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Doctors warn about rabbinic medical advice

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

At the recent two day symposium on "Modern Medicine and Jewish Law" held here at the Lincoln Square Synagogue, one issue of importance, according to some physicians in attendance, involves rabbis in the Orthodox community who overstep their expertise and give medical advice.

"The suggestion that a person who is facing medical problems should go to their Rav [rabbi] for medical advice is incorrect." cautioned Dr. Richard Grazi. Grazi, Director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, and a speaker at the conference, further explained, "This has to do with the way that the referral and second opinion process tends to work in the Orthodox community, and particularly in the Chassidic community."

Grazi recounted cases involving women in labor who needed Caesarian sections. "Sometimes the patient will not do anything without first consulting with the Rebbe." Grazi continued, "Usually, a sophisticated Rebbe will say åThis is a medical situation. You have chosen your doctor. You need to follow your doctor's advice.' But on occasion, inappropriate decisions are made, such as: åDon't let your doctor do a Caesarian section under any circumstance'."

This type of rabbinic involvement could lead to life threatening situations. On one occasion Grazi reported, "a woman with serious bleeding from a tubal pregnancy... was told [by her rabbi] not to let the doctor operate...This could have delayed appropriate surgery, had the doctor not been sophisticated enough to be able to talk to the Rav on his own terms."

Grazi emphasized that "the doctor who is treating an observant patient should never cross the line in giving halachic advice, and the rabbi, in consulting with a patient about a medical problem, should never give medical advice."

Dr. Sana Bloch, Assistant Clinical Professor of Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY, was concerned about rabbis who make medical referrals. "These great rabbanim [rabbis] decide who's the great doctor... Once they're locked into somebody, he becomes the moshiach [messiah]. This is the worst travesty in medicine." He explained that people in the Orthodox community believe, "If you call the Rebbe, they will send you to the best."

Bloch further explained that religious Jews in Israel are sometimes referred by their rabbis to American physicians. "I don't understand why people in Eretz Yisrael [Israel] have to come here for certain types of surgery...for instance [in Israel] they have the finest neurosurgeons."

"There are charities that do just that," Bloch continued, "where it's a waste of Jewish money. They send out a letter saying åwe have this poor Jewish man in Eretz Yisrael who has to come to Columbia to have this procedure done'. Nonsense! Shaarei Zedek [Hospital in Jerusalem] is just as good!"

Grazi agreed, "I know the person who used to be the Chief of the Pediatric Cardiac Surgery department at [Mount] Sinai... and had a tremendous practice at Sinai. He was a very, very talented guy, and because he's a frum [strictly observant] person who was connected to Israel, they used to send all of the [Israeli] neonates and young children who needed cardiac surgery to him at Sinai." When that doctor moved to Israel and established a practice in an Israeli hospital, "all the pediatric, cardiac surgery still went to Sinai," Grazi recounted. "Why? Because he became åjust an Israeli doctor', and Mount Sinai stayed Mount Sinai. People get locked into these referral patterns..."

Infertility, brain death, cloning, genetic engineering and other cutting-edge topics were among the issues presented by speakers at the February 14- 15 conference, which attracted more than 200 rabbis, physicians and scientists. The Symposium on Modern Medicine and Jewish Law was sponsored by Maimonides Medical Center and organized by the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists.

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman is Professor of Biology and Director of General Education at William Paterson University of New Jersey.


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