A Jewish take on sanctity of life

By  Noel Cooper, Catholic Register Special
  • January 30, 2008

{mosimage}The Sanctity of Human Life by David Novak (Georgetown University Press, 186 pages, hardcover, $35).

Rabbi David Novak is a professor of religion and philosophy at the University of Toronto. His doctoral degree (and his publisher) are from Georgetown University, a Jesuit university in Washington, D.C. Readers who appreciate erudite arguments and rigourous scholarship will be interested in this book, which explores from a Jewish point of view some of the same topics as Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).

The Sanctity of Human Life deals with three important contemporary issues — the use of embryonic stem cells, socialized medicine and physician-assisted suicide.

Novak sets the context for these discussions in the preface and the first chapter. He outlines the distinctions and interrelationships among theology, ethical philosophy and politics. He makes it clear that Jewish theological thought is binding only on Jews, but he believes that Jewish wisdom can provide useful guidance both for philosophical thinkers and for society. Jewish tradition considers the seven commandments given to Noah (“Noahide law”) as equivalent to natural law, discovered rather than invented by human reason, and binding all humankind at all times.

{sa 1589011767}The longest of the chapters, “On the Use of Embryonic Stem Cells,” may have been made less significant by recent news reports announcing techniques for transforming adult cells into pluripotent stem cells. Still, scientists who have been experimenting with embryonic cells will likely continue to pursue their goals; this careful discussion of the issues should be considered in any evaluation of such programs. Novak argues for the prohibition against taking stem cells from a live embryo (which entails killing the embryo in the process), and offers a lengthy discussion of three rabbinic texts pertaining to abortion. He disagrees firmly with one rabbinical opinion that the status of the fetus changes after the 40th day of gestation, and agrees with Catholic teaching that the embryo has the rights of an individual human being from the moment of conception.

Novak has lived in Toronto for more than 10 years, and is a citizen of both Canada and the United States. His second chapter uses traditional Jewish arguments to support the position that “health care delivery in Canada is fundamentally just, and health care delivery in the United States is fundamentally unjust.” The discussion begins with a startling saying from the Mishnah that “The best of the physicians belongs in hell.”

One of four reasons cited is that physicians have the power to heal poor people, yet often refuse to do so. In a discussion of the ethics of physicians accepting fees for their services from patients, the author compares doctors and judges. If judges were to be paid by the persons who appear before them, the judges would be violating the Mosaic law’s prohibition against taking bribes. That is why Jewish (and other) communities, rather than the litigants, pay for the services of judges. In the same spirit, argues the author, the community should pay its physicians through universal health care, rather than requiring patients to pay fees that could be understood as bribes to ensure prompt and effective service.

Novak realizes that such Jewish ethical reasoning cannot claim obedience from secular society, but believes the Jewish tradition of respect for the sanctity of human personhood deserves to be respected as moral guidance, if not as governance.

The final chapter considers suicide from a wide variety of perspectives. Unlike Catholic teaching, Jewish tradition considers it homicide when a physician “kills” even a comatose patient by “pulling the plug.” The author states that secular societies made a mistake when they decriminalized suicide, partly because it is, therefore, impossible to criminalize assisted suicide as compliance with the commission of a crime.

Five possible variations of physician-assisted suicide are considered in detail, followed by discussions of suicide as a reflexive act, suicide and personal responsibility, the private and public aspects of suicide and society’s claims on the individual person.

Probably most believers will agree with Novak’s preference for an understanding of the basic purpose of society neither as promoting its own survival (and thus being able to require suicide of some members), nor as protecting the individual interests of its members — the libertarian view that I am the master of myself, and can do what I wish with my own body, as long as I am not harming someone else. Rather, says the author, society’s basic purpose is to care for all its members in ways they are not able to care for themselves by themselves.

The author’s style of thinking and wisdom became more accessible for me as the book continued. Though many of his conclusions are similar to Catholic teaching, his use of rabbinical tradition and reasoning is quite different from Catholic and contemporary secular reasoning. The Sanctity of Human Life will appeal to scholarly thinkers who are interested in a Jewish understanding of some important contemporary issues.

(Cooper is a retired educator who contributed to religious education curriculum programs published by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

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