Wednesday, 3 June 2015

What are Progressive Judaism's Teachings on a range of ethical issues?


I recently received this question from a school student trying to write an essay - such questions arrive quite regularly, and I try to answer them, but not in more detail than will be of interest or use to them.  My answers represent my views, not 'Progressive Judaism as a whole' (since such views do not exist in a formal form, though there is extensive responsa (questions and researched answers) from Progressive as well as Conservative and traditional perspectives): 

What are Progressive Judaism’s teachings on the ethical issues of:
-          Genetic engineering and cloning
-          Organ transplants and organ donation
-          Euthanasia and Suicide
-          Stem Cell Research
-          Capital Punishment
-          Abortion


Judaism believes that humans work in 'partnership with God' ('Shutafut') to improve or perfect the world ('Tikkun Olam').  Progressive Judaism is generally in accordance with Judaism in general, except that we sometimes push for change before orthodoxy has found a way (or a desire) to move (like conservative attitudes in general).

However these are specialist areas and I am not a specialist.

I will try to briefly address your questions:

On Genetic engineering and cloning

I don't believe there is a principle Jewish objection to engineering new plant breeds, plant resistance etc.  we believe that God has given us intelligence and ability to do science, medicine etc  Plant development, hybrids, mixtures have been known since biblical times and are not outlawed.  There is even a story about Jacob using selective breeding with his father-in-law's herds.  

I think the concern will be with damaging other people's crops, health risks of inadequate testing (the commercial pressures and powers seem to be more important than adequate long term testing and this is unjust, and therefore wrong from a Jewish perspective).

The bible is familiar with asses, which are hybrid animals (product of horse and donkey, and always sterile) and I don't believe there is any criticism, certainly no prohibition about breeding them. 

However Judaism puts humans in a discrete category - 'above the animals but little lower than the angels'. We are obligated to care for animals and look after them (even feed them before ourselves).  Yet we are different.  So we would I think be very concerned about human cloning.  Yet if cloning body PARTS for the sake of healing, that would be welcomed - ASSUMING THOROUGH SAFEGUARDS.  Because we value saving human life above almost everything else.

But of course there are huge ethical issues here and consequently huge bodies of study and consideration of if, when and how these matters should be allowed within Judaism.  But, at least from a Progressive perspective, we believe that God's will is continually being revealed (we call this 'Progressive Revelation') and it is through a process of study, learning, consideration, philosophy etc etc.  So if there is a full public debate, and religious inputs are considered seriously along with others, we would probably accept the result as 'humanity's best understanding of God's will on the matter for the time being'.

-          Organ transplants and organ donation

It follows from the above that these are both OK as they are 'saving life'.  Progressive Judaism has always said so.   Because the body is seen as 'God's creation' and 'God's property' there has been some resistance in orthodoxy ('the body should be buried intact, not desecrated') and this was shown in Israel, where orthodox Judaism is influential in the legal system - but over the past generation it has been allowed within orthodoxy and hence in Israel as well.  There was a news story not long ago about 'Jewish organs being given to save the life of an Arab Muslim' but as far as we are concerned all life is equal, and this was a wonderful story, even though it stirred some people's racist proclivities!

-          Euthanasia and Suicide

If the body belongs to God, and only God gives life, then, according to tradition, only God can take life as well.  Suicides did happen, but were considered a sin, and would be buried on the edge of the cemetery. Often, traditional rabbis and families might argue that the person didn't intend to kill themselves, they weren't in their right mind, or they changed their mind in their last moments but it was too late.

I and I suspect most Progressives (and many traditional Jews) would accept that sometimes life seems too miserable, painful or difficult, and people kill themselves for a variety of tragic reasons.  We should see it as the failing of society, of us, their friends, family and community, if blame is to be distributed in a situation where blame is not very helpful!  I have a friend who killed himself for quite 'logical' reasons some fifteen years ago, and the passing time has not proven that he was wrong in wanting to provide materially for his family - though I would hope that he could have worked through it and achieved a similar goal whilst remaining alive.  But sadly neither I nor anyone around him and close to him picked up that this was likely to happen.    

Euthanasia is a bit different.  Today with modern technology and medicines we are able to keep people alive long after they want to be, or are able to be an active and functioning part of society.  They may have a perfect right to death, but not be able to kill themselves.  I think it is inhumane to keep people alive in such circumstances, or when they face a death sentence from a terminal illness.  To me it seems bizarre that we 'put down' our beloved pets, or racehorses who break a leg, but won't help loved ones who beg to be helped to end their lives.

Traditional Judaism prohibits euthanasia.  Yet it says you should not disturb a body that is about to die with water on the lips or a loud noise, and thereby delay the departing of the soul (life).  I and I imagine most progressive and other Jews would say that euthanasia should be available in very specific and limited circumstances, provided absolute safeguards are in place.  Even those who argue against often do so on the basis of adequate safeguards, but this should not be beyond our wit and ability!     

-          Stem Cell Research

Don't see any problem with this as above, medical research to save lives etc.

-          Capital Punishment

The bible is full of death penalties (eg for lighting a fire on sabbath).  Yet it is important to understand that that was meant to be a deterrence, and is of its time and context - around 3000 years ago.  Judaism (as all religions) change and develop (Progressive Revelation even though that is a Progressive term!) as humanity does.  The Rabbinic period (officially starts about the time of Jesus, 2000 years ago) was in many ways quite different to the early and even latter biblical periods (since there was no Temple, no sacrifices, no priests after the Roman destruction in 70 Common Era).  The Rabbis said that a Jewish Court that gave a death sentence once in 7 years was known as a 'Murderous Court' - and one Rabbi said 'even once in 70 years'!  Certainly the rabbis introduced so many warnings and checks that it was virtually impossible to carry out a death penalty.

Since the end of the War of Independence in 1948, the modern State of Israel has carried out only one execution, of one of the Nazi leaders, Adolf Eichman.  That can be seen as the exception that proves the rule, especially considering so many Israeli civilians, women and children have been murdered in cold blood by terrorists who have been caught and brought to trial.  

So I am against the death penalty and I imagine that is a fair comment for virtually all Progressive Rabbis and most Jews in general today. 

-          Abortion

Abortion is allowed by traditional Jewish law in one particular case - when the mother's life is in danger from the baby.  This is called a 'rodef', a pursuer.  It is based on the idea that if a person is pursuing you to kill you and the only thing you can do to save yourself is to kill them first, you are allowed to do so.

It is not allowed in general and certainly not as a form of 'late contraception'.  I think this is generally right, though I think there are exceptions - for example if a woman has become pregnant after being raped (I suspect traditional Judaism would say the same).

Today we can do ante-natal checks and many serious health problems can be identified.  I think aborting an early term foetus is different from a viable baby (traditional Judaism makes this distinction as well, though in their terms a baby has not proven itself fully 'viable' until it is a month old - so until that time you would not do a full funeral or mark the grave).  However, who chooses what is a 'major' health problem?  (See the case of the Downs syndrome surrogate twin in 2014).  Today some people are aborting female babies, or ones with the 'wrong colour' eyes!  Clearly this is completely wrong.   But we had an amniocentesis on our baby as my wife was nearly 40, and at the time we were quite clear that we would abort if there was a significant problem indicated.  Thankfully we now have a handsome and lovely 16 year old! 

I think 'women's choice' (Pro-Choice) argument is sometimes false and dangerous.  This ignores the rights of the life within her.

On the other hand the 'Pro-Life' lobby in the US who don't allow for it in any case, even rape, are also wrong in my opinion.

Jewish teaching teaches us to 'Choose Life' and I think this would be well applied on this question (a happy combination of Pro-Choice and Pro-Life).  Yes, there are elements of choice (though not by the woman alone).  When supported by family, friends, police, medics, psychologists, the choice of abortion may be possible.  But, considering the trauma and guilt which many women still feel years and years after an abortion - and which the woman at the time may not be able to imagine or give consideration too - and the many childless couples desperate to adopt and love a child, I think the best counsel in most cases is to have the child - not allow ready abortion - which at the end of the day some would see as very similar to murder - and to ensure adequate support (even financial) so that the mother has the choice, over time, of what she does with the baby.      

So I hope this is of some use to you.

L'shalom

Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black

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