By Rabbi Dr David Fox
Following my lecture, the woman approached me. An Orthodox nurse and midwife, she had attended my neuroscience course during a sabbatical from Israel. She asked if she might have a discussion about something puzzling her as a religious health professional. I immediately consented, always eager to explore the interface between health, science, and spirituality.
She was a skilled paediatric nurse at a large Israeli hospital in a large charedi community. She specialised in neonatal intensive care, and was usually present during complicated deliveries. What puzzled her was how the “chareidim” would bring their medical emergency questions to their rabbis rather than to the physicians familiar with the patient, with the history, and with the medical details. She cited one of many cases which she had observed in the hospital.
“We had a case of complicated pregnancy. The initial diagnostic tests were very concerning. We had doubts about the viability of the foetus and the doctors were not hopeful, based on the test findings. The husband ran to his rebbe, the head of their Chassidic sect, who came down to the hospital. He instructed the entire family – the husband, his brothers, his sisters, and his wife’s siblings and their spouses, to gather round the bed where the woman was nearing delivery. He then led them in songs, and then in joyful recitation of psalms. Once she went into labour, they all filed out and continued their songs and prayers nearby.
The baby was born but the tests showed both missing and malformed internal organs. The doctors hurried the child away into my unit, and advised the parents of the realities. Their rebbe was brought in and rather than looking dismayed or scared, he told everyone to come back into the delivery room. The prayers and dancing resumed. It all confused me…”
It seemed very clear to me that this fine, observant health professional was wrestling with the age-old principle of emunas chachamim – the religious axiom that we follow the instructions of our Sages. In fact, when the Torah directs us [Deuteronomy 17:11] not to veer right or left from their teachings, the Talmud asserts to us that “even if the Sages tell you that right is left and left is right”, follow their directions!
I began explaining this concept to my worthy student, and validated her confusion. I clarified the trust which many very religious Jews have for authentic Torah scholars, and how their faith may at times seem to run contrary to the facts on the ground according to science. The faith which that family placed in the words of their leader was sacrosanct. Such fervent belief would surely get them through, regardless of the outcome of their medical crisis.
She listened patiently, but, when I paused, she clarified her confusion.
“That part didn’t bother me. I understand culture, and I understand faith. What confused me is what happened next. “
The baby had been whisked away into the NICU. The physicians had studied the radiological profiles and did not expect the heart or lungs to function for more than a half hour before collapsing, owing to malformations, and missing “parts”. Yet, three or four hours later, the baby was defying all predictions, and from external appearance, looked quite robust.
She was summoned by the physicians to advise the parents that, whereas the infant’s heart was still beating and the breathing was intact, they should prepare for tragic and rapid loss.
“There is no hope. They should not be given any false hopes. Explain that to them. They will hear it from you because you are a religious woman.”
The nurse went into the room and began explaining the reality to the parents, when the elderly rabbi approached and smiled, telling her to have the doctors run their tests again. She agreed to deliver his message, but explained in polite and respectful terms to the sage that the doctors had vivid and unambiguous data already, and would not duplicate costly tests. The rabbi had smiled, saying, “They will listen.”
“And so, Dod Dovid [Hebrew for “Uncle David”, because this nurse is actually my niece], the tests and images were retaken. Everything was intact. Nothing was missing. Nothing was malformed. There were no malfunctions. And the baby is fine and healthy. So my question was not, “How can these chareidim defy medical evidence. My question was, ‘How can medical evidence change, and defy reality? Can you help me with that?’ It is a profoundly spiritual experience, and I have seen it happen so many times!”
Shall we believe that the first tests were mistaken, the images distorted, the radiologist in error…or is there a dimension where objective facts are pliable, malleable to the intervention of prayer, of joy, and of faith?