Photo Credit: Mosaica Press

Title: Rabbi Asher Weiss on Medical Halachic Issues, Volume 2
By Rav Asher Weiss
Mosaica Press

 

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Rabbi Asher Weiss is one of the most prominent rabbinical scholars, teachers of Torah and poskim in the world today. This volume, his second on halachic issues related to the medical field, is a welcome and timely addition to the English-language Torah library.

Though his expertise extends to all areas of Torah, Rabbi Weiss is particularly authoritative on halachic matters pertaining to medicine and health. During the Coronavirus pandemic Rabbi Weiss emerged as one of the leading rabbinic voices, together with Rabbi Hershel Schachter in the United States, who was outspoken and unequivocal regarding strict adherence to the guidelines of the mainstream health establishment.

The current volume includes essays – “maamarim” – and responsa that form a multifaceted view of the central theme of preservation of life in the face of a public medical crisis. In general, the specific challenges discussed in this volume are those presented by the Covid pandemic, although some earlier, pre-Covid material is included as well.

Time and time again, Rav Asher exhorts his followers, and anyone else inclined to heed his halachic pronouncements, to ‘follow the science’ and adhere to the recommendations of recognized physicians and the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health. He builds a solid case with sources culled from every stream and stratum of Jewish learning to demonstrate why observant Jews are obligated to follow the opinions of the mainstream medical establishment, and he goes to great lengths to explain why faith alone is insufficient and random Talmudic statements are irrelevant to this discussion.

When some voices in the Torah-observant community hesitated or even rejected vaccination mandates, Rabbi Weiss declared it a mitzvah to be vaccinated. He went so far as to consider the appropriateness of reciting the blessing “Shehecheyanu“ when receiving the vaccination.

Rav Asher received a question regarding an adult son whose father commanded him not to take the vaccine; Rav Asher responded that in his opinion the son should disobey his father because getting vaccinated is a mitzvah. Even though it is “the will of G-d” that children obey their parents, the obligation to follow the Torah and maintain one’s health is a stronger, overriding requirement.

In another case, Rabbi Weiss was asked by a new father whether it was permissible or even preferable to engage a mohel “with great yirat shamayim but who does not adhere to the Ministry of Health mask mandate.” The person who posed the question suggested that perhaps this situation might fall under the principle that “those engaged in performing a mitzvah are not susceptible to harm.” In his response, Rabbi Weiss cites – and then rejects – sources that support postponing brit milah during a pandemic; his objective is to convey the seriousness of the situation, and he does so thoroughly and convincingly. He then firmly rejects engaging a mohel who does not comply with masking regulations – even if this mohel is known to be pious, skilled, and has a “chazaka” with the family. Rav Weiss instructs his interlocutor to find a mohel who has yirat shamayim AND follows Ministry of Health protocols. The guiding principle, he explains, is that “danger overrides halachic prohibitions.”

Another response, dated Tammuz 5765, addresses a rabbi who had ruled that a fast day should be canceled due to a flu epidemic. Rabbi Weiss calls the basis of the ruling into question: The ruling was based on a precedent attributed to a similar ruling by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter during the cholera epidemic of 5609/1848. There is no formal record of this earlier ruling, nor is there any written primary source penned by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter himself. As Rabbi Weiss points out, various versions of the events surrounding the much-celebrated incident continue to circulate, making it difficult to know precisely what Rabbi Salanter had ruled, and what had actually transpired that year on Yom Kippur.

One well-known version is that Rav Yisrael Salanter commanded his congregants to eat in order to prevent his frail and ailing flock from dying, and publicly made kiddush. Rav Asher rejects this version on halachic grounds: According to an overwhelming majority of poskim, if a person must break their fast on Yom Kippur, no kiddush is recited. Rabbi Weiss does note the dissenting opinion of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, who agrees that while Yom Kippur does not generate an obligation to say kiddush, if Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, the obligation to recite kiddush on Shabbat stands, even on Yom Kippur.

Rav Weiss notes that in the year in question, 5609/1848, Yom Kippur did, in fact, coincide with Shabbat. Nonetheless, Rabbi Weiss writes , “it seems unlikely that Rabbi Yisrael Salanter ruled according to the opinion of Rabbi Akiva Eiger.”

It is worthwhile noting that Rabbi Yisrael Salanter had an indirect connection with Rabbi Akiva Eiger that may nonetheless support the version of events Rav Asher so roundly rejects, a connection that explains how Rabbi Yisrael Salanter received the mesorah of Rabbi Akiva Eiger. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was a student of the somewhat mysterious Rabbi Zundel of Salant (1786-1866), who, in turn, had studied with Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. Upon Rabbi Chaim’s death in 1821, Rabbi Zundel became a devotee of Rabbi Akiva Eiger. It is not far-fetched to assume that Rabbi Zundel transmitted the teachings of both Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin and Rabbi Akiva Eiger to his student Rav Yisrael Salanter, and Rav Yisrael may well have drawn upon the ruling of Rabbi Akiva Eiger on that particular Yom Kippur day.

Ultimately, though, the halachic-masoretic arguments were not the decisive factor in Rav Asher Weiss’s rejection of this source for the flu-epidemic ruling: Whatever the various versions of the episode involving Rabbi Yisrael Salanter may claim, this episode is rejected by Rabbi Weiss as a basis for halachic ruling on procedural grounds, because “one may not base halachic rulings on biographies and anecdotes of tzaddikim, only on the words of the poskim.” Absent a formal formulation or written halachic response, the story of Rav Yisrael Salanter’s instructions to his congregation on that particular Yom Kippur cannot be relied upon as precedent.

It is therefore strange that only a few pages later, in an essay devoted to the question of fasting during the Coronavirus pandemic, Rabbi Weiss cites the opinion of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter as precedent – as if it were not subject to conflicting narratives, and as if there was a formal ruling. One would have expected the editors of the volume to note this inconsistency.

Another area that remains unexplored – which requires a larger study that lies beyond the scope of this short review – is the comparison and contrast of Rabbi Weiss’s principle of ‘following the science’ in medical situations to the seemingly opposing principle of setting aside scientific findings and favoring mesorah regarding identification of the blue dye for techelet, a topic discussed at length in Rav Asher’s Hebrew Responsa.

This second volume of Rav Asher Weiss’s responsa and writings on medical-halachic issues is an important and timely work by a great scholar, posek and leader. We look forward to many more years of Rav Asher’s leadership and teaching, and anxiously await the publication of more of his important insights and decisions, both in Hebrew and English, to educate and enlighten the large and growing audience that thirsts for his words of Torah.

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Rabbi Ari Kahn is an author and educator. He lives in Givat Ze'ev, where he serves as Rabbi of the Mishkan Etrog community. His most recent book, his 12th, is called The Crowns on the Letters.”