Abortion and End of Life Issues: Who is a True Gadol?

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg

Last week, I attended the Rabbinical Council of America convention, where I had the privilege to hear from one of the top medical ethicists in the world, Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg. Rabbi Dr. Steinberg shared with us many interesting experiences from his time as a doctor at Shaarei Tzedek hospital, when he frequently interacted with the Torah giants at that time, like Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.  He told us that Rav Waldenberg was a Posek who started dealing with modern day medical questions partly because his shul where he lived happened to be the shul near Shaarei Tzedek hospital.  If doctors had a complex question, they would write their question and submit it to him by shacharit and he would often respond with a lengthy, sometimes 20-page response, by mincha.

In 1976, a woman in Shaarei Tzedek hospital was in her sixth month of pregnancy and the fetus was found to have Tay-Sachs disease.  Rav Waldenberg was asked whether it would be halchically permissible for this woman to have an abortion. Rav Waldenberg took the position that non-Jews are Biblically prohibited to have an abortion, but Jews are not Biblically prohibited because the source of the Biblical prohibition, as understood from the Gemara in Sanhedrin (57b), is from Parshat Noach (9:6): “shofech dam ha’adam ba’adam damo yishafech” – someone who spills the blood of a person in a person shall be killed. The Gemara in Sanhedrin asks how one can spill the blood of a person within a person, and the Gemara answers that this refers to killing a fetus in its mother’s womb.  Furthermore, Rav Waldenberg asserted that since this prohibition is only recorded before the Torah was given and not afterwards, it only applies to non-Jews and not to Jews.  However, there is a rule cited in Masechet Chullin 33a that if something is forbidden to a non-Jew then it must be forbidden to a Jew. Therefore, Rav Waldenberg concluded that there is a Rabbinic prohibition for a Jew to have an abortion. However, since there is a halachic principle of “b’makom tza’ar lo gazru Rabanan,” that Rabbinic prohibitions are set sides in situations of pain and distress, based on this line of reasoning Rav Waldenberg allowed a mother in her sixth month to abort a Tay Sachs fetus since it caused tremendous stress to her.

Rabbi Dr. Steinberg, who was a young man of 23 at the time, asked Rav Waldenberg if he could publish Rav Waldenberg’s response to this question in a medical journal that he was starting, called Asya.  Rav Waldenberg agreed.  After the responsum was published in the journal, Rabbi Dr. Steinberg faced tremendous criticism for publishing this position.  In particular, there was a Rabbi in America who was very upset at this responsum.  That Rabbi was Rav Moshe Feinstein.

Meanwhile, Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, a prominent Rav, Posek and Dayan of the London Bet Din, passed away and a journal was published in his memory.  The publisher collected different Torah articles from different Torah leaders.  Rav Moshe Feinstein contributed an article to this journal on the topic of abortion.  Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote that abortion is a Torah prohibition and at the end of the article he wrote that there is a “chacham echad,” a wise man, who wrote in Asya that abortion is only a Rabbinic prohibition and Rav Moshe vehemently disagreed in very strong terms wih this claim.  Needless to say, when Rabbi Dr. Steinberg soon wrote a book about medicine in halacha according to the halachic rulings of Rav Waldenberg and when he asked Rav Waldenberg to write an approbation to the book, the latter acquiesced; however, instead of writing a simple one-page letter of approbation, he wrote a lengthy response to Rav Moshe Feinstein’s criticism.

After this debate between Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Waldenberg, anyone who wanted a heter, a leniency, in the area of abortion in similar circumstances would go to Rav Waldenberg for a leniency.  As such, some people might be inclined to say that Rav Waldenberg is a true Gadol Hador (Torah leader of the generation) because he understands human struggles and has the courage and sensitivity to be flexible with halachic standards when necessary.

Yet, when it came to end of life issues, Rav Waldenberg adopted a very stringent position.  Interestingly, Rav Waldenberg asserted that every minute of life is precious and we should try to save someone’s life even if he will have no real quality of life, even if it means extending life for only a day or two, and even if there is suffering.  Rav Waldenberg’s position is not a mainstream halachic position, but in this instance, he seems not to be sympathetic to the needs of the dying person who is suffering! Armed with this information, do we now assume that he is not a true Gadol Hador anymore because he is only sensitive to expectant mothers and not sick people at the end of life?  And what about Rav Moshe Feinstein, who was far more lenient with end of life issues but was stricter when it came to abortion? Is he not a true Gadol Hador because he is only sensitive to the sick and dying, but not to expectant mothers?

In much of American society, I would argue that the values underlying abortion and end of life issues are similar.  The goal in both situations is to prevent suffering.  I can see how someone who is a big proponent of individual rights would have a consistently permissive view when it comes to both of these issues.  However, that is not how we interpret halacha.  Rav Soloveitchik has asserted that every discipline has an internal logic and halacha must be studied only through its own lens.  According to Rav Soloveitchik, when we study Torah, “we surrender to the Almighty the every-day logic, or what I call mercantile logic, the logic of the businessman or the utilitarian person, and we embrace another logic – the logic mi-Sinai.”  At times that logic can lead to us to leniencies for the expectant mother and not the dying patient, and vice-versa.  A true Gadol Hador is not someone who is always lenient, or someone who is always stringent, for that matter.  A true Gadol Hador is someone who has mastered the halachic system, its methodology and its content.  He is not swayed by current trends and thinking, as he realizes that sometimes halachic thinking must be countercultural.  The Gadol Hador is fully committed to the methodology given to Moshe at Sinai and passed on from generation to generation, and considers it his holy mission to impart his understanding of that system to the Jewish people of his day.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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