Jewish Guide to Practical Medical Decision-Making
By Rabbi Jason Weiner
A successful contributor to the literature on medical halacha must exemplify a strikingly wide range of characteristics: high-level Torah scholarship, intimate knowledge of current medical practice, extensive interactions with top-tier halachic authority, a deep understanding of the ethical underpinnings of current controversies in medical ethics, and a compassionate appreciation for the excruciating challenges confronting patients and their families.
Rabbi Jason Weiner’s Jewish Guide to Practical Medical Decision-Making is successful precisely because its author embodies each of these qualities. Rabbi Weiner is a fine talmid chacham and scholar of medical halakha who, as senior rabbi and director of the Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, and member of its End of Life Committee, Organ Donor Council and Bioethics Committee, confronts medical halacha questions from all these angles on a daily basis. What is more, Rabbi Weiner maintains a close relationship with leading halakhic authorities such as Rav Asher Weiss and Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, both of whom penned approbations to the book.
Drawing upon this range of knowledge and experience in the book’s earlier chapters, Rabbi Weiner tackles questions such as the extent to which physicians must disclose full information to the patient and family, mental illness in Jewish law, engaging in dangerous procedures, medical decision-making on behalf of children and incapacitated patients, halachic considerations in palliative care, and deathbed prayers.
The later chapters turn to burning questions including composing an advanced directive, withholding care at the end of life, triage, organ donation, loss of a baby or fetus, autopsy and cremation, organ donations, and a host of cutting-edge scenarios involving reproductive technology.
His extensive research and considerable expertise notwithstanding, Rabbi Weiner writes in a manner that is clear to the scholar and layperson alike. Indeed, as others have noted, this book is likely to serve as a resource not only to the student of halacha but also to patients, families, and doctors who confront these issues. Simultaneously, the copious footnotes enable the curious reader to engage in further, in-depth study.
Of course, there are a number of inherent difficulties in the attempt to write such a book, and Rabbi Weiner’s is no exception. The state of current medical practice is a moving target. In this environment, even a fully current book runs the risk of becoming quickly outdated.
Further, there are inevitable sacrifices made in seeking to balance the needs of the halachic layperson and scholar. Presumably in seeking to strike this balance, Rabbi Weiner keeps the chapters practical and relatively concise, while including extensive references and excurses in the footnotes. To these he adds a number of appendices that appear throughout the book. Still, for the scholar looking to engage in higher-level learning, more extensive essays (which Rabbi Weiner has written and, G-d willing, will continue to write) might prove more useful.
Finally, as others have noted, Rabbi Weiner does not tackle questions related to homsexuality and transgender, including the halachic status of gender reassignment surgery. Perhaps Rabbi Weiner feels that these questions are too sensitive to address in a popular work such as this. Whatever the reason, Rav Asher Weiss has emerged as a leading voice in these areas, and I hope that Rabbi Weiner will find future opportunities to offer authentic halakhic perspectives on even more of the burning cultural and medical issues of our time.
These few limitations notwithstanding, I firmly recommend Rabbi Weiner’s book. It is not everyday that one encounters a work that so neatly fuses scholarship with accessibility, and technical expertise with compassion. If you haven’t yet experienced this unusual combination firsthand, I urge you to pick up a copy of this Jewish Guide to Practical Medical Decision-Making.