Watch "Pink & Blue: Colors of Hereditary Cancer"

Friday, February 13, 2015


Recently I have been struck by the many pieces written by various Rabbi's addressing the "Jewish stance" on vaccination.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schor
Rabbi Jason Miller
Rabbi Dan Dorsch


Various quotes: "It's a parental 
responsibility" "It's a mitzvah" "Judaism places the highest value on preserving human life" 
I was particularly struck by the following:
(from Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin's piece Jewish anti-vaxxers take note: Parental responsibility trumps parental rights)

  • You’re not allowed to endanger yourself needlessly. The Shulchan Arukh, the classic code of Jewish law, says: “Wherever there is a potentially life-endangering pitfall or obstacle, it is a positive commandment to remove it, to be on guard against it and to take very good care in the matter, as the Torah says: “Guard yourself and guard your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:9-10).

Is this "Jewish take" the same when it comes to decisions surrounding cancer risk management decision making? Meaning: for those at a VERY high risk for cancer due a hereditary cancer gene mutation is the "Jewish stance" that a person SHOULD HAVE prophylactic surgeries that would drastically reduce their cancer risk? And, if so which prophylactic surgeries? How does science, healthcare and/or cancer risk percentages come into play when interpreting Jewish Law? Or how does Jewish Law come into play when interpreting healthcare, cancer risk percentages, & science? 1 in 40 Jewish people carry a BRCA gene mutation. In addition, there are MANY, MANY other hereditary cancer syndromes. There are different ramifications and percentages surrounding hereditary cancer risk for men and women. For example, should men who carry a gene mutation that puts them at higher risk for breast cancer--should these men be having a preventive mastectomy too?  How much percentage of risk constitutes parental responsibility or a "potentially life endangering pitfall"? Does the cancer risk percentage matter? Where does Jewish Law draw the line? If a person has an increased risk for cancer, even if the number is small and one chooses to reduce that risk with a prophylactic surgery --is it a positive commandment to remove it, to be on guard against it? 

Does Jewish Law even have an answer for this? Is cancer risk management decision making too intricate a subject with too many variables for Jewish Law to even have a position?

Finally, is there a different posture in Judaism regarding a woman's parental responsibility and a man's parental responsibility? Are there different postures within the reform, conservative, and orthodox communities?

I have more questions than answers. Jewish scholars and Rabbi's where should I stand on this subject? Parental responsibility was definitely a huge influence on my own cancer risk management decisions.

As a hereditary cancer/BRCA health advocate I always stress to others that what is right for one person may not be right for another. 

I often say, "While preventive surgery was right for me it may not be what is right for you and there are other less invasive options you can do to reduce your cancer risk." (please note that these other options I am referring to do not drastically reduce hereditary cancer risk like preventive surgeries do)

It's Friday night and my parental responsibility tells me I need to turn off the computer and be with my kids. I know that is right. But as I turn off electronics I am thinking about the parallels between vaccination decisions and cancer risk management decisions. As a Jewish woman, health advocate, and parent…am I right in advising others that they have "other" options than prophylactic surgery to reduce their hereditary cancer risk? According to Jewish Law, am I wrong?