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Rabbis and physicians tackle medical ethics

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

Infertility, brain death, cloning, genetic engineering and a host of other cutting-edge topics were the focus of a recent two day symposium on "Modern Medicine and Jewish Law" held here at the Lincoln Square Synagogue. More than 200 rabbis, physicians and scientists met on February 14 and 15 to discuss medical and halachic [pertaining to Jewish law] implications of these and other topics in Jewish bioethics.

"I like the idea of being in a conference where I can hear the halachic and the scientific presentation at the same time." explained Dr. Pearl Korenblit of Passaic, NJ. Korenblit, who is Director of Primary Care at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Elizabeth, NJ, continued, "It makes you think of issues, halachic issues, that you didn't even know were there." She also welcomed the opportunity "to talk to other colleagues who are frum [strictly observant] and have the same situation [regarding] halachic implication in their practice."

The subject of human cloning was addressed in a talk by Dr. Abraham S. Abraham, Professor of Medicine at Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School and author of many books on medical ethics. Abraham expressed disagreement with the conclusions of other Jewish scholars who believe that human cloning may be halachically permissible. For instance, Rabbi Michael Broyde, of Emory University School of Law, published a paper arguing that cloning for reproductive purposes is "perhaps a mitzvah [positive deed] in a number of circumstances and is morally neutral in a number of other circumstances."

"One of the basic reasons that people have written that cloning is permitted... is that when you don't find something in the Torah that says that something is assur [forbidden], then it is automatically permitted." explained Abraham. "And since nowhere in the Torah does it say that it is assur [forbidden] to clone a human being... that's why it must be mutar [permitted]."

However, he added, "Not everything that is assur [prohibited] is mentioned in the Torah." Abraham quoted the ancient scholar Maimonides, who wrote: "A person will be rewarded for following the dictates of reason and for doing what is right and honorable. He will be punished for any deed which he understands to be improper, even if not specifically forbidden."

Abraham also referred to his discussions with the renowned Israeli rabbinic leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who supports the cloning and genetic engineering of animals for the purposes of "v'rappo ye-rappe [and heal, you shall heal]" (Exodus 21:19) - the Biblical injunction to heal. This would include permitting the genetic engineering and cloning of animals and tissues to produce replacement organs for humans. But according to Abraham, based on rulings of Elyashiv and other rabbis, human cloning itself is forbidden. "One cannot, one must not, clone human beings," declared Abraham. "One may and must clone animals and certainly tissues, in order to save the life of a human being."

"The separate specific issues have to be looked at..." considered Korenblit, regarding the controversies surrounding cloning. "I have to wait to see what's going to happen. Just like when In Vitro [Fertilization] was first developed there was a lot of debate about it."

Korenblit recalled how the intrauterine contraceptive devices (IUDs) were also initially rejected by rabbis, on the basis of a scientific misconception. "Look at the changes with respect to IUDs." remarked Korenblit. "There was a time when everyone just said: ċIUDs, no'. They said that an IUD was an abortifacient and it wasn't something that you could ever use."

Korenblit explained that the halachic position has changed with the revelation that IUDs block implantation, rather than cause abortions. "There are so many situations now where IUDs would be halachically permissible for medical treatment," she concluded.

Dr. Judith Leff, of Passaic, a scientist who has worked closely with rabbinic authorities in her position as Kashrus Consultant in Ingredient Technology, also commented that rabbinic rulings change as scientific understanding develops. At first, she reports, bioengineering of food was rejected, "because the rabbis didn't understand what genetic engineering was." Leff continued, "When they understood it, then the ruling was different."

Leff revealed that almost all kosher cheeses are produced using genetically engineered enzymes. "The genetic information for making calf's rennet has been transferred to bacteria or fungi, and now the bacteria or fungi are making calf's rennet," she explained. "DNA is information," Leff continued. "You take the information, multiply it many, many times, and then you transfer it to the recipient. So there is no trace of anything nonkosher." Once the rabbis understood the chemical basis for genetic engineering, they permitted it in kosher food processing.

"A lot of the problems we have nowadays [with regard to new technologies]," concluded Leff, "is that the poskim [rabbinic authorities] have to take crash courses in whatever subject they get shaylahs [questions of Jewish law] in."

The Symposium on Modern Medicine and Jewish Law was sponsored by Maimonides Medical Center and organized by the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists.

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman is Professor of Biology and Director of General Education at William Paterson University of New Jersey.