Cochlear Implants & Jewish Law

And the ears of the deaf shall Be unstopped.

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Jewish Bioethical Perspectives

From a Jewish bioethical perspective, the cochlear implant is in a category by itself. The fundamental distinguishing feature between the cochlear implant and other medical procedures is that the cochlear implant is surgically implanted in individuals who are deaf, but otherwise completely healthy. Although Jews are commanded to break every Jewish law, except for those against murder, idolatry, and incestuous or adulterous sexual intercourse, in the interest of saving a life,deafness is not a life-threatening condition.

In the Jewish tradition, since the human body belongs to God and is created in the image of God, we have a responsibility to safeguard and protect the body. Dorff writes that, "we are obligated to avoid danger and injury…Jewish law views endangering one's health as worse than violating a ritual prohibition."This sentiment raises the question of whether deafness, as a non-life threatening condition, merits the risk of surgery, and specifically, surgery on the head and skull. Furthermore, surgery is required not only for the initial placement of the implant, but is necessary after implantation as well, as in the cases of internal component failure or breakage.

Different writers in the field of Jewish bioethics have commented on some of the different situations that qualify as "appropriate" surgical risks, and what level of risk is considered "appropriate" in specific situations. Both Dorff and Freedman have noted that it is considered within the province of taking care of the body to risk, "pain and wounding," or surgery, to achieve what one considers to be an improved state. Freedman notes, "a person is permitted to choose to undergo a degree of self-wounding and pain on behalf of that which he or she judges to be a greater good." However, Freedman also notes that while, "pain and wounding may be permissible toward this end, serious risk to life is not."The evidence suggests that the risks encountered during the cochlear implant surgery itself are not great enough to render it impermissible on those grounds.

On the other hand, there are remaining questions about the potential effects of long-term implant use. The potential for ill effects may actually render the risk of implantation too great to be considered permissible according to Jewish law. Information about this risk is simply not available at this time. Because Jewish law exhorts us to safeguard and protect the body, and in particular, to avoid danger and injury, the question of whether the risks entailed by long term use of the cochlear implant are at an acceptable level, must be discussed.

Jewish law obligates us to help those who are sick or suffering and to heal whenever possible. With respect to this obligation Dorff writes, "[b]ecause God owns our bodies, we are required to help other people escape sickness, injury, and death." And, "we have a universal duty to heal others because we are all under the divine imperative to help God preserve and protect what is God's. "In addition, Judaism teaches that God "upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow,"and instructs us to do the same. Astor points out that the disabled or handicapped were typically included in the category of the "weak and defenseless."

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Rabbi Darby J Leigh

Darby Jared Leigh, received smicha from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and was the first deaf man to be ordained as a rabbi by any of the major rabbinical seminaries in the U.S. He is currently the assistant rabbi at Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, New Jersey.