The Authority of The Experts and The Individual
These images were floating around social media this week, accompanied by nervous jokes about the shortage of vaccines. “The vaccines intended for one million people, miraculously were enough to last for eight million people.
This week a congregant asked if I would take the vaccine when it becomes available to me. The question took me by surprise. “Of course. I believe in experts” was my reply. This is a very Jewish answer.
My professor of Talmud, Dr. Mark Washofsky, has recently written for an impressive collection of articles by the faculty of Hebrew Union College, Jewish Thoughts and Responses to COVID-19. https://scriptions.huc.edu Dr. Washofsky’s contribution is entitled, “On The Instruction of Experts: Some Halakhic Reflections on Science and the Pandemic.” He explains “From this mitzvah to save life it follows that the practice of medicine (refuah), the activity by which we commonly often preserve life, is itself a mitzvah, even though the Torah contains no explicit commandment authorizing physicians to do their work.”
The classic case is recorded in the Mishneh, Yoma 8:5. “A person who is ill on Yom Kippur is fed according to the instruction of experts.” The Talmud (B. Yoma 83a) challenges whether the expert has decision-making authority in all cases. “If the patient says (on Yom Kippur) ‘I need to eat’ and the physician says ‘he doesn’t need to eat,’ we follow the wishes of the patient, because it is written in Proverbs 14:10 ‘The heart knows its own suffering.’” Why is “treatment” always favoured whether it is the patient or the expert who calls for it? Because we always err on the side of saving life. For the full discourse, see Dr. Washofsky’s teaching here: https://scriptions.huc.edu/scriptions/on-the-instruction-of-experts-some-halakhic-reflections-on-science-and-the-pandemic
We will have many questions to ask and answer over the coming months. How and when do we open our doors responsibly? While we will, of course, follow every protocol required by municipal and provincial public health experts, and while on-line services will continue to be an option for those who choose to stay home for one reason or another, how will we reassure congregants and guests that it is safe to return to our sanctuaries, to attend life cycle events, to dance a hora? And how will we greet one another when we do? Are handshakes a custom of the past? Will Shabbat hugs and kisses be permitted? How will we break bread (or bagels) together?
Just as we commit ourselves to staying safe in our homes for the coming months, it is exciting to turn our attention to the countless questions which will need to be asked and answered in order to open again. I don’t yet know how or when, but I do know that we will all rely on experts to guide us along the life-affirming road to discovery and discernment.
It’s hard to see Chanukah go. Its extra light was especially appreciated this year. Today we scrape off the melted wax from our Chanukah menorahs and put away the dreidls until next year. Then we turn to lay down the white tablecloth and prepare for Shabbat. As the light of the Chanukah candles gives way to the light of the Shabbat candles, let the lights within be illuminated by them. Shabbat Shalom.