Medical Ethics Versus Halachic Obligation

Panel Discusses Intricacies of Patient-Doctor Relationship for Inaugural Touro College Presidential Scholars Lecture Series

December 20, 2013

This controversial topic was at the heart of the inaugural Touro College Presidential Scholars Lecture Series featuring Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, M.D., associate clinical professor of medical ethics at the Hebrew University–Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem. The event, which took place at Lander College for Women-The Anna Ruth and Mark Hasten School (LCW) in Manhattan, centered on the halachic, legal and ethical implications of information disclosure and privacy issues within the doctor-patient framework.

“Tale bearing and gossip is likened by the Torah to murder,” said Rabbi Steinberg, author of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics and the recipient of the 1999 Israel Prize for original rabbinical literature. “However, withholding vital information when it is necessary can have similar consequences.”

He recounted a story in which a family asked him if they needed disclose their son’s history of epilepsy to the parents of the young woman he wanted to marry. When they informed the young woman’s parents, on Rabbi Steinberg’s insistence, the family initially refused to allow the marriage to go through, though after seeking counsel from several prominent rabbinic authorities they eventually consented. Today the couple is still happily married with four children, but Rabbi Steinberg stressed that the outcome was a result of the open discussion, not in spite of it.

“The disclosure was made in an educated environment where the issue was discussed candidly and because of that, everything worked out for the best,” he said.

Following Rabbi Steinberg’s speech, Dr. Alan Kadish, president and CEO of Touro, and Marian Stoltz-Loike, Ph.D., Touro’s vice president of online education and the dean of LCW, and Samuel J. Levine, the director of the Jewish Law Institute at the Touro College Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, joined Rabbi Steinberg on a panel to further discuss these topics.

Dr. Kadish, who is board certified in internal medicine, cardiovascular disease, and cardiac electrophysiology, noted that often Jewish and U.S. law clash on the issue of doctor-patient confidentiality. He presented a case where a doctor had not divulged his patient’s psychiatric condition to the family he was marrying into. Shortly after the wedding, the union was annulled.

“Legally speaking, a physician cannot disclose another’s medical condition without explicit consent,” he said. “But as Jews, we must consider the consequences of not divulging this information: Is it preferable to adhere to American law or to prevent these unfortunate situations from occurring?”

Dr. Gila Leiter, an OB/GYN and associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai Hospital in attendance, asked the panel if there was a responsibility to disclose hereditary conditions that run in families. Moreover, she asked if there is a requirement for those with an elevated risk due to family history to undergo genetic testing prior to the marriage. Rabbi Steinberg said that because of such disclosures and screenings, there has not been a single case of Tay-Sachs disease in the charedi community in Israel for the past ten years.

“Genetic testing has eradicated a serious disease that afflicted thousands of Jewish families over the years.”

The Presidential Scholars Lecture Series features distinguished scholars and thought leaders addressing a wide range of critical national and global issues. The series is a forum for public discourse as part of Touro’s commitment to intellectual inquiry and scholarship. The next event will take place on Feb. 24th on the topic of the changing face of healthcare.