Why Religious Discourse Has a Place in Medical Ethics: An Example from Jewish Medical Ethics
The Jewish tradition recognizes and provides canonical support for differentiating between internal and external modes of communicating values that lie at the foundation of Jewish law. From an internal Jewish perspective, the sages proffer that there are seventy ways to understand the Torah (Numbers Rabbah 13:15.), which indicates that they recognize that concepts in the Torah can survive different paradigms and languages of explanation, and that there can be diversity within a unified people. From an external perspective, the sages state that every single word that God spoke was split into seventy languages, corresponding to each of the seventy nations of the world (BT Shabbat 88b; see also Exodus Rabbah 5:9). Multilingual communication is not for Israel’s benefit in gaining a deeper understanding through linguistic distinctions, since that type of benefit is proffered by the first rabbinic source; rather, it is to provide a means for universal acceptance of certain values, albeit in a different mode than is found within the internal Jewish tradition. This dual notion is supported by the sages’ explanation of the second time the Israelites received the Torah, which occurred during the last weeks of Moses’ life and before their entrance into the Land of Israel. The verse that introduces Moses’ repetition states, “On the other side of the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses began explaining this Torah, saying . . .” (Deut. 1:5). The sages understand the word “explain” to mean that Moses expounded the Torah in the seventy languages of the nations of the world (Midrash Tanhuma, Devarim 2; Genesis Rabbah 49:2). Moreover, after he finished explaining the Torah to the people, the Torah records Moses commanding the people to erect stones, coat them with plaster, and inscribe upon them all the words of this Torah, well clarified (Deut. 27:1–8). Because the words “explain” and “clarified” are linguistically related in Hebrew, the sages understood that the inscription on the stones was also written in seventy languages (BT Sotah 32a). The giving of the Torah by Moses to the Israelites was modeled after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Translations of the Torah were given for the nations of the world so as to provide a means for them to learn the lessons the Torah provides.
Translation is not only a process of converting a word from one language to another; it can also mean converting something from one form of dis¬course to another.
For a more in-depth analysis of this claim, see Alasdair C. MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Bloomsbury Revelations (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
Alasdair C. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), defines the relativist challenge as a denial that rational debate between, and rational choice among, rival traditions is possible. Relativism exists because each tradition has its own internal characteristic modes of justification; therefore, no tradition can deny the legitimacy of another. The perspectivist claim, as perceived by MacIntyre, is that each rival tradition is a mutually exclusive way of understanding the same thing; therefore, the rival traditions are just complementary perspectives for one and the same truth.
Laws, as normative reasons for acting, must possess both explanatory and descriptive reasons as well as normative ones. This is because the normativity of a normative reason depends on a person recog¬nizing the facts that the normative reason entails. Therefore, normative reasons must be able to describe the reality of a situation properly, to explain why the situation contains a normative aspect, and to explain why a particular response is appropriate.
For a more in-depth explanation of reasoning as recognizing and responding to legal reasons, see Ira Bedzow, “An Alternative View of Reasons and Reasoning,” in Maimonides for Moderns: A Statement of Contemporary Jewish Philosophy (Cham, CH: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). 157–90.
Numbers Rabbah 19:8.
BT Sanhedrin 41a; JT Sanhedrin 1:18a.
Federal Arbitration Act, 9 USC §10(a) (2002).
The Noahide laws are normative for non-Jews and were prescriptive for Jews before the giving of the
Torah (BT Hullin 100b). The Noahide legal system consists of seven general instructions concerning adjudication, idolatry, blasphemy, sexual immorality, bloodshed, robbery, and the eating of a limb torn from a living animal (Tosefta, Avoda Zara 8:4–6; BT Sanhedrin 56a–b); and they are identified as being within the first commandment given to the first human being, “And Hashem Elohim commanded regarding the man saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may certainly eat.’ (Gen. 2:16).” Even though the laws were given to the first human being, they are still called the “Noahide laws,” since mankind is considered to be descended from Noah after the Flood. The general nature of the Noahide laws allows for the existence of differences in moral temperament across different societies, even if the broader ethical outlines are the same. Given a certain location, customs may develop that may be different from those in other places due to the constraints of geography, demography, and economy. With varying customs will come varying social perspectives and, hence, different nuances in moral temperament. The relationship between law and ethics is, therefore, easier to see through a more comprehensive legal system such as Jewish law than through a more general one.
Shulhan Arukh, Even HaEzer 1–4.
BT Yevamot 22a; Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 269:1.
Maimonides, Hilkhot Melakhim 9:4.
This is in accord with certain positions on abortion in both the Catholic and Natural Law traditions.
Rabbi I. Y. Unterman, Noam VI (1963): 1–11; Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Iggrot Moshe, Choshen Mishpat 2:69; Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 13:102, 14:101.
Tur, Yoreh Deah 158:1; Beit Yosef Yoreh Deah 158 s.v. rebenu umekol makom, Hoshen Mishpat 425; Bach on Tur, Yoreh Deah 158 s.v. umekol makom; Drisha on Tur, Yoreh Deah 158:1, Sema, Hoshen Mishpat 425:15–19; Darkhei Moshe He’Arukh Yoreh Deah 158 s.v. ain moredim; Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 158:1–2; Shach, Yoreh Deah 158:2; Taz, Yoreh Deah 158:1.
Book of Jonah 3:1–10. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, “Sheva Mitzvot Shel Benei Noah,” HaPardes 59, no. 9 (1985), 7–11.
WHO, “Guiding principles: human rights and gender equality,” in Consolidated Guideline on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights of Women Living with HIV. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2017. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO: chap 1.42, accessed June 27, 2017, http://apps.who.int/iris/ bitstream/10665/254885/1/9789241549998-eng. pdf?ua=1/.
John A. Robertson, “Procreative Liberty and the Control of Conception, Pregnancy, and Childbirth,” Virginia Law Review 69 (1983): 405–64.
Leon R. Kass, Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President’s Council on Bioethics (Washington, DC: Public Affairs, 2002), accessed September 3, 2017, https://bioethicsarchive. georgetown.edu/pcbe/reports/cloningreport/ preface.html/.
This can be seen by the statement of Rabbi Akiva, “God did not give the commandments because He wants them for His own need but in order to refine the Jewish people.” As King David says in Tehillim (18:31), “The saying of God is [for the purpose of] refinement.”
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