Thursday, January 14, 2010

Authority and Responsibility

Rav Meir Twersky posts:

One final example, also drawn from contemporary ideological discussion and debate. Many “hot-button” issues are currently being debated in the public square. Some of these are women’s issues – role of women, aliyas, and so on. There are many other issues as well – for instance, the boundaries of legitimate tolerance and openness. Many people are very opinionated in such matters, passionately advocating a particular point of view. Some go beyond advocacy and introduce change and innovation. And, of course, ostensibly everything is said and done l’sheim shomayim. But is the advocacy truly l’sheim shomayim? Or, perhaps is it self-serving, remaking halachah in our image in concert with our predilections?

Consistency test: do we maintain the same professional standards for the resolution of halachic issues that we insist upon in other contexts? For instance, in complex medical affairs we seek – as we should – the best, most expert medical care and guidance. If need be, we travel the world to seek out an expert. For a laymen or even an undistinguished doctor to make decisions or even advocate in complex medical issues would be reckless. We would not allow it. How many of us – laymen and rabbonim alike – are entitled to even express an opinion, much less advocate, in complex halachic matters? If, lack of qualifications notwithstanding, we persist in advocating on halachic matters, are we truly doing so l’sheim shomayim? The consistency test, honestly administered and uncensored, can be very revealing.

Comment: I know I used to try to think this way as I became observant. Part of that process has been to reduce the weight I give my own opinions, learning, and feeling and to raise the weight I give to the halachic experts, which always means the Rav I have chosen to guide me as opposed to the abstract opinions of the gedolim. I am dithering regarding the question of whether I truly forfeit my responsibility for my decisions just because I choose to give the authority for making them to someone else, or if I remain responsible. I'd be interested in comments on this question.

As far as the consistency issue goes, just as I do not accept any doctor's opinion, however august he might be, as the final voice in decisions involving my health I don't accept that the 'gedolim' can make my moral choices for me. I give them great deference - in fact I let their opinion override my own more often than not, but the final opinion and final responsibility regarding my moral and medical choices is mine. Furthermore in this internet age the patient has a chance to become a lot more educated than in the past, and so can be more of a partner with his doctor in making medical decisions rather than the target of those decisions.

How does Rabbi Twersky deal with uncertainty among his experts? If two doctors have different opinions which does he choose? If he has the choice of having a hand amputated and using a prosthetic, or keeping the non-functional hand attached does he have his expert doctor make that choice for him?

1 comment:

Leora said...

"For a laymen or even an undistinguished doctor to make decisions or even advocate in complex medical issues would be reckless. " - my father does this all the time. He used to confound the Harvard-educated doctors with his knowledge.

Doctors only know so much. In many ways, they are often blocked in seeing things in an emotional or other manner.

I don't know how this relates to what you are trying to say, Larry, but I prefer your approach to doctors.