The Secularization of the Chaplaincy

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

A number of months ago, I found myself once again in Rush North Shore Hospital, this time waiting to be taken to the operating room to have my gangrenous gall bladder removed. Efforts at dealing with the infection two days earlier had been unsuccessful. The procedure had to be curtailed as I had stopped breathing.

Just as I was about to be wheeled from my room to the operating room, my dear friend Rabbi Michael Azose arrived. Holding my hand, he offered a Mishebarach on my behalf. The sense of calm those few Hebrew words afforded me, the reawakening of G‑d's closeness they aroused in me, are beyond words. I continued to the operating room with a new sense of optimism and Faith in G‑d's providence.

When I entered the Rabbinate nearly forty years ago, the simple act of offering a prayer, of drawing the infirmed closer to G‑d and His love, was the bedrock of Chaplaincy. Today, with the many involved procedures medical science has developed to assist the ill, the Rabbi as well must be able to guide the patient through the maze of "medical speak" to a natural and productive balance between medical science and the Will of G‑d. This requires new expertise and understanding of these procedures on the part of the Rabbi and how they reflect upon the moral and spiritual beliefs of Judaism.

Sadly, the Chaplaincy has evolved into "one size fits all," when it comes to its religious or "spiritual" component. And what is "spirituality" in today's world? When, I believe it was called, The World Congress of Religions met here in Chicago a few years ago, it included under the rubric of religion or "spirituality," unadulterated paganism, witch craft, black magic, nature worship - you name it. Even the Abrahamic Faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in their various forms in the multi-cultural America of today (and let's not forget the many other religions in our society), have markedly different views on the relationship of humankind to each other, to our Maker and to the very nature of life itself. These diverse views, in addition to the radical differences expressed on the moral and ethical issues of society by these monotheistic Faiths, reflect upon the patient in Hospital. They could fill several volumes. Yet this aspect of the Chaplaincy seems to have taken a back seat. Prayer, awareness of G‑d's Will and Faith in His goodness, as understood by one's religion, the tools of the trade for the Chaplain of the past, have become obsolete in the Hospital Chaplaincy of today. Helping the individual find his/her own way to G‑d, or "non-directive" Chaplaincy, has replaced explaining to the patient his/her Faith's unique parochial view of the Will of G‑d, directive Chaplaincy.

A number of years ago, when I served as Assistant to the Executive Director of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, I received a call from the Chaplaincy office of a local Hospital. It was the Hospital Chaplain seeking a Rabbi to be present to offer the appropriate prayers for an individual whose family had decided to remove him from life support. When I explained to her that Judaism views such an act as tantamount to murder, she was shocked. I suggested she make an effort to locate a Rabbi who had some connection with the family to help them work through this difficult situation, hopefully toward a better understanding of G‑d's Will as we understand it in Judaism. She expressed her revulsion at the insensitive approach Judaism takes toward the pain and suffering of an individual and his family. No doubt her feelings had influenced the decision of the family in question.

A few years ago, a distant relative of our family came down with a serious medical problem that was slowly but surely destroying him. Doctors could not isolate the source of this ever-growing debilitation, which was certainly going to take his life. The outpouring of support, the many individuals from the Orthodox community who descended upon the waiting room at Hospital to be with the family was impressive. Yet the results of all this support were negative. The family was stressed out as Rabbi and layperson alike were providing suggestions as to what to do next. The tumult in the waiting room, the comings and goings of individuals, the conversations all contributed to the growing emotional stress of the family. The family called me in. We asked people not to visit. Instead, I and a few other Rabbis who knew the family and the patient sat with the family day after agonizing day. We sat quietly in a small room reciting Thillim. I provided the family with English copies of Thillim, which they held close and became accustomed to reciting for hours on end. Their demeanor changed. Their sense of G‑d's presence, their hopefulness for a positive outcome to this tragic situation, was bolstered. They became better equipped emotionally and psychologically to deal with the situation that confronted them and the many decisions that had to be made.

The Rabbi with his Thillim at the bedside, the prayer faithfully offered on behalf of the ill person, the conversations that naturally evolve between patient and Rabbi about Divine Providence, have singularly important contributions to make to the recovery of the individual. Holistic medicine earnestly practiced has as an integral element the religious needs of the patient in specific and clear terms. Prayer, religious rites of the ill seeking G‑d at the bedside, is integral to this approach to health care.

I fear that the seeming secular approach or neutral "one size fits all" spirituality of today's Chaplaincy, a Chaplain or two hired to service diverse religious elements in a given Hospital, has lost the once deeply respected and desperately needed role of the parochial clergy of yesteryear.