Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 1994

Publication Title

Journal of Contemporary Law


bioethics, Jewish thought


This essay introduces the reader to the processes by which Jewish ethical-legal reasoning brings old insights to bear on new problems generated by advances in science and medicine. There are at least four reasons why Jewish legal thinking in this area is important to the wider community of Western legal scholars. First, because the law often strives to consider different religious beliefs, it is important to understand these beliefs, the history of these beliefs, and how they function within their religious community.

Second, Jewish legal thinking is important because representatives of religious traditions frequently serve on policy and law-making bodies. Clergy are often asked to serve as “outside members” of groups such as the Institutional Review Boards for the Protection of Human Subjects of Medical Research and Experimentation Rabbi J. David Bleich, one of the best known writers in English on Jewish bioethics, and Rabbi James Rudin serve on the New York Task Force on Life and the Law, which has produced advisory documents on the determination of death, the procurement and distribution of organs for transplant, and surrogate parenting, among other topics. Bleich was also a member of the panel of consultants to the National Institutes of Health on the subject of medical research with human fetal tissue. Immanuel Jakobovits, until recently Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is a member of the British House of Lords, where he sees his task as bringing a Jewish point of view to debates on issues ranging from the definition of death to artificial insemination.

Third, Jewish legal thinking is important to bioethics because bioethics has always thrived on a discourse in which religious and secular ethics play equally lively roles. An Episcopal theologian, Joseph Fletcher, inaugurated the modern era of bioethics with his book Morals and Medicine. Other founding figures include James Gustafson, Richard McCormick, and Paul Ramsey, all Christian ethicists. Until recently, Jewish religious ethicists were notably absent from this conversation, engaging in discussions primarily within their own communities. Now, however, we are beginning to see a more robust Jewish presence in public, cross-denominational discourse. As David Novak says: “(B)ioethics (has) raised the whole field of normative Jewish ethics to a level of public prestige it has not enjoyed since premodern times.” Finally, legal and ethical systems can always benefit from knowledge about other, parallel, systems of thought. That is why law schools offer courses and produce journals on Islamic, Jewish, and canon (Roman Catholic) law, and on comparative law generally.Part II of this essay introduces the reader to the different branches of Jewish religious thought, in order to provide some context for the discussion to follow. In Part III, I identify and discuss three principles that “anchor” any Jewish bioethics discussion. In Part IV, the heart of the essay, I show the analogical, case-oriented method of Jewish argument, and use two bioethical issues--abortion, and the surgical separation of Siamese twins-- to illustrate the discussion.

Finally, in Part V, I introduce some controversial issues: The immutability, interpretation, and relevance of the law, the role of women in shaping the law, and the extent to which the law influences the health care choices and behavior of American Jews.