(2 Kings 7:3-20)
April 16, 2005
The lepers at the gate of the Samarian capital were subject to a difficult predicament with seemingly no good alternatives. Inside the city, the inhabitants were starving because of the Aramean siege. Remaining in the gate of the city was no longer an alternative since this also meant almost certain death from starvation. The lepers weighed the only alternative which provided for them the possibility of life: \”If we decide to go into the town, what with the famine in the town, we will die there; and if we sit here, still we die. Come, let us desert to the Aramean camp. If they let us live; we shall live; and if they put us to death, we shall but die.\” (verse 4)
This tenuous situation served as the basis for a very interesting debate in the Talmud over whether it was permissible to consult a non-Jewish physician [since in Talmudic times this presented a potential risk that the physician might harm the patient because he was a Jew]: \”Said Raba in the name of Rabbi Johanan, and some say it was Rav Hisda in the name of Rabbi Johanan: In the case where there is uncertainty whether the patient will live or die, we must not allow the patient to consult the non-Jewish physician [since he might harm the patient intentionally and use the illness as an excuse]. But if the patient has an illness from which he will certainly die, he is allowed to have a non-Jewish physician attend him. [The Talmud raises the question:] \’Die, but there is always life of the moment to consider?\’ [The Talmud retorts:] \’We don\’t take life of the moment into consideration. [Again a question:] \’By what authority do you say that we don\’t take life of the moment into consideration?\’ [We learn from Scriptural authority:] \’If we say, we will enter the city, then the famine is in the city, and we shall die there etc.\’ We learn from this verse that life of the moment is not to be taken into consideration. (Adapted from Avodah Zarah 27b)
The specific question raised by Rabbi Johanan is, thank God, no longer an outstanding issue but the question of risk taking in medical treatment is most certainly still with us. This passage plays a role in the response of Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, one of the leading rabbinic poskim on medical issues. He was asked whether it was permissible for a person to undergo a risky medical procedure. He permitted the patient to undergo the risky procedure which had the potential to prolong the patient\’s life, in part, based on the Talmudic analysis of the verse from our story. Since the lepers willingly put themselves at risk in order to save their own lives, their behavior might serve as a paradigm for the patient in this case. He also asserts that doctors can use this as a model in the treatment of patients. (see Tzits Eliezer 4:13; 17:10)
The predicament of the lepers, then, comes to serve as a model for those in need.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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