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Recently, an article published on a popular Jewish website, told the story of man who was told by a doctor that he needed to have surgery. He went to a Gadol Hador (great Rabbi) to ask him for advice and the Rabbi told him not to do the surgery (the article then says that later the doctor came and told the man it is good thing you didn't do the surgery because we now realize it would have been too risky).

Is it permissible to listen to a Rabbi and go against the medical advice of a doctor?

Please provide sources to go along with your answer. Responsa directly talking about this topic would be optimal.

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    Tzafnas Paneach, a belated welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks very much for bringing your questions here! It's especially impressive that you're able to take time out from running the Egyptian economy to participate. I look forward to seeing you around. – Isaac Moses Jan 5 '16 at 18:34
  • Folks, there are too many comments here. If you have an answer, please post it as an answer. If you seek clarification of the question or wish to offer an improvement to it, that's what comments are for (but no comment here yet has been of that ilk). I'm deleting all these comments. – msh210 Jan 5 '16 at 19:14
  • That is a poorly written article. It implies that the words of the Rabbi were proven correct by the doctors calling to say the procedure shouldn't be done after the fact. But what it sounds like actually happened is the doctors were unsure to being with. – Aaron Jan 5 '16 at 22:55
  • Whatever advice the Gadol in the story actually gave, obviously he ruled that it was permissible and appropriate to give the advice and permissible and appropriate for the patient to follow it. – Fred Jan 6 '16 at 6:43
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The Maharik as well as the Shevus Yaakov bring the Gemara in Niddah to prove that, on the contrary, Chazal would rely on the doctor's prognosis even in cases of potential Kares. Indeed, as the Rambam and many others point out, the Rabbi's knowledge of the sciences was certainly not all-incorporative, and drew upon modern (at the time) science for it's data. Even the Chazon Ish pointed out that the Torah list of Treifos (disqualifying blemishes in an animal) is inaccurate to our current medical knowledge, and that Chazal were not as advanced medically as we are today.

Therefore, to blatantly reject a doctor's opinion certainly seems to go against the method that Chazal have provided us.

Now, I do understand that there may be discrepancy in areas of medicine where there really is no clear answer, and we don't know the results of a given surgery. But this is surely the general outline of the approach.

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    Why do you assume that the Gadol in question was giving a medical opinion? – HaLeiVi Jan 5 '16 at 15:27
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    Actually I believe the Chzon Ish says the opposite about treifos. That the halachic definition crystalized and remained constant even while the conditions that render it mortally wounded changed. Please cite the sources so we can evaluate their accuracy. The Rambam citation is somewhat misleading too, since his hilchot de'ot draws heavily on Chazal's advice about health. – mevaqesh Jan 5 '16 at 16:17
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    To quote the Chazon Ish: ונמסר לחכמים לקבוע הטריפות ע"פ רוח קדשם שהופיע עליהם, והנה היה צריך להקבע בב' האלפים תורה כדאמר ע"ז ט' א', דיני הטריפות לדורות, וכדאמר ב"מ פ"ו א' רבי ור"נ סוף משנה ר"א ורבינא סוף הוראה, ואין לנו תורה חדשה אחריהם והיו קביעות הטריפות כפי השגחתו ית' בזמן ההוא, ואותן המחלות שהיו פרוונקא דמלאכא דמותא בזמן ההוא שלא נתן הקב"ה לברואיו אז רפואת תעלה להן המה הטריפות שאסרתן התורה בין בזמן ההוא, ובין בזמן של הדורות הבאים שמסר הקב"ה את משפטי התורה שלהן לחכמי הדורות ההם – mevaqesh Jan 5 '16 at 16:21
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    That is, the definition of a treifa is a condition which an animal in the time of Chazal would have died from. There is nothing inaccurate about this. It is a technical definition that was true in the time of Chazal and remains true now... – mevaqesh Jan 5 '16 at 16:23
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The article in question was poorly reported, according to one of the commenters who claims to personally know the one who asked the opinion of the Gadol. According to him, the doctors were not firmly behind the procedure to start with! So we should be discussing the issue of Safek/doubt. That issue is discussed in the Eighth Perek of Maseches Yoma, regarding one who is doubtful if he has the strength to fast on Yom Kippur. There, it discusses three scenarios:

(1) if a doctor states that it could be dangerous, he should not fast.

(2) if doctors disagree, then we follow the majority informed opinion.

(3) If, however, doctors say that he is able to fast and the patient says he is not able to fast, then even if 100 doctors state categorically that he can fast, halachically he shouldn't fast because "Adam yodeya tzaras nafsho." A person knows the trouble of his soul/body.

In 2007, a nursing book (sorry, no reference available) referred to a "new theory" of treating patients. Rather than the old days, when the Doctor was The Word, and whatever he said, went without question, it is best to tap into the patient's knowledge and include his opinion. I believe this is what was occurring here.

Personally, I have had doctors disagree somewhat and in one case radically, with my own care. My quality of life would have been severely hampered for the 4-5 years if I would have followed one doctor. That doctor had advised me to go to a second doctor (Dr AR) for a bone marrow transplant. The 2nd doctor said, "you are doing well, the transplant is life threatening, why get involved?" Eventually the two doctors wanted me to take a therapy 2x or 3x monthly, for my rare condition but doesn't have a definite medical protocol that was similar to another condition for which monthly therapy was the protocol. I agreed at first. Then I had an idea. The first doctor told me "I have no time. Dr AR is a good doctor. He said twice monthly so we will follow him! See you Monday." And hung up, not allowing me to express my idea. Concerned, I called Dr AR and presented my idea and he said, "Good idea!" We followed that protocol for 4-5 years and need only 3 months of that therapy.

Bottom line, the need for every procedure is not clear. There is no such thing as "settled science." Science by definition is not settled. Procedures that were absolutely essential yesterday may be declared dangerous tomorrow (for instance, the statins controversy, among many many others.)

And some doctors are incredibly arrogant. My father in law had a stroke. He had difficulty responding to most everything. The doctor tried to convince me almost immediately that he was a vegetable, that he couldn't even hear. When he said that, I knew he was wrong. I had put tefillin on and said Ashrei with him daily. He was of Sefardi background. When I reached "Po'tey'ach et yadecha...," he Always consistently lifted his hands and turned his palms upwards, for seven months after his stroke, until a few days before he passed away. He also responded to my children's names the day before passed away.

Doctors are wonderful. But they have many inconsistencies, disagreements and they sometimes do questionable things. Being proactive in your care or even having an alternate opinion, or going to talk over a concern or clouded opinion/decision with a great man is not a bad idea.

  • Interesting analysis and source. Offhand, re item #3 - Is this stated as a general rule to all medical conditions, or specifically regarding YK fasting? In particular, one who is in horrible pain, often opts to end his life or he is otherwise delirious. At what point is a person's own decision nullified? – DanF Jan 5 '16 at 22:46
  • @DanF That isn't a halacha about obeying all the patient's wishes. It's a halacha about erring on the side of trusting that the patient knows he has a certain medical need for food even if the doctors don't think he does. – Fred Jan 6 '16 at 6:41
  • DanF We're talking here about a healthy person who has a sincere desire to keep the Torah but still has concerns that he will not make it if he fasts. Just to add: the drs are assuredly Yrei Shamayim (or mei'si'ach l'fi tumam)as well. Last week, in discussing another issue, a non religious dr very pompously announced to me that he tells anyone who is sick (not "seriously ill") that you just don't fast. (and I say this as one whose doctor told him -and who followed that advice- to drink on Yom Kippur for a serious kidney condition. I drank "pachos-pachos" every 10-15 minutes throughout the day – R Yisroel Meir Vogel Jan 6 '16 at 12:38

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