The story happens so often that it’s almost cliché: A couple goes to the hospital to have a baby. When the doctor sees that the baby isn’t arriving as soon as he feels it should he tells the mother that she needs to be induced.
Being a devout, frum couple, and understanding the halachic implications of inducing labor, the husband goes out of the room and calls their Rav to ask what to do. The Rav then proceeds by asking several followup questions. What state is the mother in? How did the doctor phrase it? Did the doctor say x, or just y? Go back and ask the doctor about abc, etc.
The husband then goes back to the doctor for a followup conversation. After several rounds between the couple, the doctor, and the Rav, the Rav gives his ultimate psak as to what to do.
This is exactly the way it’s supposed to be done. Always. Doctors inform. And Rabbonim decide. There is no other way in halacha.
Why? Don’t we “trust the doctors”? Why would we even need a Rav? Don’t we trust our health departments, HHS, CDC, FDA, and other health entities and organizations? Don’t we believe in vi’nishmartem?
Somehow, everyone implicitly understands the answer to these rhetorical questions, but at risk of stating the obvious, let us attempt to provide answers.
Let’s establish a few points:
We don’t care about human life per sé. We only care about the Torah. And the Torah cares about human life. Hence, we care about human life. This distinction may seem esoteric or philosophical but its implications are enormous.
The Torah has its own definition for life, as it does for most concepts in society. Our definition of life, its scope, the extent to which we need to sacrifice for it, and how, are all defined by the shulchan aruch. Not by any other governing body.
The Torah says that one who desecrates the Shabbos is liable to the death sentence. According to Halacha, we therefore punish the violator in the “cruelest” of terms via death by stoning. Society at large would likely view this procedure as murder and inhumane.
Conversely, when the Torah commands us to save a life, we will violate Yom Kippur by removing wagonloads full of rubble to uncover what may only be a remote possibility of a live human being. Oftentimes, it is the Jews, and local chessed organizations that will continue the pursuit or search of a lost child or teenager for hours or days long after local first responders have decided that the “standard procedure” is to give up.
Furthermore, the doctor has other issues with which he needs to contend. He is required to follow the “standard of care”, i.e., to follow the rules and protocols taught to him in medical school and laid out by the various medical boards and medical governing bodies. If he makes a recommendation that is in violation of those standards and a mishap occurs, he can be sued for malpractice. Moreover, he can lose his license and will be unable to practice medicine ever again. It is very easy for a doctor to lose his license. Conversely, if he does follow the standard of care and a mishap occurs he will be generally exonerated of all wrongdoing since he has followed the standard.
Weighing in on serious issues such as the life of the birthing mother, the life of her unborn child, and related halachic matters is complicated. A humble Rav recognizes that he doesn’t always understand the metzius of the situation, let alone the medical nuances. Therefore, he will responsibly choose to be in contact with a doctor who does. The doctor can then appraise the Rav of the various aspects of the situation. An astute Rav will be able to discern if there is a true risk to the mother or baby or if the doctor is merely being overly cautious in an effort to follow protocol. Never, though, does a doctor ever preside over matters of halacha. That is the exclusive job of a Posek.