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Jewish Views on Bioethics

Science and Reform Judaism are not at odds. Although some people of faith have been – and, in some cases, continue to be – suspicious of science, Reform Judaism encourages scientific and medical advances.

Preserving life and promoting health are among the most precious of our responsibilities as Jews, and these values inform our commitment to medical science. Recent developments in biological science have opened the door to a breathtaking revolution in life-saving technologies. Jewish tradition, which encourages scientific and medical advances, seeks to answer biological questions with sensitivity to the needs of the community and individuals involved.

In the Reform Jewish view, God has given human beings the freedom of choice to be partners in creating a better world. We are expected to use our God-given wisdom to help create a better world. Maimonides, the famous Jewish philosopher and physician, wrote, “God created food and water; we must use them in staving off hunger and thirst. God created drugs and compounds, and gave us the intelligence necessary to discover their medicinal properties; we must use them in warding off illness and disease.” The Talmud says, “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” which teaches us that pikuach nefesh, the idea that saving one’s life, is of utmost importance – and is one of our most sacred responsibilities.

Stem Cell Research

These values have informed our affirmative commitment to medical science throughout the ages. The medieval Jewish scholar Nachmanides taught that the practice of healing is not merely a profession; it is a mitzvah, a righteous obligation. A modern Reform rabbinic interpretation applies this principle to human stem cell research: “If we define the administration of lifesaving medical therapy as pikuach nefesh, we should not forget that physicians could not save lives were it not for the extensive scientific research upon which our contemporary practice of medicine is based. Since research into human stem cells partakes of the mitzvah of healing, surely our society ought to support it.” 

Organ Donation

Our tradition requires that we use all available knowledge to heal the ill, and “when one delays in doing so, it is as if he has shed blood” (Shulchan Aruch, Yorei De’ah 336:1). Organ donation, for example, is a matter of life and death for 70,000 Americans waiting to receive transplants, but there are not as many available organs as there are patients in need. Driven by our devotion to pikuach nefesh and the conviction “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16), we place great importance on seeing that available organs are distributed appropriately to maximize the numbers of lives saved and to encourage organ donation.

Care for the Sick

Rabbis have affirmed patients’ right to refuse medical treatment that only prolongs the act of dying, but there are still those who, nearing the end of life’s journey, would choose to live. We have yet to assert the obligations that our community has to those who cannot be cured of their disease but whose future promises nothing but pain and suffering. Guided by the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, we must strive to provide a quality of life that is at least tolerable for individuals whose lives end in pain and suffering. By providing caring support for families and assisting in the development of hospices and similar environments where spiritual and physical needs are met, Judaism can help to preserve the meaning and purpose of our lives as we approach the end of the journey.

Clearly, such issues demonstrate a need for moral and ethical deliberation. Yet faced with the fact that millions of God’s children are plagued by diseases and injuries that we have the potential to heal, Reform Jewish values suggest that the ethical choice is to move forward with research into life-saving technologies.