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Where Worlds Collide

May 9, 2009 | by

At the intersection of modern medicine and Jewish law stands Dr. Edward Reichman.

Dr. Edward Reichman is a pretty laconic fellow, the kind of guy who takes most things in stride even when making the kinds of life-and-death decisions that confront him on every shift as an emergency room doctor at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

But excitement rushes into his voice when he talks about two things: his three young children, and the relevance of Jewish law to modern medicine.

At a time when advances in medical research keep cloning in the headlines, presenting moral challenges to doctors, ethicists, clergy and politicians, and when the number of identified "Ashkenazi Jewish" genetic diseases grows so rapidly that obstetricians can hardly keep up with the blood tests they need to offer pregnant women, Reichman's combination of interests has immediate relevance.

For Ed Reichman, 38, is not only a doctor, he's also an Orthodox rabbi -- one of the few practicing physicians with ordination, and a rising star in the field of religious medical ethics. By day (and, when he has to cover an extra shift, by night), Reichman can be found in the ER at Montefiore, in the Bronx. He rarely wears a white coat. "I waver back and forth about whether it's good for the patient-doctor dynamic or not," he says. But a yarmulke is always clipped to his short brown hair.

The wisdom offered by classical Jewish texts can be brought to bear on contemporary medical challenges.

On weekends and whenever else he can find time, the Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi speaks at synagogues and medical schools, yeshivas and scientific conferences, about the wisdom offered by classical Jewish commentators and texts that can be brought to bear on contemporary medical challenges.

These days, people want him to speak most often about stem cell research. But with the persistent threat of bio-terrorism, they're also interested in hearing about anthrax and smallpox from a halachic (Jewish legal) perspective.

"According to some scientists, anthrax is one of the Ten Plagues, the fifth one, which struck animals and humans," says Reichman, citing medical literature by infectious disease specialists.

He's a guy who loves a good library and a good database. Some of his favorite time is spent digging deep for unknown historical medical and Jewish legal gems in libraries at the Academy of Medicine in New York, and in the British Library in London. He also enthuses about the Bar-Ilan University database, which contains thousands of searchable Orthodox Jewish legal decisions, known as responsa.

Jewish law has always been applied to medical challenges, and the issues continue to capture the contemporary imagination. "Medical analysis of the Bible dates back centuries," he says. Conjecturing about the possible medical causes of the blindness of Isaac and the limp of Jacob "is fun table talk," says Reichman.

His special importance lies in "the very fact that he is a Torah observant Jew and hasn't found it difficult to live in one world, in which Torah ethics and morals serve as an accurate guide to how a physician should behave," said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a renowned expert on Jewish medical ethics and professor at Yeshiva University. "In this world personalities are fragmented. A doctor is a doctor during the week and on Saturday or Sunday he's a man of faith. The idea that a doctor is a man of faith all week is one of the most important lessons that he's teaching people by his very presence."


Reichman was raised in Milwaukee, the son of an Orthodox pulpit rabbi and a Hebrew teacher. He attended yeshiva high school and then spent a year at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem, before going on to college at Yeshiva University. As a kid, he loved science. When he got to college, "my big debate was whether to go to rabbinical school or to become a doctor."

His parents, knowing how financially demanding life as a congregational rabbi can be, urged him to choose medical school.

For a while, Reichman says, "I decided not to decide." Then he realized that becoming a doctor required the energy of youth, which led him to medical school first. By the time he finished the classroom work, he felt ready to go to rabbinical school. But his medical training wasn't complete -- he still had the grueling years of internship and residency to complete.

We need to make sure that the cutting edge of medicine is in continual dialogue with the rabbinic authorities.

For a while he tried combining both, working as an intern at the side of Dr. Fred Rosner, a well-known medical ethicist, at the Queens Hospital Center, taking the night shift so that he could study at Yeshiva University's seminary during the day. Then he put rabbinical school on hold to finish two more years of medical residency. After that, he worked part-time at Montefiore and went back to seminary full time.

By then he had married Sara Reichman, who now works as a pediatric psychologist in the religious community in Brooklyn. The next five years of Reichman's life were devoted to full-time doctoring, starting a family and finishing his requirements for smicha (rabbinic ordination), taking a course or two whenever he could.

"I became a rabbi to connect medicine and halacha," he says. "What we really need to address these modern advances is to make sure that the cutting edge of medicine is in continual dialogue with the rabbinic authorities.

"It's such an exciting time in medical research, which literally changes every week -- there's always something happening with stem cells, cloning, genetics, and it radically changes the way we look at the world. Jewish law has always kept abreast of these things, and I find that a very exciting interface."


Though he's got plenty to do between seeing ER patients and being at home in Cedarhurst, Long Island, with his wife and three children -- Shmuli, 6, Ari, 3, and daughter Shoshana, who is 1 -- he's also active in organizations related to his interests.

He recently joined the medical board of the New York Organ Donor Network in an effort to advance awareness of organ donation in the Jewish community. "There are appallingly low rates of donation among Jews compared to the general population," he said, because "there's a commonly accepted notion that Judaism doesn't necessarily accept organ donation, which is not the case."

He's also involved with the Center for the Study of Science and Religion at Columbia University, where he is planning an April conference on Jewish genetic diseases.

"We don't have a medically informed rabbinate in any of the movements, yet rabbis have to counsel people on genetic testing and other emotional issues. It would be even better if there were more rabbis who were practicing physicians," said Robert Pollack, director of the center, whose goal is to bring religious insight into the context of science, and to bring scientific data into the field of religion.

Through the center, Reichman has met with groups of Columbia University Medical School students to talk about the relationship of halacha to questions on the beginning and end of life.

His big project is a one-stop on-line shop where scholars and clergy can probe nuances of medical and Jewish religious literature

His big project now is organizing a mega-database on Jewish medical ethics, a one-stop on-line shop where scholars and clergy can probe nuances of medical and Jewish religious literature, with all-encompassing archives of classical and contemporary literature. Reichman's goal is to make it a place where medical and religious professionals can go for bibliographical references; where day school, yeshiva and Hebrew school educators will find curricula dealing with Jewish medical ethics; and where laypeople can seek guidance on the medical challenges they face. It would be a place where someone dealing with infertility could go to get information and ask a rabbi for an educational answer, rather than a religious decision.

Ultimately, he also hopes to have an e-mail list feature that would keep people updated on medical developments and their halachic implications. He's working with the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, on whose board he sits, to get the Internet project off the ground.

"The principals of halacha are constant and immutable," he said, "and can be applied in every generation to every new medical circumstance. Jewish law is contemporary, real, fluid and applicable. This field really shows that like no other."

courtesy of The Jewish Week


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