Religious Affairs: Medical honesty is the new best policy

Some haredim attempt to conceal health conditions from potential life partners. A new organization is attempting to change that.

By JONAH MANDEL
May 6, 2011 16:23
Haredim

Haredim 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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It was just before Shabbat during the intermediate days of Pessah that Rabbi Benjamin Fisher, founder and head of the Magen Laholeh organization, received a phone call from the principal of a Jerusalem seminary for haredi girls.

The principal told Fisher that a student of hers, who had gone on a number of dates with a yeshiva student with the intention of marrying, had telephoned her from the Western Wall, where the young couple had gone to pray before announcing their engagement.

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Only on the way to the Kotel did the young woman muster up the courage to ask him about a strange hand movement he was making, something she had noticed in previous meetings but had not felt comfortable inquiring about. The man said it was nothing serious, a result of the excitement, a trivial medical condition that was under control, since he was intermittently taking a certain pill.

Armed with the medication’s name, Fisher – who has established himself and his organization as a guiding authority for people seeking medical advice – consulted with a senior psychiatrist, who told him that the pill was a “second frontier” for treating depression.

He called back the principal, told her the young man was a liar and explained what the medicine was really for, and recommended the young woman not marry him. The match fell through. A minor scandal ensued, and Fisher had to travel to Bnei Brak to explain to two of the most senior rabbis there why he had given that advice. After hearing the story in full, the rabbis fully endorsed Fisher’s position.

This anecdote was one of the more powerful examples Fisher used in his short presentation Tuesday night at a Magen Laholeh conference in Jerusalem, to explain the importance of being truthful about medical conditions, and the grave danger and counterproductivity of concealing such conditions in matchmaking situations.

“There’s no way around it,” Fisher told the Bayit Vegan audience of primarily haredi men. “If you don’t reveal a condition during the meetings, it will boomerang. Lying just doesn’t work.”

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Fisher also told of a young woman who had discovered that her husband had multiple sclerosis and had managed to conceal it from her for three years.

“If I knew about disease ahead of our marriage, I would have probably still chosen to marry him. But I just can’t live with such dishonesty,” he cited her as saying. The couple divorced.

This case and many others, which seem to be occurring more and more in recent months, prompted Fisher’s decision to open a special department in his organization, which will serve as a discreet information center for people with medical conditions who aim to get married.

“Because of the confusion and the misinformation around medical conditions, we will be attuned to those in need of help or advice regarding matches,” Fisher said. “There are families with sicknesses; they will be able to consult with us on how and when to break the news to a potential match without exposing themselves. Hiding a medical condition might have been feasible 100 years ago, but today it certainly isn’t. Nobody ever benefited from hiding such information. It is better to ask us a day before [an engagement or wedding] and not a minute after.”

BROADLY SPEAKING, the attitudes toward successful matches in the haredi world are divided into considering them predestined – a heavenly decree – or a result of effort (hishtadlut). Fisher quoted Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach – one of the leading adjudicators of the 20th century, who instructed him to found Magen Laholeh in 1991 – as noting that a match needs, first and foremost, work from the couple to succeed. Keeping the sides informed of a medical condition, even if it risks toppling the whole endeavor, is also part of the essential efforts, Fisher said in Auerbach’s name.

The man tasked with heading this new and sensitive project is Rabbi Avraham Borodiansky, who described the bottom line of his mission as helping people build successful and lasting marriages.

“The opinion among the sages today is to tell the other side of a condition from the start, maybe even at the first meeting,” he said. “While such information could cause the match to fall through, at times the integrity sustains the match. People should let their medical condition be known, but the question is how exactly to do it – what to tell first, how much later.”

As Borodiansky noted, the topic is “a vast, complex issue that could fill volumes of an encyclopedia.”

While it is by no means a new phenomenon, “there have been too many recent cases of shidduchim [matches] falling apart because one side concealed a medical condition,” he said.

The new initiative is aimed primarily at those suffering from physical conditions, such as “diabetes, epilepsy, a history of cancer, being at high risk for cancer,” but it is clear to all involved that it will also be dealing with those afflicted with psychological disorders.

Borodiansky has already helped a dozen or so people with conditions of body and soul ahead of their marriages.

“What we are hoping to do is raise awareness and give the public tools to evaluate the situation, know what to reveal and when, and bring the issue to public debate,” Borodiansky said.

THE HAREDI world has undergone a change in recent years regarding when it is appropriate to inform someone of a medical condition. While in the past, leading rabbis would say that if a condition was under control, there was not necessarily a need to inform the other side, the leading authorities today, in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, are more inclined to encourage people to be totally up-front – though a rabbi approached with a specific case would rule according to the circumstances at hand.

The late former chief Sephardi Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu instructed that one must inform the other side of a potential match about a health condition, be it physical or psychological, on the third date – “once it becomes serious,” as Rabbi Binyamin David of the Puah Institute for Fertility According to Halacha explained.

It was at Eliyahu’s initiative that the Puah Institute was founded in 1991, and he served as its spiritual guide.

The rationale behind his directive is that a person should share such intimate information only with someone he or she considers a real candidate for marriage, to create sufficient closeness between the people. At the same time, “it is wrong to wait until a more advanced stage in the relationship, when the sides are already in love, or infatuated, to let them in on such loaded information,” David said, adding that most haredi rabbis hold a similar opinion.

Besides heading the institute’s French department, David is also in charge of the issues pertaining to marriage – from providing authoritative information on marrying someone with fertility problems, to helping make matches between people with compatible medical or sociological conditions. He preps people on how and when to tell their dates about a medical condition, and explains the procedure for in vitro fertilization. Over the years, David has helped hundreds of individuals that way, and made about 10 matches among those in the institute’s care.

Even with the growing awareness and sensitivity among rabbis, people who seek spouses through the matchmaking system and feel that they risk a “demotion” in their status if their medical condition, which is often hereditary and would be passed on to offspring, becomes known, are still all too frequently tempted to hide a situation – only to have it eventually exposed, or reveal it themselves at the last possible moment.

“You wouldn’t believe the phone calls I get from families on their way to a vort [engagement party] in total distress, after realizing at the last moment that they must finally tell the truth,” Fisher told his receptive audience on Tuesday.

The message of being up-front, while remaining tactful and sensitive, “must be disseminated widely, to increase peace and love between people and prevent strife and anger,” said Fisher.

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