refuse medical treatment? Ask the rabbi

November 12, 2018 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

REFUSING MEDICAL TREATMENT

Q. Do I have the right to refuse medical treatment?

A. In Jewish law, the answer is generally no.

Justice Cardozo said, “Every human being of adult years and sound mind has a right to determine what shall be done with his own body”.

It sounds like what one of my children said when refusing to do what we wanted, “I’m the boss of me!”

Jewish law does not automatically agree that even a “human being of adult years and a sound mind” is the boss of him/herself. The boss is God, and the doctor is His agent.

Rabbi Jacob Emden said, “Once the doctor recognises a definite need to administer a tested treatment, a patient, even if he objects, must submit under all circumstances. The matter does not depend on the consent of the patient since he is not free to destroy himself” (Mor Uk’tzi’a to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayyim 328).

The doctor has no right to put a patient’s life at risk and the patient has no right to sacrifice him/herself.

Patient autonomy is a very important principle but it is not the last word.

BLESSING GOD WITH “BARUCH”

Q. Why do we say “Baruch Attah” – “Blessed are You, Lord”? How can humans bless God?

A. There are two views:

1. We are not blessing Him: He is blessing us. “Baruch” is an adjective with the grammatical form of “rachum v’channun”, two words which say that God is the source of all mercy and grace. The word, therefore, means “You, God, are the source of all blessings”.

2. We are indeed blessing or praising Him in acknowledgement that He has given us the task of sharing with others the boons He gives us.

SODOM & SODOMY

Q. This may not be a “nice” question, but is the word sodomy connected with the Biblical town of Sodom?

A. Sodom, in the Dead Sea region, had a bad reputation from the days of the Bible: “The men of Sodom were very evil and sinful before the Lord” (Gen. 13:13).

The rabbis say that “middat s’dom” – “the way of Sodom” – is to be hard-hearted and lack generosity (Ket. 103a, Bava Batra 12b, etc.). The judges in Sodom, according to the Talmud (Sanh. 109a/b), were liars and perverters of justice.

Rabbinic literature does not limit the way of Sodom to homosexuality, but calling such acts sodomy does arise out of the Biblical story of Lot and the men of Sodom; Gen. 19:5-8 states that when two messengers were lodging in Lot’s house, the people of the town said, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may know them”.

“Know” is a Biblical reference to sexual contact, and Rashi and other commentators explicitly add, “so we may vent our lust upon them”. Lot, unwilling to give the visitors up to the men of Sodom, offers the townspeople his own two daughters and says, “Do to them what is good in your eyes”.

This does not make Lot into such a tzaddik, but what he is trying to do is to prevent any harm befalling his guests. The Ramban says this reveals Lot’s hospitality but also his wickedness.

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