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  • Gentleness and Patience in the Medical Ethics Decision Making of Rabbis Benzion Uziel and Haim David Halevy
  • Alan Jotkowitz (bio)


The year 2008 marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Rabbi Haim David Halevy, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and the author of numerous halachic works. Rabbi Halevy saw himself first and foremost as a student of the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel Benzion Uziel, whom he served as personal secretary for two years. In his work life and particularly in his role as a posek (halachic decisor), Rabbi Halevy tried to follow in the footsteps of his mentor. In an essay describing the halachic methodology of Rabbi Uziel, Rabbi Halevy claimed that there was an intimate connection between a decisor's love of humanity and his halachic rulings.1 Referring to Rabbi Uziel, he maintained that it was impossible for him to separate his great love of Israel from his role as a posek. Rabbi Halevy recognizes the intellectual difficulty with this position. He himself asks: how can emotional feelings impact on supposedly rational halachic decision making? The answer according to Rabbi Halevy lies in a sophisticated understanding of the halachic process. In elucidating the Talmudic statement, "both opinions are the word of God", the medieval commentator the Ritva explains, "when Moshe went up to receive the Torah, it was shown to him that every matter was subject to forty nine lenient and forty nine stringent approaches. When he asked about this, God answered that the scholars of each generation were given the authority to decide among these perspectives in order to establish the halacha."2 Rabbi Halevy's model is the ancient sage Hillel whose rulings were renowned for their sensitivity to the human condition and recognition of human frailty. For example, there is [End Page 386] a famous disagreement between Hillel and Shammai recorded in the Talmud:

How does one dance before a bride? [what does one sing before her?]" Bet Shammai maintained: "Each bride—as she is! Bet Hillel exclaimed "Beautiful and gracious bride" Bet Shammai said to Bet Hillel: If she were lame or blind can you say she is beautiful and pious? Doesn't the Torah teach us to stay far away from falsehood? To this Bet Hillel answered: According to your opinion, if someone makes a bad purchase in the market should one (who sees it) praise it in his eyes or criticize it, It must be said that he should praise it! "From here the Rabbis said: a person's disposition toward others should be congenial."3

Rabbi Halevy explains based on the principle of "both opinions are the word of God" that both perspectives are true. Shammai's position is based on the biblical verse "you should distance yourself from falsehood" and since the Torah is the source of ultimate truth, Shammai's position must be correct. But Hillel's position is also true because if the law was according to Shammai "the world would unable to exist and the life of the bride would also be destroyed because her husband would now understand what his friends thought of her".4 Apparently, according to Rabbi Halevy there are sources of truth in the world separate from the Torah and these are necessary factors in halachic decision making. In addition, to the fate of the world if it lived according to the rigid principles of Shammai, Rabbi Halevy was also concerned about the plight of the offended bride and this concern for the individual is a hallmark of his and Rabbi Uziel's rulings. In his own words:

In our generation there are accepted rules of how to decide the halacha, however we also have the principle of "gentleness and patience" which is an important basis of halachic decision making, Because this is the strength of God's eternal Torah and it would cease to be an eternal Torah if not for the fact that that the posek has the ability to rule based on the recognized principle of psak and among them consideration for human frailty and recognition of human needs, like the example of Hillel.5

To support these contentions he brings examples from...


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