Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Stem cell research and cloning: Jewish law and Judeo-Christian bioethics?

In what ways, if any, ought halakhah (Jewish law) and ethics take into account Christian ethics in responding to secular demands for new technologies?

In the latest issue of First Things, Eric Cohen argues that Jewish ethicists should not merely consider Christian ethics, Jews should actively adopt and pursue a Catholic agenda on bioethics. Cohen comments on three bioethics debates. On cloning, which Catholics oppose, Cohen criticizes halakhic views: “The Jewish defense of cloning strikes me as woefully misguided—a deep misunderstanding of what it means to participate as husband and wife in the creation of new life.” He argues that “the Jewish defense of cloning is a perversion of something more genuine: the special meaning of procreation within Judaism, and what it means not only for the human family in general but for this particular human family.” On in vitro fertilization, Cohen allows that halakhic concern for procreation and Jewish survival does justify IVF, which Catholics oppose. Still, Cohen appreciates the Catholics’ consistency and “their more universalistic wisdom.”

On embryonic stem cell research, Cohen criticizes the Orthodox Union (OU) and other experts in halakhah (Jewish law) who support stem cell research. He praises the opposing opinion of J. David Bleich (whose position is published on-line). Cohen argues that more Jews, like Bleich, should join Catholics in opposing embryonic stem cell research. He concludes that: “… on most things that count—including embryo research—faithful Jews should stand alongside their Catholic friends as Judeo-Christians, opposing together the imageless image of man that secularism offers. I only hope that my Jewish friends, for Jewish reasons, will become more reasonable than they sometimes are.”

Note that Cohen thinks that the halakhah ought to strategically adopt “Judeo-Christian” positions in common cause against secular values. [1] In the halakhic controversy over artificial insemination, R. Jacob Breisch pursued a similar strategy, insofar as he opposed AI partly on the grounds that (even) the Catholics viewed AI techniques as abominable and disgusting.

Using a typology I found in our daf yomi Talmudic readings, I would characterize Cohen as espousing a “Judeo-Christian” strategy of resistance to modernity and technology. (Cp. Peter Berger, The Heretical Imperative, on Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy.)

Alternatively, by accepting stem cell research, the OU and other Jewish leaders are adopting – at least in this case – a strategy of accommodation to modernity and technology.

A third alternative would be a strategy of retreat. (Retreat not as surrender but as withdrawal.) This strategy may be exemplified by R. Moses Feinstein. In Dibros Moshe, R. Feinstein argued against R. Breisch (above) on artificial insemination. R. Feinstein replied that halakhah shouldn't be shaped by Catholic views because then halakhah would have to check Catholic positions in many areas, change as they change, always adjust to non-Jewish opinion. This slippery slope argument makes sense. Instead, R. Feinstein implies that Jews ought to look inwardly at halakhah without reference to either secular or Christian viewpoints. This approach to halakhic reasoning also seems to be shared by R. Gil Student. In Hirhurim, he roundly rejects Eric Cohen, saying: “In other words, in order to oppose the secularists, we need to take a religious stance. So let's take the Catholic position. Huh? Let's take the Jewish position, wherever that leads us! Being "Judeo-Christian" is not an end in itself. When it happens that there is a mutual position, we can join forces with our Catholic friends. When not, we respectfully part ways and follow our religion.” In other words, ignore the Others and first find our authentic voice.

Personally, I feel much kinship with a strategic retreat from both secular and Christian discourses. But is retreat and neutrality possible? Is it feasible to publicly articulate a Jewish position that ignores the Christian and secular views? After all, these are the dominant discourses that frame the key questions and set the terms of public debate. Perhaps one could retreat into an isolated, purely Jewish world. At least in the U.S., though, once one engages with public opinion on this topic, isn't one infiltrated and affected by Christian language and its normative meanings? It’s likely that no Jewish position can exist outside of the broader normative context. Can rabbis (even the most charedi) avoid positioning themselves in relation to the dominant voices of Catholics etc? I suspect that there is no neutral ground. In a world of inter-penetrating boundaries of communication and language, retreat cannot be predicated on isolation. Therefore, each halakhist may need to be acquainted with secular and Christian viewpoints and, for their public halakhic reasoning, to judge who to accommodate and who to resist.

Well, these are my tentative thoughts. To sustain this analysis, I suppose, would require a fuller account of halakhic reasoning. To what degree is halakhah derived mechanically from rules, precedents and codes? What is the scope of judicial discretion in Jewish law, and how might such discretion account for the opinions of others? But I will retreat from such demands, at least until the next post from,

Yours truly,

Kaspit כספית

[1] Cohen says: “The term ‘Judeo-Christian’ has entered our civic vocabulary for good reason. On many of the deepest issues of human life—the meaning of sex, the dignity of the family, the creation of human beings—Jews and Christians stand together against the secular image of man.”


Post a Comment

<< Home