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Bioethics and the contemporary Jewish community.

The enormous growth of interest in questions of normative ethics, which has come in direct response to the even greater growth of medical technologies during the past twenty-five years or so, has had a profound resonance in the contemporary Jewish community. Many prominent Jewish scholars have taken it upon themselves to address questions of bioethics, drawing upon the vast resources of the normative Jewish tradition. In these efforts they have received much encouragement from the wider Jewish community; indeed, a few scholars have gained considerable recognition both within the Jewish community and beyond it because of their ability to articulate their own expertise in this new area of intense public interest. And not only has bioethics raised the whole field of normative Jewish ethics to a level of public prestige it has not enjoyed since premodern times, it has also placed more traditionalist rather than more liberal scholars in a new position of authority as spokespersons for Judaism to the wider non-Jewish world. This quiet revolution in the Jewish community can be appreciated only against the backdrop of the rise of bioethics as an area of intellectual and political interest in our society.

Normative Authority and the Holocaust

For all the centuries when Jews had communal sovereignty, and the relative social and cultural isolation it presupposes, traditional Jewish law known as halakhah (what Christians have usually seen as "the Law") governed the communal and individual lives of Jews. There was no area of human activity with which it was not concerned and about which it did not have much to say. Even though Jewish intellectual pursuits were certainly not exclusively confined to questions of halakhah as normative ethics, halakhah always functioned minimally as the negative limit for Jewish discourse and action. Ultimately, nothing was allowed to contradict its norms.

This situation changed radically when the communal sovereignty of the Jewish community was eliminated by the emergence of the modern national state, which eventually accorded Jews the rights of full citizenship as individuals. The Enlightenment brought with it a secularism that most Jews welcomed as giving them, at long last, equal social space in European civilization and the opportunities to become fully contributing members. For most Jews, the Enlightenment was seen as the emancipation from the ghetto and all its restrictions. However, these cultural developments accorded nothing to the traditional Jewish community as the mediating social structure between individual Jews and the non-Jewish body politic. One immediate and profound result of this radical shift was that halakhah no longer served as the norm for all of Jewish life. The structure of all-encompassing authority it presupposed was simply no longer present.

Within the Jewish community, the most secularist elements saw this shift as the end of the authority of halakhah in toto. In this view, Jews were now entirely part of another world and would have to derive normative guidance for how to live from the moral resources of that world. Either explicitly or by strong implication, these Jews advocated abrupt, or more often gradual assimilation into the surrounding society.

Except for ultraorthodox East European Jews, especially the Hasidim, who rejected this new situation of modernity altogether and strove to retreat from its advance, even many Orthodox Jews were willing to formulate Jewish responses to the questions raised by the modern world in a decidedly nonhalakhic way. Thus, the leader of this more worldly orthodoxy in Germany, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), characterized his approach as Torah im Derekh Eretz, roughly translated as, "The Torah together with worldliness." Whereas more specific internally Jewish questions pertaining to such areas as diet, family status, and worship were still discussed according to the ancient norms of halakhah, more general questions pertaining to such areas as politics and economics were now addressed according to the general principles of what was considered to be "universal ethics" (which almost always meant Kantian ethics).

Inasmuch as thinkers from the more liberal religious elements in the Jewish community, usually from the Reform movement, felt greater comfort with this new universal ethics, they typically articulated Jewish responses to these more general questions, such as the standards for a just society and proper role of Jews within it Orthodox thinkers who attempted to deal with these new questions within the old halakhic framework rarely had much of an audience among acculturated Jews, and virtually none at all among non-Jews.

The rise of bioethics has, however, effected a profound change in discourse about ethics in the Jewish community. Bioethics shifted ethical concern toward the more specific normative questions that arise in the wake of new medical technologies and away from abstract discussion of general principles or the analysis of the logic of general ethical language (metaethics). Bioethics has brought "hard cases," which had usually been relegated to the suspect discipline of "casuistry," to the center stage of ethical discourse. This concern with specifics forced ethicists generally to look at traditions of religious ethics with a new interest and respect, since these traditions had dealt with specific issues of practical ethics over a long period of time, amassing a considerable body of precedent for contemporary research.

This shift in interest from the general to the specific, and thereby from the novel to the historical, has permitted traditionalist legal scholars, such as David Feldman, J. David Bleich, and this author, at long last to belie the charge made by Jewish and even non-Jewish liberals that halakhah is basically irrelevant, that it cannot deal with the questions of real concern in the modern world. It has granted both halakhah and those committed to its continuing authority an unaccustomed prominence. A new group of prospectors are suddenly interested in tapping the riches of religious traditions, and the Jewish tradition in particular. And these new prospectors are in need of reliable and knowledgeable guides to show them just where within the labyrinths of this gold mine the richest deposits lie. This new interest has made some traditionalist experts in normative Jewish ethics now feel like the rabbinical student who reputedly one day burst into the Talmudic academy proclaiming, "I have an answer, I have an answer--please ask me a question!" There is no greater stimulus to research and publication of one's results than to learn that there is indeed an audience for what is to be uncovered and applied.

Another stimulus for the particular Jewish interest in bioethics is the fact that Jews still very much live in the dark shadow of the Holocaust. When one speaks of bioethics, especially as it pertains to the activities of physicians and others who directly treat human bodies, Jews become acutely aware that concentration camp inmates, mostly Jews, were made the subjects of the most ghastly tortures, which were rationalized as experiments for the sake of medical progress. Thus Jews are intensely sensitive to what happens when medicine is conducted without ethical restraint and direction, without which it can and did degenerate into organized sadism.

For example, the shadow of the Holocaust effects the Jewish approach to such moral problems as abortion and euthanasia. Concerning abortion, one sees the generally restrictive approach of the halakhic tradition reinforced by an affirmation of a pronatal policy, at least in the Orthodox community. The fact that virtually no Jewish children survived Nazi captivity, and that abortions were regularly performed on Jewish women, certainly influences this pronatal stance. Regarding euthanasia, many Jews express an abhorrence for the general notion, prevalent today, that some persons are better off dead than alive. This abhorrence is decisively shaped by the Nazi policy of genocide, which was proceeded by a policy of mass euthanasia (unwerteslebens Leben).

Tradition and Society

These two elements, the renewed interest in specifically normative ethics and the per-version of medicine by Nazi physicians, have made bioethics an area of intense Jewish inquiry. That shows no sign of abating. The methodological question that is just beginning to be discussed, however, is exactly how the teachings of Jewish tradition can be included in the world of general moral discourse without being absorbed by it.

In dealing with the bioethical revolution in society at large, more traditionalist thinkers in the Jewish community, precisely because they are rooted in a normative base that, for them, has remained fundamentally intact, rushed to the fore to become the spokespersons for the community. Such a development seemed to be almost a fulfillment of the prophetic prediction that the gentiles would eventually come to Zion to be instructed out of the Torah of the Lord. Nevertheless, the problem faced by such thinkers was just how one speaks to a general, secular society out of a singular religious tradition. Christian ethicists face the same problem, albeit from a different angle. Whereas Jews must devise ways to speak to a world that has never been theirs, Christians must devise ways to speak to a world that once was theirs but is no longer.

Jewish approaches to bioethical questions (and other questions of social import as well) reflect two distinct models, although they are often not explicated in the course of dealing with the specific normative issues at hand. These ought to be identified, however, since their respective methodologies will frequently lead to quite different practical conclusions.

The first model has tended to be the modus operandi of most Orthodox Jewish thinkers in bioethics such as Immanuel Jakobovits, Moses Tendler, and Fred Rosner. It is a model that contains a hidden triumphalist premise: God has given a full and sufficient law to the Jews and a partial law to the gentiles. The law for the Jews, which is the Mosaic Torah along with its rabbinic interpretations and elaborations, contains numerous norms of great specificity, whereas the law for the gentiles contains a mere seven very general norms. This general, gentile law is known in Jewish tradition as the "noahide commandments" or "noahide law""Noahides" (the descendants of Noah) being a synonym for humankind. Since the revelation to the Jews is both necessary and sufficient for moral direction whereas the revelation to the gentiles is only necessary but quite insufficient because of its vague generality, it seems to follow that the traditional Jewish community assumes the role of guardian of pure revelation. As such, the community is clearly meant to function as the moral decisor for the rest of the world, from whom the true meaning of the law must be sought. In fact, what emerges from this model is that the Torah has both a direct application to the Jews themselves and an indirect application to the rest of the world. All of this is very similar to the concept and institution of jus gentium in Roman law. There a civil law (jus civile, literally "the city law") obtained for full Roman citizens, and the more general jus gentium bound non-Roman citizens who lived under Roman political jurisdiction. The important point of this analogy is that jus gentium was interpreted and enforced by Roman authorities.

In this model, then, there will be spokespersons eager and ready to present "the Jewish position" on any and every ethical question. However, once the triumphalist assumption is exposed, it is difficult to see how the conclusions based on it can be accepted by anyone not personally committed to the full hegemony of Jewish tradition. Can one accept judaism as the final moral arbiter without, in good faith, becoming a Jew? Indeed, many have accused the Roman Catholic Church of relying on the same assumption, namely, asserting that natural law is something that obtains for all human beings in any society, while the final arbiter of what natural law is and is not turns out to be the magisterium of the Church. The same problem many non-Roman Catholics (and many Roman Catholics as well) have with this approach is one, mutatis mutandis, many non-Jews should have with the triumphalist Jewish approach, once its premises and conclusions are understood.

A second model present in Jewish approaches to bioethics is more closely akin to the concept of jus naturale. It asserts that certain basic moral norms can be held in common by all rational persons and can thus function as a foundation for a common life together. Hence, if the Jewish tradition has something to say to the world, it will not be conveyed in the authoritative sense described above. Rather, the tradition can present its insights as a body of rich information for rational deliberation in a common realm of discourse and action. This model has been used in the recent past more by liberal Jewish thinkers than by traditionalists, and it is likewise reflected in most statements on ethical questions issued by the major Jewish organizations in the U.S. The problem with this model is that in contemporary society the language of natural law has evolved into the language of minimalist natural rights. And unlike classical natural law theory, theories of natural rights proposed by thinkers like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin have no place for religious claims at all.

Religious Pluralism and a Public Philosophy

In the Jewish community, therefore, one can adopt an authoritative, traditionalist, approach or a natural rights approach. The former model supposes acceptance of the moral authority of a singular religious community, something impossible for most outsiders short of actual conversion. The latter model, conversely, seems to eliminate religious claims altogether. Is there any third alternative-one that can avoid the pitfalls of these two other approaches?

It seems to me that before a religious community can address the wider public square it first must address other religious communities in a pluralistic democratic context. In my own case, involvement in Jewish-Christian dialogue over several years has very much influenced the way I deal with issues of public ethics-particularly bioethical issues-that concern the full range of humankind. For what Jews and Christians share in common is a theonomous ethics, that is, some basic norms whose ultimate context is the covenantal relationship with God lived by judaism and Christianity in their respective ways. For example, I have identified four areas of commonality between Judaism and Christianity, all of which have immediate ethical significance. These include: (1) the primary purpose of human life is to be related to God; (2) the relationship with God is primarily practical rather than contemplative; (3) human sociality in relationship with God and other persons is covenantal; (4) ultimate human fulfillment will come only through a redemptive act of God.[1]

It is not only that Jews and Christians each see their tradition as emerging out of the Hebrew Bible, which both communities revere as the word of God, but equally important that both communities have developed remarkably similar ways of treating human persons. This results in a common ethical stance on many issues of import, including issues of bioethics.

What Jews and Christians can do when addressing bioethical questions in concert is to demonstrate to the larger world that their common approach offers a more coherent means for dealing with specific ethical questions than secular methods. This approach may demonstrate, for example, that a more inclusive notion of humanness can be seen in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the human person as imago Dei than from competing secularist ideas of either individual autonomy or collective heteronomy. This is surely important because abuses of medical treatment are most likely to occur when too many are relegated to nonhuman status.

The discussion of bioethical and other issues in our society today by Jews requires developing a public philosophy that can constitute a pluralism of religious traditions, and even have it extend to the value democratic secularists extol most--tolerance. This new religious pluralism can make room for secularists in public discourse more than secularism can make room for Jewish and Christian believers, for religious pluralism can constitute the integrity of the secular realm far better than secularism can constitute the integrity of the religious realm. Thus, for example, this new religious pluralism can fully accept the intellectual independence of science and the freedom of inquiry it requires, because this religious pluralism does not claim cultural sufficiency. Secularism, conversely, by claiming such cultural sufficiency, cannot accept the public presence of religious traditions and can only relegate them, at best, to an absolutely private realm. As such, this public philosophy can display a rhetoric where religious traditions inform ethical discourse without also insisting that theological premises be accepted in advance.

This is the lesson to be learned from Jewish-Christian dialogue at its best. Instead of demanding theological compliance as a pre-condition for deducing practical conclusions, the dialogue begins with practical problems-especially ethical problems--and attempts to construct a common approach based on overlapping theological principles. But it is always aware that, short of the final redemption of the world by God, this commonality can only be partial. Thus it can affirm a common Judeo-Christian ethic on a number of key points without denying that there is Jewish theology and Christian theology. just as Jews, then, can cogently recognize the integrity of Christianity without becoming Christians, and Christians can recognize the integrity of Judaism without becoming Jews, this new public philosophy can show how Jews and Christians can recognize the integrity of the secular realm without thereby become secularists.

This, it seems to me, provides the most generous atmosphere possible for the discussion and common resolution of the ethical problems that have become so acute in the contemporary world, bioethical problems being among the most obvious examples. Jewish thinkers are quite well prepared to make their own contribution in this area if they have learned much from their tradition, from their experience in the modern world, and from their critical reason.


[1] David Novak, Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A

Jewish Justification (New York: Oxford

University Press 1989).
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Title Annotation:Theology, Religious Traditions, and Bioethics: a Special Supplement
Author:Novak, David
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Jul 1, 1990
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