Young Israel of New Rochelle welcomed one of Israel’s noted Jewish medical ethics experts as a scholar-in-residence on Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim, February 10. Dr. Alan Jotkowitz is a professor of medicine at the Ben Gurion University Faculty of Health Science in Beer Sheva, associate director for academic affairs of their School for International Health and senior physician at Soroka University Medical Center. He is the director of their Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics, which is named for the late Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, who served as chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and was one of the world’s foremost experts on Jewish medical ethics and its relevant halachot. Prior to making aliyah, Dr. Jotkowitz studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion, Yeshiva University and Yale University School of Medicine.
The YINR program included a Friday night oneg, attended by many of the community’s medical professionals and other members, and was titled “Can DNA Testing Tell Us Who is a Jew?” Dr. Jotkowitz cited many Judaic sources, from the Rambam and the Kuzari to modern-day rabbinic leaders, including his center’s namesake, as well as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (also a former chief rabbi of the UK) and Yeshiva University chancellor Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm.
Mitochondrial DNA is only passed from mother to child. Given that matrilineal descent determines one’s halachic status as a Jew, every cell in the human body contains this DNA, which can only be inherited from one’s mother. A recent Israeli rabbinic court case regarding an immigrant from the former Soviet Union used this medical fact to have the woman declared a Jew.
There were two talks given on Shabbat morning. The hashkama minyan discussed “Whom Do We Save First? A Halachic Perspective of Triage.” Featuring a mishna in the tractate Horayot and many commentaries that have been written on it, Dr. Jotkowitz outlined the longstanding criteria in previous generations that used gender, finances and social position to determine who should receive care. When there was only one kidney dialysis machine in the U.S., located in Seattle, a controversial ethics committee was formed to select who would be granted access to this “new” life-saving device.
The other session on Shabbat morning was called “What Can Jewish Stories Teach Us About Modern Medical Ethics?” In the well-known story of Rabbi Chanina Ben Tradyon, which is part of the Yom Kippur Musaf liturgy’s 10 Royal Martyrs (the Asara Harugei Malchut), his execution was first prolonged and then expedited. Dr. Jotkowitz showed how the four seemingly contrasting expressions by the condemned rabbi centuries ago mirrored the modern “five stages of grief” popularized by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.
In the closing session, the conversation dealt with “A Jewish Perspective on End-of Life Care.” This is one of the most debated subjects in medical ethics, and many have written on this subject.
Dr. Jotkowitz will be returning to New York this summer as a participant in Torah-in-Motion’s annual Jewish Medical Ethics conference, to be held in August in Syracuse, New York.
By Judy Berger