Parashat Mishpatim lays out for us multiple mitzvot- commandments. As a set table of rules, the Torah guides us through the challenges of modern life. One such challenge is medical Halacha. How has our understanding of medicine influenced the Halachic process? Let’s begin.
Parshat Mishpatim Summary
- Laws of the Jewish slave
- Laws of civil damages
- Laws of agriculture
- The three pilgrim festivals
- The covenant and Sinai
- Moshe enters the cloud to receive the Torah
Phew So Many Mitzvot
Parashat Mishpatim expands upon the commandments presented in the 10 commandments. In this week’s parasha we introduced to 52 mitzvot making Parashat Mishapatim, one of the most mitzvah centric of the entire Torah.
In Parshat Mishpatim, we are taught the laws of damages and the responsibility of the guilty party to pay for damages and the medical expenses incurred.
The Doc’s Mitzvah To Heal
ורפא ירפא and you will surely heal. (Exodus 21:19) The Talmud derives from this verse that there is a mitzvah for the doctor to heal.
On the surface this seems strange, why would the Torah need to legislate that a doctor must heal? Why would we not think that they can heal? Do we not learn the principle that life takes precedence?
The simple answer is, that of course if a person has an accident and hurts themselves, that he or she can and should go to a doctor. But what happens in the case that a person becomes sick? If they are struck down with an illness is this not from Hashem?
If Hashem makes them ill how can we interfere with the Divine Will that this person be struck down by illness? It is decreed from above and we cannot interfere. No, says the Torah, You shall surely heal! The Torah itself rules that the doctor has a mitzvah to heal the sick.
The fact that the Torah has to legislate this command, is to make it perfectly clear that the theory mentioned above, is completely false. We are commanded to act to heal the sick. We must act and do whatever we can to heal the sick.
It is, therefore, no surprise that we will find so many Jews practicing medicine. It is in our souls to help others and help find cures to the diseases that plague the world.
In the past, great rabbis like Maimonides and Nachmanides practiced medicine. The world of medical halacha is one of the most fertile and creative areas of Jewish Law. Last week, I discussed the keys of interpretation that were given to Moses to unlock the answers to problems that future generations would face and the tools that the rabbis would need to use to resolve them.
Medical Halacha Evolving
Medical Halacha is one such area. It is dynamic and rulings can change over time. The more we understand about medicine and the human body the chances are that the rules may change.
- Kidney transplants
When the first kidney transplant was performed in 1954, the question was asked whether it would be permitted for a Jew to donate a kidney? The answer in the rabbinic responsa was that there is a significant risk to the person and that risk is too high. A person who wished to donate a kidney would be viewed as a pious fool for endangering their life.
Fast forward 60 years. The consensus among most rabbinic authorities is that the risk is far less today, owing to better medication, a better understanding of how the surgery is being performed and thousands of successful kidney transplants.
The change in attitude is not due to Rabbis changing their minds. Rather the fact that the concerns originally raised, no longer apply. This is what we would refer to as the evolution of Jewish Law.
2. Definition of death.
The Talmud in Yoma 85, presents the signs of life as breathing and pulse. In 1964 the Harvard medical school argued, that the definition of death is the cessation of brain activity in the brain stem. With our understanding of how the body works that the brain sends signals to the heart and lungs, breathing and a pulse are indicators of life but the main indicator is brain activity.
What is the practical difference between the two positions? The answer simply is whether we can allow for organ donations from a dead person? If we accept the definition of death meaning that the heart and lungs stop functioning, it is impossible to harvest the organs. However, if the definition of death, is the brain stem, then we can, in theory, keep the body functioning and harvest the organs.
This argument has been raging since the 1960s. Today there is an organisation called HODS – Halachic Organ donors society– that has received worldwide Rabbinic endorsement for the position of Brain death. This organisation actively advocates for Jews to become organ donors.
This too is a change in the Halacha position based on the evolution of halachic positions based on a deeper understanding of medicine and Jewish law.
Parashat Mishpatim – Only The Tip Of The Iceberg
Of course, is merely the tip of the iceberg. With each new discovery, Judaism will have to deal with the questions. Based on the keys received at Sinai.
The establishment of the State of Israel is another area where we have seen the development of Rabbinic responsa to a new reality. Questions such as how to observe Shabbat in a Jewish army and Police force? How do Israeli Banks charge interest- which is clearly forbidden in the Torah?
Judaism is a dynamic religion and we rely on the principles received at Sinai to guide us through the challenges of our times.