International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Brave New Judaism: When Science and Scripture Collide

by Miryam Z. Wahrman

Introductory Essay by Norbert M. Samuelson

This book is a thorough and comprehensive summary of the major moral, religious, and legal issues for any communal form of contemporary Judaism at the current moment in medically related bioethics. Each question is described biologically and medically, related to issues in traditional rabbinic law, and then discussed by reference to leading contemporary rabbis in different contemporary Jewish religious movements, notably Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative (noting differences between the seven main groups of communal Jewish life – the Ashkenazi, Roman, North African, Kurdish, Near Eastern, Yemenite, and Ethiopian – as well as some numerically significant minorities – the Lemba of North Africa, the B’nai Menashe of India, and the Crypto Jews of South America). 

Dr. Wahrman’s discussion of bioethics is guided at the most universal level by four general principles of western ethics and eight general principles of Jewish ethics. The western principles are (1) Maximize freedom of patient choice (Autonomy), (2) Cause no injury to the patient (Nonmaleficence), (3) Promote patient welfare (Beneficence), and (4) Distribute benefits in a just manner (Justice). The rabbinic principles are (1) Be fruitful and multiply (with reference to Gen 1:2), (2) Be concerned for the suffering of animals, (3) Repair the world (tikkun olam), (4) Do not destroy (with reference to Dt 20:19), (5) Preserve life, (6) Heal (with reference to Ex 21:19), (7) Act according to the natural way, and (8) There is nothing new under the sun (with reference to Eccl 1:9). 

What emergences are discussions of issues that will be familiar to any student of bioethics (from the application of the four general principles) but will be seen in distinctively new perspectives (from the application of the eight rabbinic principles).  Issues discussed include (1) methods to correct infertility, male and female, (2) responsibility towards all stages of pre-embryos, from stem cells to forty days after fertilization, (3) cloning, (4) designer genes and children, (5) the special case of human engineering in order to avoid the seven (actually eight) deadly genetic diseases especially prevalent among Jews of eastern European descent – Canavan disease, Huntington disease, cystic fibrosis, Niemann-Pick disease, Caucher disease, fan coni-anemia, Bloom Syndrome, and familial dysautonomia, (6)  in order to select sex, (7) in order to test for specifically marked Jewish genes and (8) in order to study both the genealogy of individuals and the collective history of the Jewish people, (9) morally judging genes in general,  and, finally, (10) using genetics to make naturally non-kosher food kosher. 

Multiple moral recommendations emerge, not all of which are complementary to each other. It is not surprising that many of the differences between liberal and conservative rabbis on questions of medical and biological ethics correlate, especially in North America, with differences between different kinds of Christians, liberal and conservative.  However, some of the answers are surprising and do not correlate to general social class and political identities in American and European society. Moral judgments about cloning are a dramatic example of differences between Jewish and Christian moral political stances in western society.