"Doctor, if a man had chest pain, can he walk home for two hours [on Shabbos]?"
"It depends what kind of pain."
"The doctors said it wasn't heart pain. Can he walk home? I don't think it's safe to walk home. The rabbi said he could take a car home."
From this conversation (which went on for some time) I learned a number of things. One of them was that the guy in question (who got to ride back to Borough Park on late Friday night via car service - I wonder if he got dropped off a couple of blocks from home?) has 11 kids in his house. No wonder he's having chest pain.
The other was that the Satmar rebbe (the recently deceased one? one or more of his quarreling heirs?) apparently was of the opinion that presenting to the hospital with chest pain was enough of a sofek pikuach nefesh to make riding in a car on the Shabbat permissible.
This raises all sorts of questions, predominant among which (as usual) is whether this opinion as relayed to me by Some Random Satmar Guy is faithfully rendered at all. Maybe the Satmar rebbe (or various present-day quarreling rebbes) holds nothing of the sort. If that's the case, never mind.
However, let's assume that the above rendering is true. Then two questions: (a) is a doctor the right person to ask for the definition of sofek pikuach nefesh? (b) if a doctor is the right person to ask, how would she judge?
A doctor might not be the right person to ask because one might hold (I don't, but one might) that halachic categories are to be determined by halachic authorities. Just as pikuach nefesh has a halachic cutoff (several, actually, but "a dangerously ill person" being the most prominent among them), so does sofek pikuach nefesh. The problem is that while there are intricate discussions about the precise definition and interpretation of safek sfeika, the issue of sofek itself is something I'm not aware of any conclusive opinions about. Is doubt probabilistic, intuitive, psychological?Thus even the strict constructionists - which I am not - who believe in immutable and exactly specified halachic categories would have great difficulty specifying a sofek pikuach nefesh, let alone a pikuach nefesh, without the help of health workers.
The question is, how are we to translate halachic categories into medical ones? There are sick people who look terribly ill to the layperson but a doctor knows (or is said to know!) that these people will get better. The converse is true.
Then it is not rabbis alone to whom we need to have recourse in the definition of sofek pikuach nefesh (as I write this I more and more realize that pikuach nefesh itself has the same definitional complexities), but health care professionals (most often doctors) together with rabbis.
I don't think doctors can make the definitions; that's for halachah to work out with their help. But doctors do need to figure out some way to translate their thoughts into lay-cum-halachic language. And that is difficult, for epistemologic, not just lexical reasons.
In the next post I consider how a doctor might answer the question, "Will I die with this chest pain, doctor?" In the interim, though, consider the possibility that the doctor is not the right person after all, but the community.
An example of this position is found in an interesting article by a Rabbi M. M. Farbshtein (I don't know if I'm transliterating his name correctly) in the journal Assia (my translation):
[T]he question up to what level of possibility [doubt, sofek] something is considered sofek pikuach nefesh does not have an objective answer, but rather [is according to] the assessment of the community that the activity was done for the sake of saving a life [pikuach nefesh]. The situation in which such an activity is required is considered to be "sofek pikuach nefesh."
The question then becomes: what community are we talking about, and how does it decide?
That's too big for now. We'll return to the doctors in the next post. What does "risk of death" mean for a doctor contemplating a patient with chest pain?