Reform Jewish Bioethics

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Analyzing the Reform Jewish position on bioethics, Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff

Rabbi David Ellenson, an important Reform ideologue at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, has pointed out that, largely because of the wide disparity between contemporary medical conditions and those of time past, but also for some other reasons, some rabbis in all three of the major movements of American Judaism have suggested abandoning legal methodology altogether. They claim that applying legal methods to earlier sources is playing fast and loose with the sources and is simultaneously not doing justice to the issues at hand now. Instead, these writers are individually developing an alternative nonlegal approach which Ellenson, following Rabbi Irving Greeberg, calls “covenantal”. (3)….

In this approach, the rabbi, while certainly a resource for the patient, family and health care personal, is not the ultimate arbiter of what is moral in any given case; the individual patient is. As a result, if the patient so chooses, quality-of-life considerations can enter directly into medical decisions, contrary to the bulk of rabbinic opinion to date.

I understand the lure of this approach. As Ellenson says, it “empowers” individuals to make their own decisions, and who does not want to do that? Moreover, the realities of contemporary medicine are indeed very different from those of our ancestors….[Rabbi Irving] Greenberg also claims that the Holocaust has shown what terrible things can happen when individuals do not take control and responsibility for their own decisions. All of these factors make this suggestion not only innovative, but serious. Nevertheless, I think that it is wrongheaded. My view ultimately rests on three factors:

(a) my appreciation of the strengths of a legal approach to a moral issues in life, and the corresponding weaknesses of the suggested alternative;

(b) my conviction that personal responsibility can be retained in a properly understood halakhic system;

and (c) my confidence, that properly understood and applied, legal methods can enable Jewish law to treat realities as new as contemporary medical phenomenon.

…a method which seeks to determine morality on the basis of each individual’s interaction with God poses a severe danger of anarchy, for each person will be on his or her own in determining what is right and good. One wonders how community is supposed to be maintained under such a system. Reform idealogues like Eugene Borowitz have claimed that Jews are identified by their common commitment to the Covenant, but I, for one, doubt whether this has any meaning in practice without specification of authoritative norms under that Covenant.

Moreover, this “covenantal” method ironically robs individuals of precisely what they seek when they turn to religion for guidance in these matters, for it tells them to seek God and decide for themselves! The Reform movement, committed to this kind of autonomy, has even produced a body of responsa in an attempt to inform people of how some rabbis, at least, understand the tradition, but ultimately these [Reform] responsa cannot relieve the individual of such decisions, for on this model, everyone bears the full weight of moral culpability for the decisions they make.

In one sense of course, individuals should take responsibility for decisions which affect their lives so deeply, and this brings me to my second point. For Rabbi Irving Greenberg, one lesson of the Holocaust is that people should not depend upon the law to tell them what is right and proper, for the legal mode caries with it the ultimate danger of legitimizing morally atrocious acts. He is clearly right in his warning, but certainly even he must admit that the Nazi’s use of law constituted an _abuse_ of it. The correct lesson to learn from this event, I would say, is _not_ that because of this danger the law should be abandoned as a way of determining moral decisions – but rather that individuals should retain the obligation to examine any law or ruling for its morality and to disobey all laws which are immoral on their face.

This of course is not an easy criterion to use, especially in the modern complex matters such as those posed by contemporary medicine, for one person’s judgement may well differ from another’s. If a legal system is working properly, however, those adhering to it _should_ be able to depend on it to guide them through morally murky waters, and they would need to disobey the law only in case of obvious and gross moral perversion. Jewish law [halakha] clearly assumes both elements of this methodology: it asserts that God’s law is just and good, and it bids us obey the rabbi’s interpretation of that law in every generation; but it also requires that we go beyond the letter of the law and even disobey it when it – or a given interpretation of it – is mean spirited or downright immoral (3). Thus personal responsibility _can_ and _would_be retained in a properly understood halakhic system, but the burden of moral responsibility would not fully and exclusively devolve upon the individual.

Excerpt from Excerpt from “A Methodology for Jewish Medical Ethics” by Elliot N. Dorff. p.161-176 in “Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality: A Reader” Ed. Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman,Oxford University Press, 1995

Footnote (3) “The Interaction of Jewish Law With Morality”. Judaism, Volume 26, No.4, Fall 1977, p. 455-466

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