International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics

by Elliot N. Dorff

Introductory Essay by V. V. Raman

A goal of medicine is to preserve and keep our physical bodies healthy. A goal of religion is to keep our spiritual life healthy and meaningful. Religion and medicine both have important ethical dimensions. So there are interconnections between medicine and religion. This erudite book examines these connections in the Judaic tradition. It also provides prescriptions on how to navigate through the life stresses and ethical challenges of the modern world without losing one’s moorings to Jewish traditional values and wisdom. The issues discussed in Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medial Ethics range from inception to life’s last phase. Though we think we make decisions and act with apparent independence, we are invariably connected to culture and community. This recognition can enable us to act more meaningfully and responsibly.

The allusions to and interpretations of scriptural writings that guide this book are provided by “a Conservative rabbi” who was affiliated “for over a decade with the Conservative movement’s committee on Jewish Law and Standards” [11]. The book is replete with references and insights that reflect deep rabbinical scholarship.

At the start we are told that “living by God’s commandments” also means that “we should not die as a result of observing them” [15]. Like other traditional religious conservatives, the author comments somewhat harshly that American pragmatism devalues “those who are disabled in some way,” even questioning “whether someone with severe disabilities should continue to live” [18]. We are reminded that “The body is neither good nor bad, but morally neutral,” and that its energies and faculties “should be used for divine purposes as defined by Jewish law and tradition” [24]. Most importantly, “the community must balance its medical and nonmedical needs and services” [29].

The book discusses Jewish positions on marriage and procreation, infertility and artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and surrogate mothers, with extensive references from the tradition’s literature. Other topics related to sex include adultery, incest, paternal and maternal identities, and licentiousness. An entire chapter is devoted to contraception where the high rate of abortion among Jews” is mentioned as “a particularly problematic phenomenon” [132]. In discussions on the social context of generating life, issues like homosexuality and genetic screening appear.

Many chapters deal with end of life questions: from preparing to die and euthanasia to organ donation and cremation. The last part of the book deals with medical care in the communal context. Here the book talks about preventive medicine, visiting the sick, mental health, and even cosmetic surgery. There are also references to the moral and theological aspects of cloning. The book stresses an imperative to choose life, and concludes with some personal reflections on religion and morality.

This is an encyclopedic work that presents with ample scriptural references the Conservative Jewish stance on many moral, practical, and pressing issues that confront humanity today. It is a rich resource for preachers and practitioners of the Judaic tradition in the context of important ethical problems. The book also reveals that many of the fundamental questions facing us were considered and commented upon by the thinkers and moralists of the ancient and rich Judaic tradition. This is a veritable guide for the perplexed for Jews in our times, and could serve as a model for similar books in other religious traditions.