Friday, July 27, 2007

BACK IN THE NEWS...STEM CELLS AND JUDAISM

An abridged version of this essay appeared in July 2001 in the Atlanta Jewish Times.

It was the first published halakhic responsa to this burning national issue.

... all of life's questions and answers are to be found in the Torah- both oral and written, and Judaism has tremendously powerful insights for the human condition. While ethicists debate the relative pros and cons of the issue, the halachic determination is not based on relativity, but on principles and precedents in the Jewish legal tradition....

A JEWISH VOICE IN THE STEM CELL DEBATE

Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

All the while the headlines rage about the ethics and morality of stem cell research, and even as the scientists making the majority of the headlines touting revolutionary gains in terms of possible cures from such research turn out to be Israeli, many Jews still remain confused about what Judaism says about the issue. Cures for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and other degenerative diseases all beckon over the horizon, brought ever nearer as a result of this very research. Certainly Judaism must have a plethora of insights, if not an exact response to one of the most pressing social issues of the day.

In Judaism, there is no central address for Jewish concerns, as much as we might desire or need one. Historically there was a Sanhedrin, but there is no one central authority today. Each group within Jewry recognizes its own self-selected leadership as its chosen authorities. At the most minute level, each synagogue selects its own mara d'atra, or local rabbinic authority for its rabbinic leadership.

On that basis, I share my thoughts and insights with the general reader, offering a modestly coherent glimpse into a halachic determination of the ethics of embryonic stem cell research. This endeavor is based on the grounding assumption that all of life's questions and answers are to be found in the Torah- both oral and written, and that Judaism has tremendously powerful insights for the human condition. While ethicists debate the relative pros and cons of the issue, the halachic determination is not based on relativity, but on principles and precedents in the Jewish legal tradition. The Torah, Judaism's main source and principle proof text, provides enormous halachic insights to those who might seek the Divine perspective on the topical concerns and moral dilemmas of every age. The search may or may not yield the results we most readily agree with, yet we are duty bound to take responsibility for the human condition and thus ally Torah with mankind's inexorable quest towards the spiritual perfection of the world.

Judaism has traditionally seen science and medicine to be fundamentally allied with G*d's desire for mankind to work in a Divine partnership to improve on the foundation of the Creation found in Genesis. "Be holy, for I am holy." To emulate G*d, is itself a Divine command. As G*d sent His angels to cure and alleviate Abraham's suffering from his Brit Milah, or Covenant of Circumcision, so too is it a mitzvah to heal the sick. Moreover, with three exceptions- the exceptions being idolatry, immorality and murder, one is mandated by Jewish law to set aside any other law in order to save a life.

The mandate to saving human lives is foundational. That being said, one can then rightly ask if the taking of embryonic stem cells, which destroys the embryo in the very process, is tantamount to murder, thus ending the debate right there.Thus we beg the question of when does human life begin. Instructive is the question of fetal prerogatives and at what point on the spectrum are those rights inviolable? Tractate Niddah (BT 30a -see Rashi on "eyno nichshevet livlad" there) is determinant for positing that embryos are not considered completed (let alone viable) before 40 days. They are considered as water- maya be'alma (see BT Yevamot 69b as well as Rashi on BT Bechorot 21b). And the embryos to be harvested for their stem cells are only days old, not weeks. The stem cell debate stands apart from the cloning debate as well as from the abortion debate. That being stated outright, nevertheless we can still make comparisons where applicable.

While abortion for its own sake is forbidden, authorities hold that up until birth the mother's life takes precedence where the pregnancy may pose a danger to the mother. The fetus has the status of a pursuer (rodef), and thus may be terminated (BT Sanhedrin 72b). The foundation text for the basic difference in status between a fetus and a live person is found in the Torah: Exodus 21:22-23. A mere monetary penalty follows the accidental loss of the fetus in contrast with manslaughter, where the killer is exiled and can be killed by a relative of the victim if found outside a designated refuge. So here instructively are the parameters of the issue.

Before birth, by Jewish law, the fetus once formed has the status of potential life, but is not considered fully a life. Before forty days, while to be cherished for its potentiality as a life, it has no judiciary status to even generate a monetary penalty in case of accidental miscarriage. That is not to say it lacks any sense of gravitas. Even onanism, the intentional wasting of seed, which is proscibed in Jewish law, is "likened" by some (keilu -similar but not identical) to committing murder (BT Niddah 13a - quoting Rav Yitzchak and Rav Ami). But that is not to say that the wasted seed has the status of human life with due legal protection. The emphasis is on the "wasting" of the seed, not the seed itself.

So now the prohibition against wanton destruction/wasting (bal tashchit) becomes relevant. Just as the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" is facilitated in the course of fertility treatments, so too the discarding of the multiple embryos generated as a byproduct of such treatments should not be condoned as it would be a violation of bal tashchit. See Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim - the Laws of Kings, 6:10, for his treatment of Deuteronomy 20:19. As the Torah forbids pointless destruction when laying siege to a city in the wanton destruction of her fruit trees, Maimonides extends the prohibition to wanton destruction in general. So the concept of wasting perfectly good embryos, which were created for a good purpose, becomes now the focus of the discussion.

End of life halacha informs the debate on the beginning of life. As the Igrot Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein) finds that extraordinary measures are not required to save a life, but once life support is attached it is forbidden to detach it, so too the notion of womb implantation as a veritable "life-support" would act as the determinant for a "hands off" demarcation vis a vis interfering with the natural course of events. Thus there is no fear of a slippery slope. The halacha thus offers firm points of determination for human intervention.

Broad fears of the devaluation of human life fade when shown the promise of new life and new cures to be found. While an embryo not yet forty days old even while implanted in a womb is not viewed in the halachic literature as having the status of an independent life entity, how much more so ("al achat kama vekama") neither would be one not yet even implanted in a womb.

But indeed there need be parameters, for anything good may yet be abused. In the worthy quest we have outlined we must rightly affirm boundaries lest life itself be devalued. In the scenario where multiple embryos are created as a "byproduct" of fertilization treatments, a "bidi avad" situation presents itself. However worthy the experiment's outcome, it is one thing to find a way to ethically deal with a problem that presents itself before us ("bedi avad") in the pursuit of a mitzvah. It is quite another to put oneself purposely in that situation ("lechatchila") when other alternatives are clearly available.

Using specially created embryos on a large scale would cause the neglect, disposal and wanton destruction of countless pre-exiting embryos. This type of causal relationship is called "gramma." Those who engaged in it would be aiding others in violating "bal tashchit." Thus any medical breakthroughs would properly fall under the rubric of "mitzvah haba'ah ba'averah", or the problematic and unlawful fulfilling of one mitzvah through the transgression of another (the issur -prohibition, of using a stolen lulav or sukkah comes readily to mind).

The rabbinic distinctions between lechatchila and bidi avad ("what situation can we create" vs. "what situation lies before us") are very real and valid, informing vast areas of the halachic literature in determining what is allowable and what is forbidden. And now that we have these embryos in our hands as a byproduct of the mitzvah of "p'ru u'revu" (procreation), what course of action necessarily follows? If these embryos should not be discarded, then we may rightly ask what should be done with them? As it has been determined that they have the potential to either become life once attached to a womb, were they to be adopted, or to lead to cures as stated above, either life-affirming option should be followed.

In summary, the Torah's imperative to "choose life," so firmly entrenched in the Jewish psyche, clearly establishes both the desire for fertility treatments as well as a natural inclination to be predisposed to harness the byproducts of such treatments in the pursuit of worthy life-saving medical goals. But while the overall goals are valid, a disregard for the sanctity of life itself must be avoided at all costs. To stray outside of the parameters outlined above, to create even potential life for the sake of science, for a less cumbersome and cluttered route to otherwise worthy goals, is to allow man to let his hubris cloud his proper ethical judgment. As the Torah's dictum of "tzedek tzedek tirdof," is understood as the proper attainment of justice through just means, so too in our case we must use careful guidelines so as to attain worthy goals but only via worthy means. May the Kadosh Baruch Hu grant us the wisdom and humility to choose wisely as a new dawn of discovery rushes up around us.

© 2001 by Rabbi Baruch Melman.

NEVER GIVE UP!

Loading...

Reb Shlomo with Reb Zusha ben Avraham Zimmerman

Reb Shlomo with Reb Zusha ben Avraham Zimmerman

moshav band live at mexicali blues

Loading...

What mind is it?

"Great minds discuss ideas;
average minds discuss events;
small minds discuss people."
-Eleanor Roosevelt


ON FIXING AND HEALING...

"If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix..... If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal..........." Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Hatiqwa

Loading...

Beta Israel - Ethiopian Jews - The Ingathering from Without

Loading...

Palestinians of Jewish origin - The Ingathering from Within

Loading...

Holy Wedding at Makhpela, Tomb of our Fathers in hevron - Music by Pey Dalid

Loading...

Mariane Paradise and The Gan Eden Project sings of the Unity of All Creation from Jerusalem

Loading...

A SACRED DUTY: APPLYING JEWISH VALUES TO HELP HEAL THE WORLD

Loading...

IVDU ET HASHEM B'SIMCHA- SERVE THE LORD WITH JOY DANCING AND SINGING FROM INSIDE A BOMB SHELTER

Loading...

SELICHOT LIVE AT CARLEBACH SHUL 2008

Loading...

NAZI RALLIES AND SPEECHES

Loading...

JEWISH MEN AND WOMEN GATHER TO CELEBRATE REB SHLOMO'S 14TH YAHRZEIT SINGING AT HIS GRAVE

Loading...

MOSHAV BAND - THE ONLY ONE

Loading...

Reb Zalman on Jewish Renewal

Loading...

Let There Be Peace

Loading...
"No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

- anonymous
"Perhaps the greatest force in the entire universe is compounded interest."

- Albert Einstein

the last hoshana rabba with reb shlomo and me playing together the week before he took off in '94

Loading...

bob marley - one love 6:13 (6 MINUTES 13 SECONDS) and exodus

Loading...

Tisha B'Av 5765 Katif Expulsion

Loading...

Children of Sderot - The Daily Terror and Nightmares

Loading...

Let Me Sing a New Song

Loading...

On Schlomo's magnificent 13th (Bar Mitzvah) yahrzeit in Heaven

Loading...

AMAZING INTERVIEW WITH REB SHLOMO top video only

Loading...

Larry David wants to Save the Planet

Loading...

Havdalah Ceremony on Moshav Meor Modiin in Central Israel

Loading...

Alpha blondy from cote d'ivoire sings his love of Jerusalem in Hebrew and French all over the world

Loading...
When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.- Abraham Joshua Heschel
The whole world is a very narrow bridge. And the most important thing is to not be afraid.
-Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
"The greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor." - Aish Kodesh
"As you want G*d to give you a chance, give everyone else a chance to also begin again." - Shlomo Carlebach

About Me

My photo
United States
I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!