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"For Instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the L-rd from Jerusalem." -- Isaiah 2:3


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GENESIS — 1:1 create

Within the history of Judaism, the relationship between creation and revelation has sometimes been viewed as sequential and progressive.  From this perspective, creation is only a prelude to revelation in the history of G-d’s relationship to the world.  G-d’s will is only partially revealed to humanity at large, but is fully revealed to Israel at Sinai.  It follows that the normative order established through covenant and Torah takes precedence over that established through creation.  Any universal moral law, then, is but a precursor to Torah and is necessarily subordinated to it.  This view finds expression in midrashic statements that, in G-d’s mind, “the thought of creating Israel preceded all else” and “the world and the fullness hereof were created only for the sake of Torah.”  Genesis Rabbah 1:4  G-d’s purpose in creation can be fulfilled only through revelation.  In effect Rashi expresses this view in his famous commentary on [this verse]. The Torah begins with G-d’s creation of the world, he suggests, so that when Israel comes to possess the Land of Canaan and expel the native inhabitants, they can appeal to the fact that G-d has created the world and can give it to whomever G-d chooses.  For Rashi the whole purpose of creation is to justify Israel’s place in the world.  Such a view, of course, has significant implications for the doctrine of Israel’s chosenness.  Israel possesses a truth unknown to the rest of the world and to this extent the differences between Jews and non-Jews are more significant than the similarities.  [According to some midrashic texts, it is the oral law that distinguishes Israel from the nations.  G-d has given Scripture to all, but the remainder of G-d’s revelation in the form of oral tradition is communicated to Israel alone. See Tanhuma B, Ki Tissa #17; Tanhuma, Ki Tissa, #60; Exodus Rabbah 47:1. [Discussion continues at Genesis 3:22 PASTIMP 135-6] PASTIMP 134-5

GENESIS — 1:26 image

I want to suggest that, for Jewish ethicists, the sacredness of human life translates into several distinct but related sets of principles that, in turn, are exemplified in a variety of specific rules.  While the following analysis is sketchy, it should suffice to demonstrate some of the way in which a Jewish theology of creation shapes biomedical ethics. [This verse]. In the Genesis account only human beings are singled out as reflections of G-d’s own image. Human life is holy because it shares something of the essence of divinity. That human life is sacred means, in the first place, that it possesses intrinsic and infinite value.  Its value is absolute, not susceptible to quantification and not relative to the value of anything extrinsic to it.  Thus, Jewish scholars traditionally have rejected any argument evaluating human life in terms of its “quality,” for this implies that its value is relative to some other good, such as health or happiness or consciousness.  Accordingly, rabbinic authorities have not sanctioned measures that shorten one’s life simply because ordinary physical or mental capacities have been compromised.  Similarly, they have not supported the abortion of fetuses with known or suspected abnormalities, since low quality of life in no way diminishes its sacredness. The sanctity of life generates a second major principle of Jewish ethics, that the preservation of life is the highest moral imperative.  The rabbis were especially sensitive to those situations in which obedience to the law conflicted with the preservation of life.  Since the law, like life itself, comes from G-d a moral conflict between them is especially profound.  But the tradition resolves all such conflicts in favor of the preservation of life.  Thus, to treat a critically ill person one can violate the laws of the Sabbath, prepare non-Kosher food, and so on.  [B. Shabbat 16:17; principle of pikuah nefesh]  Moreover, if there is any doubt whatsoever as to the condition of the patient, we err on the side of preserving life.  By the same token, Jewish law proscribes individuals from engaging in life-threatening activities, unless of course they do so in the interest of saving another life.  Thus, experimental procedures with significant (or unknown) risks are never mandatory and often not recommended, except in cases where performing the procedure is necessary for saving a life.  The view that human life is sacred implies a third central principle, that all lives are equal.  Because Jewish tradition offers no criteria for valuing one life more highly than another, issues of triage are especially problematic.  As one handbook of Jewish medical ethics puts it, “This is the foundation for the practice of triage, and is fundamentally incompatible with Jewish values and Jewish law. Since, in Judaism, all human life is equally sacred including each moment of an individual’s life…no selection is justifiable among those with the need for, and the possibility, however slim, of cure.  [Citing Feldman and Rosner, Compendium on Medical Ethics, 105]. It seems that only a random or arbitrary system of allocating scarce medical resources (among patients who need the resource equally) is compatible with the sanctity of life, as Jewish scholars have understood it.  The sanctity of human life gives rise to a fourth important tenet of Jewish medical ethics, that our lives are not really our own.  Human life is not even a gift so much as a loan, which we possess conditionally and ultimately must return to its source.  Thus, Jewish ethics allows little room for notions of personal autonomy that figure so prominently in Kantian ethics.  The implications of this perspective are especially evident in discussions of abortion.  Rabbinic authorities over the centuries have tended to permit abortion in cases where the mother’s life or health (including possibly her psychological health) is endangered.  In this sense, and only in this sense, the tradition does recognize the distinctions between lives – the actual life of the mother clearly takes precedence over the potential life of the fetus.  But the notion that a mother could terminate a pregnancy for any reason on the grounds that she has a right to control what happens to her own body is entirely foreign to Jewish tradition.  The fetus, though not regarded as fully a “person,” is still alive, and insofar as all human life is sacred, it can be terminated only for the most compelling reason, in order to preserve other lives.  This same principle emerges in Jewish discussions of suicide.  One does not have a right to take one’s own life, even under the most debilitating circumstances.  Similarly, we do not control the timing or the circumstances of our death.  This undergirds the leniency among many traditional authorities with respect to treatment of the dying.  When a person is in a moribund state, we are not required to prolong the moment of death.  The principle of “sit and do nothing” is consistent with the view that G-d controls the ultimate disposition of our lives.  When death is imminent, it is a sign of humble resignation before G-d’s will to refrain from action.  PASTIMP 108-10

GENESIS — 1:27 image

Jewish ethicists searching for universal norms within Jewish tradition will be drawn first to that body of norms specifically designated as binding upon all people.  Known as the “Noahide laws” (since they apply to all descendants of Noah) … [t]he standard list … includes prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, sexual sins, theft, eating from a live animal, and the requirement to establish law courts.  … all Jewish authorities agree that these Noahide laws are the moral norms G-d expects all human beings to observe. … Among these laws one stands out as pertinent to issues of medical ethics, namely the prohibition against bloodshed. The rationale for this prohibition is twofold. First, it represents a fundamental requirement for a stable society.  Natural tendencies toward hostility and violence must be curbed to permit the flourishing of human relationships and social institutions.  Second, the prohibition against murder follows from the view that all human beings are created in G-d’s image [this verse].  As [Genesis Rabbah 34:14] put[s] it, “whoever sheds blood it is as if he diminished the Divine likeness because…”in the image of G-d he made man.’ PASTIMP 210-11

GENESIS — 1:28 rule

[E]ven independent of the Israelites’ covenant with G-d, [Douglas] Knight [“Cosmogony and Order”] demonstrates, the biblical authors conceived of G-d as establishing a moral relationship with humanity and of human beings as creatures capable of moral discernment.  The fact the people are granted dominion over the natural world [this verse], he notes, is but one more indication of this for, in the ancient Near Eastern context, such dominion presupposed a duty of care and responsibility … it seems evident that the biblical writers conceived of humanity as possessing the capacity for moral decision and an awareness (however undefined) of right and wrong that predates the covenant with Israel and the revelation of Torah.  The text of Scripture, of course, does not provide an account of how humanity comes to know its moral responsibilities, or even exactly what they are. But just as clearly it assumes that they exist.  PASTIMP 124-5

GENESIS — 2:7 soul

[A]s understood by Jewish authorities, the sacredness of human life inheres in the human being as a whole, both body and soul.  Indeed, the Hebrew term “nefesh,” used in [this verse] … refers to both the physical and spiritual dimensions of a human being.  Thus as one traditional scholar puts it, “Man is created…in the image of G-d; an assault upon the body of the deceased thus constitutes an act of disrespect toward G-d.” [Bleich, Judaism and Healing, 164] As a result, autopsies are permitted in very few circumstances, generally when the results will save another human life.  And this must be a specific individual; the possibility that the knowledge gained from desecrating a human body may one day help save some unknown person’s life is generally held to be insufficient warrant.  Similarly, organ transplantation, either from living donors or from cadavers, is permissible only when the recipient’s life is at risk.  Otherwise, this constitutes a violation of the sanctity of the human body.  [As an aside it should be noted that this view of the unity of body and soul has been challenged by recent efforts to define death in terms of brain activity. The status of a person whose bodily functions continue after cerebral cortex activity has ceased is not considered in traditional sources, which define death in terms of the cessation of breathing.  Some Jewish legal authorities have now accepted a brain death criterion, defined in terms of the cessation of all brain activity, though this remains controversial.]  Plastic surgery is problematic from a Jewish point of view because it involves unnecessary “wounding” of the body, which belongs to G-d.  Beautification in itself is not generally regarded as sufficient reason for cosmetic surgery, unless the psychological or financial well-being of the patient depends upon it. PASTIMP 110

GENESIS — 3:22 like

… the relationship between creation and revelation may be viewed as correlative and complementary.   From this perspective, creation and revelation are separate but related modes through which G-d’s will is made known to the world.  Creation establishes a normative world that retains its own integrity even after the Torah is given.  Thus, G-d’s engagement with the world does not involve a simple progression from creation to revelation or from humanity as a whole to the chosen people, but rather operates differently in different spheres and among differnet peoples.  This point of view has been expressed most cogently by David Novak: “even though the covenant between G-d and Israel transcends nature, it still accepts nature as a limit (peras) and its own precondition. Jews are human beings who have been elected through the covenant, but they are still human beings within the natural order of things.  Nature, constituted as the covenant’s general background and horizon, is not overcome.”  [Novak, Jewish Social Ethics, 74-79]. It follows that Jews have a double relationship to G-d, first as human beings and second as members of the covenanted community.  Those who adopt this view of creation and revelation, then will necessarily be inclined to stress the similarities as well as the differences between Israel and the rest of humanity.  While this position is not developed explicitly within classical sources, it may be inferred from a number of texts.  At the conclusion of the creation story, G-d says, “Behold, the man has become like one of us knowing good and evil,” [this verse] suggesting that moral discernment of a certain sort is universal and derives, not from G-d’s revelation to Israel, but rather, in mythic terms, from the first human’s eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good an evil.  PASTIMP 135-6

GENESIS — 3:22 like

Humankind stands in a special relationship to G-d, both because people represent the pinnacle of the created order and because they alone have the distinction of being made “in G-d’s image.” In one version of the creation story, human beings, after eating of the forbidden fruit, become godlike, “knowing good and evil.” (this verse).  It follows that we can no more avoid the moral condition than we can avoid being the creatures that we are, for G-d has invested us with moral knowledge.  Thus, creation – both of the world and of humankind in particular – has important normative implications.  The world is created as a cosmos, revealing the design and purpose of a benevolent creator, and human beings are created (or very early on become) creatures with moral discernment.  Taken together these two aspects of creation manifest themselves in the view, implicit throughout Scripture, that all human beings stand in an irreducibly moral relationship with a G-d who both created them for moral purposes and judges their moral conduct.  PASTIMP 133-4

GENESIS — 4:10 cries

The central theme of the second creation myth, in Genesis 2-3, as well as the dominant motif in other myths concerning the antediluvian period, is the moral behavior of humanity.  When Cain murders his brother Abel, G-d reprimands Cain with the words, [this verse]. Clearly, without having received any prior moral instruction, the exchange (and Cain’s subsequent punishment) assumes that Cain should have known that his behavior was immoral.   PASTIMP 124

GENESIS — 6:5 wickedness

G-d sees that [this verse] and so resolves to destroy the world, but Noah, who is “a just man and perfect in his generations,” Genesis 6:9, is saved.  The emphasis on humans’ responsibility for their actions, of course, is pervasive throughout the biblical tradition, and prophetic literature in particular focuses on Israel’s failure to observe basic standards of moral behavior.  PASTIMP 124

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