Thank you for joining us for Lesson Five of Medicine and Morals: With You In Mind. The following is a brief summary of what we learned:
As humans, we stand apart from all other creatures because of our cognitive ability. When this ability to reason and discern is weakened or impaired, it is very tragic. Judaism obligates us to treat mental illness in the same way that we are obligated to treat physical illness. Halachah regards the recommendations of a qualified psychiatrist with the same esteem as the recommendations of other physicians, and takes account of mental well-being when issuing a ruling.
Historically the mentally disabled have been mistreated. King David poignantly expressed his distress over this maltreatment. The Torah exhorts us to overcome the tendency to exploit the weak as this is an indication of poor character. On the contrary, we are commanded to actively help those who are mentally disabled. An example is the law that mandates the court to appoint a guardian to respond to his/her charge’s needs.
When people are not able to make independent decisions due to mental incompetence, others are allowed to make the decisions for them. However, care must be taken to ensure that the decisions are made with only the benefit of the charge in mind. Thus, it would be forbidden to volunteer the kidney of an incompetent person to a person in need, even if the guardian would be willing to make a sacrifice of this kind. It would only be allowed if it could be somehow demonstrated that this act of donation had a direct benefit to the incompetent donor. It is in unclear whether the mitzvah of saving a life in and of itself can be considered a benefit to the incompetent donor.
Similarly, while an autonomous adult may volunteer for a non-risk drug trial that will not bring benefit to him/her but will benefit society, a guardian may not volunteer an incompetent person for such a trial. An experiment may be conducted on an incompetent person only if it presents a direct benefit to that person.
These rulings reinforce the idea that while we may opt at times to be “martyrs,” this does not permit us to demand this of others who are under our care. We must recall the divine image that is inherent in every human being. Thinking about this can help us treat all people with the dignity they deserve.
G-d only demands of us what we are able to do. Thus, while people are obligated in various mitzvot, we recognize that some people, due to their mental state, are not able to fulfill all of the religious obligations. These people must be taught according to their ability. However, there is tremendous value in encouraging religious participation even in those who are not obligated to do so. This boosts the mental health of the individual by instilling in him/her a sense of belonging as well as a feeling of spiritual fulfillment.
Indeed, we must recall that we are created by G-d and fashioned for a certain purpose. In this regard, despite our differences, we are all equal in the eyes of G-d.
We look forward to seeing you next week for our final lesson of Medicine and Morals in which we will explore the Jewish approach to the issues of patient confidentiality.