(Vol. LXIV, 1954, pp. 80-81)
QUESTION: As a physician I know that in being truthful with my patients I retain their confidence as well as my own self-respect. But it is not always possible for me to disclose all I know or have reason to suspect. I feel at times that the interest of my patient is better served if I withhold from him information of a shocking nature.
Having lived all my life in religious surroundings, I have often wondered what Jewish religion has to say on the subject. Am I ever justified, on religious grounds, in keeping the truth from my patients?
ANSWER: Our ancient teachers, from whose utterances we draw deep draughts of wisdom even today, often voiced the conviction that religion was the handmaid rather than the lord of life. They held, for example, that with the exception of a number of vital negative commandments, the injunction to live in accord with the law precluded any situation in which complete obedience might prove perilous to life and health (Sifra, Lev. 18:5)
It is not strange, therefore, to hear these pious men express the view that in order to preserve peaceful relations among men, the bare truth may be given an appropriate disguise. In fact, they discover that on one occasion God Himself, to forestall any possible discord between Abraham and Sarah, deviated from the line of strict veracity (Yevamot 65b).
This general attitude finds embodiment in some legal enactments of the Rabbis. We are enjoined, for example, from apprising a sick person of the death of a close member of his family, lest the mental disturbance aggravate his condition (Yoreh De-a 337). Again, when one is about to die, and confession of his sins is in order, he shall be summoned to this last rite in a hopeful tone and in an atmosphere free from any display of grief. The prescribed formula reads: "Many men, after having made their final confession, continued to live; many others, having failed to confess, also failed to recover. You who are about to confess your sins will surely be rewarded with renewed life. Also, confession assures one of his due portion of the world to come" (ibid., 338).
The physician, who respects the truth and maintains truthful relations with all men, need have no qualms of conscience when, in certain special cases, in the pursuit of the good of a patient, he complies with the requirements of the situation and suppresses what appears to him to be the truth.
S.B. Freehof, "Dying Patient Informed of his Condition," in Reform Responsa, pp. 122ff.