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Medical Ethics And Jewish Politics


The drive to live, the instinctive need that all people have to continue living, is irrational, writes the Torah giant Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. A believing Jew, for whom life after death is a certainty, should not logically fear death. Is not an eternity basking in the Divine radiance preferable to living in this temporal and secular existence?

While this is logical and true, we have been both commanded and naturally programmed to treasure life. We are so powerfully bound to heal and to save lives that this is so even when it requires overriding other commandments. Given this mandate of life, questions of medical treatment and public policy should be simple to answer: Pursue life at all costs.

Reality, however, is more complex than this formulation. What about when there are competing considerations? In such cases, halachic authorities need to weigh the strength of the concerns pulling in both directions and determine which side dominates. Rabbis will often agree, but sometimes they will not. On some of the most complex medical ethics issues of the day, there are different views among the authorities. This is understandable and a situation with which observant Jews are familiar. Our solution is simply to ask our rabbi when and if a question of this nature arises.

For example, when it comes to abortion many American rabbis follow the position of Rav Moshe Feinstein, who was very strict in prohibiting abortions when the mother’s physical life is not at risk. Others are more lenient in permitting abortion when there are exceptional circumstances, even though the mother’s life is not at risk. As there are divergent opinions, when and if this question arises an observant Jew should ask his or her rabbi for halachic and spiritual guidance.

But there are those in our community who suggest we advocate laws that will not allow that to happen. Though such great poskim as the late Rav Shaul Yisraeli and the recently deceased Rav Eliezer Waldenberg allow abortions in a number of complex situations, and there are rabbis in this country who follow their rulings, there are still Jewish policymakers who suggest that we try to pass laws that would make these abortions illegal.

The dilemma is understandable. According to Rav Feinstein and others, such abortions are contrary to Jewish law. Surely we should oppose them. But according to Rav Waldenberg and others, they are permitted. If so, how can we oppose them? How can we advocate legislating the strict position, thereby removing from our fellow Orthodox Jews who follow the lenient position their right to pursue the religious mandate of life?

Let me be clear: No halachic authority gives blanket permission for abortions. Nevertheless, there are varying guidelines to when an abortion is permitted and some are fairly lenient on the level of a mother’s physical or mental pain or risk that would render an abortion allowable. The political dilemma, then, is as follows: Should we set our political agenda according to our own personal halachic positions or try to incorporate those of the broader Orthodox community? I would think the latter.

Certainly we should not let our own agenda be set by conservative Christians. While they may admirably cherish life and spirituality, they still follow a very different approach to many of these issues. On many points, the conservative Christian view would not allow certain procedures that halacha would permit. Were we to advocate this Christian view in such cases, we would be preventing ourselves from following our religion.

Granted, there is a political advantage to aligning ourselves with a group of similar-minded people whose vast numbers dwarf ours. Such political expediency, however, cannot outweigh our religious obligations. Even if we know that the view of our small minority will never be adopted as law, we must still not misrepresent the Jewish tradition with which we have been entrusted. And we certainly cannot campaign against the Torah’s position.

Thus, slogans that conservative Christians have coined for their religious-political agenda should not be co-opted by Jews. It gives the impression that we share their exact views, and we do not, or at least we should not. They have a “culture of life” – an elegant term, but since it describes their positions, we cannot adopt it. To do so would be to imply that we agree with them entirely.

Instead, we can speak of a “mandate of life” or some other phrase that is sufficiently different. To conservative Christians – and due to their powerful public relations efforts, the general public – “right to life” means the right of an unborn child to life. To Jews, however, it also means the right of a woman to life and, according to many poskim, the right of a woman to life without undue suffering.

Yes, we all cherish life. But on complex issues with competing concerns of life, we do not necessarily agree with the dominant Christian view.

For example, in July 2001 and again in October 2004, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union sent a letter to President Bush advocating the use of federal funds to support embryonic stem cell research. Many Christians oppose such research because they consider research on embryos to be a desecration of life. Jews, or at least many rabbinic authorities, disagree that embryos are full human life and therefore consider such research to be the pursuit of life rather than its desecration. While the “culture of life” opposes embryonic stem cell research, the “mandate of life” supports it.

We have a rich religious tradition that offers guidance on every issue. Its “mandate of life” has even seeped into Jewish culture and casual interaction. Rabbi David M. Feldman, in his recent book Where There’s Life, There’s Life, points out that our toast of lechayyim – “to life,” neatly summarizes the “Jewish affirmation of life and inspiration to live.” (Disclosure: my company, Yashar Books, published Rabbi Feldman’s book.)

We must resist the temptation to surrender our heritage in exchange for slogans that represent Christian approaches to the issues of the day, or to lend our political support to causes that do not conform with – and sometimes directly contradict – Jewish law as we practice it as a community. Especially when representing Jews in the public square, it is crucial to let the Torah guide our course and not adopt another religion’s attitudes and language.

About the Author: Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and serves as editor-in-chief of TorahMusings.com. Rabbi Student previously served as managing editor of OU Press and still maintains a connection to the publisher but did not work on this book in any way.


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