Rav Soloveitchik and Social Issues: The miracle of modern medicine

Encountering G-d in the operating room. In memory of Dafna Meir Hy"d.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism מיון באיכילוב
מיון באיכילוב

We can meet G-d in many different corners and occurrences of our life, if we make ourselves ready to meet Him. Two weeks ago I successfully underwent spinal back surgery. The doctors did wonderful professional work, and relieved me of pain that had debilitated my life.

The day after, when praying, I gladly said to myself, “Rav Soloveitchik is so truthful when he teaches us that G-d reveals himself to us in the natural, physical laws and dynamics of his Creation. And when we scientifically study and learn the physical laws of nature, and use them to add dignity and quality to human life-in my case, removing back pain-the doctors are G-d’s agents for bestowing loving kindness. G-d was truly present in the operating room”.

A week after I had these thoughts, Dafna Meir, a nurse in the surgical and recovery ward of  Serroka Hospital, was murdered  because she was a Jew rebuilding the Jewish presence in our Land. Dafna composed and recited a prayer, before every tour of duty, that asked that she would be worthy of being G-d’s emissary in her nursing duties. This article is written to perpetuate her blessed memory, and to teach our national religious community the important lessons of her life, that G-d and medical professionals are joint partners in the loving kindness of healing.

Encountering G-d in both the transcendent and natural orders of existence

In Parashat Beshalach  the Jew encounters G-d in a stunning variety of human dilemmas. He promises to be our Healer in time of illness. The Jew also encounters G-d when crying out to G-d in fear of the oncoming Egyptian army at the red Sea; in  Nachshon’s leap of physical and spiritual faith into the Sea; in the marvel and joy of experiencing the miraculous dividing of the waters, the passage to safety, and in gazing on the punishment of the Egyptians; in Moses’s and Miriam’s songs of salvation; in the fear and thirst while traveling in the vast, cruel and empty desert; in G-d’s loving and supportive response to these fears, by granting manna and quail; in prayer and military bravery when combating the Amalekites; and most, most significantly, when G-d begins to teach Israel Torah, particularly the laws of the Shabbat (not daring to wait for Mt. Sinai ).

The weekly portion we have just read this past Shabbat thus teaches us how G-d will be our partner and comrade ( Rav Soloveitchik’s  terms)  in the whole gamut –from elevation to despair- of human experience, if only we prepare and allow ourselves to encounter and respond to Him.

In this vein, the Rav teaches us how to experience G-d in the varieties of life when he writes, concerning the daily gathering of the manna in the morning: “At times, the glorious event of….the transcendental order experiences itself not (only) through a genuine revelational experience or through a confrontation with a transcendent order….but (also) in an illumined existence….(when) life is a great joy…dreams come true…life makes sense and is replete with purposefulness. But the transcendent experience eventually comes to a stop. It does not continue for ever. G-d wills man to live, exist and work in the dimensions of the natural and the orderly. The beautiful vision of the Song of the Sea vanishes: the light of transcendent reality is extinguished."

"Amalek comes. Man finds himself in a cynical environment; he is lost and ignorant of purpose…Life is full of absurdities and contradictions. He experiences no revelation, no prophecy, no direct contact with G-d. To exist with dignity in the natural dimension…he must work hard…Second he must be ready to self sacrifice and give up for the sake of the community…” In brief, G-d demands of man to find the divine, not only in the sanctified, but also in the pale deeds of gray, natural, routine life.

Encountering G-d in the natural order of modern medicine

In his famous essay ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’ the Rav emphasizes that man can encounter (experience a mutual relationship) with G-d in two primary existential/experiential contexts. One (termed Adam the first) is by perceiving the beauty and the infinite intelligent design of nature/the universe as an expression of the divine act of Creation. This perception should awaken in man a desire to be a co-creator (the Rav’s term) with G-d: to learn how the natural world functions, and to reproduce that functioning in practical, technical ways so as to make human life more dignified and comfortable.

The purest example of an ‘Adam the first’ relationship with G-d is the scientist who advances medical knowledge, and the doctor who applies such knowledge in order to heal and extend life. They are, almost literally, co creators with G-d.

Dafna Meir wanted so much to a co-partner in this divine healing process.

(In parenthesis, the second category of encountering/relationship building with G-d, presented in the essay, is that of Adam the second. He relates to G-d by creating a tripartite, covenantal community composed of G-d and Torah, one’s own existential being and searches, and a very deep, true open mutual relationship with spouse, family and community. Only living the mitzvoth in such a covenantal community, the Rav teaches, can redeem man from the otherwise existential frailty, absurdity and nihility of daily human existence. Dafna also understood this type of partnership with G-d. She was a devoted wife and mother, provided foster care for two children, served on the settlement’s secretariat, and developed halakhic based health programs for women.)

The day following my operation, I emotionally recalled the Rav’s teachings about the medical personnel as co-creators with G-d.  I was thrilled to share these words of the Rav’s Torah with my children.

An educational challenge for the national religious sector

There is nothing too novel about the insights described above. Almost since its inception, our national religious school educators have emphasized that learning secular knowledge-particularly in the physical sciences – should enhance, and not detract, from our belief in G-d; and that he who applies such knowledge to improve human welfare is doing G-d’s will.

The educational challenge, however, has been and continues to be, how to make this cognitive belief as spiritually real as saying the Book of Psalms before an operation. Cognitively we understand that both praying at the grave of a Tzadik, and working in a medical laboratory can be spiritual encounters with G-d as the Creator. But, in practice, learning and practicing the natural sciences is usually experienced as a means of career advancement and satisfaction.

For example, how can we transform the everyday experience of working in a hospital into a spiritual religious experience of relating to G-d? I will humbly offer two examples. One, I worked for twelve years as a social worker in the Sharre Tzedek geriatric unit helping individuals and families cope with medical crisis and loss. I experienced the hospital as one, historical, covenantal ‘ingathering of the Jewish exiles’; helping Jews who came from all over the world, and had experienced in every bone of their body the almost unbearable twentieth century trials of our people. As G-d’s agent, I tried to help my client gain faith and emotional strength from their biographical, Jewish historical struggles, so as to more capably cope with their present medical crisis.

Similarly Daphna Meir was very spiritually sensitive to G-d’s presence, and to being |G-d’s agent, in the practice of her nursing profession. She wrote how she clearly and constantly saw, both the challenge and the opportunity, to be a co-creator with G-d of human welfare.

Somehow we, in the national religious community, must strive more earnestly to educationally inculcate the spiritual awareness that we, in practice, build a relationship with G-d, not only in the beit midrash, and by the gravesides of tzadikim, but also in our everyday use of knowledge of G-d’s natural order to improve human welfare in our trying, materialistic world.