First Things RSS Feed - Eric Cohen
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60Passion and Prudencehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/08/passion-and-prudence
Thu, 01 Aug 2013 00:00:00 -0400 As a longtime student of and occasional contributor to
, I am of course sympathetic to the general persuasion of R. R. Renos reflections: the desire to defend virtue against vice in modern culture, and to promote the good and hopeful society against narcissism, secular materialism, and anti-American despair. But there is also much here to question”and even challenge”in his analysis of religious life, world politics, and modern capitalism.
The Sacrifices of Warhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/04/the-sacrifices-of-war
Sun, 01 Apr 2012 00:00:00 -0400 War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity
by Stanley Hauerwas
Baker Academic, 224 pages, $19.99
]]>The God-Seeking Animalhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/04/the-god-seeking-animal
Thu, 01 Apr 2010 00:00:00 -0400 On the cover of
, the anthology of writings collected by the President’s Council on Bioethics under Leon Kass’s stewardship, there is a picture of a ballerina leaping into the air, body extended, gazing and reaching and soaring toward the heavens, looking at once perfectly natural and unnaturally perfect. Of all possible snapshots, Kass deliberately chose the ballerina to represent the living human—an image that celebrates our embodiment and not our rationality alone, our yearning for the beautiful and not our ordinariness alone. The ballerina is the graceful human animal at her best—one of us, to be sure, yet also separated from us by the heights to which she can reach, by the elevated posture she assumes, and by the pleasure that she brings to those who behold her. And while we fellow humans may watch her in awe, her perfection-seeking performance seems more like an offering to the divine, which her body seeks at the very peak of her movement.
]]>The Ends of Sciencehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2006/11/the-ends-of-science
Wed, 01 Nov 2006 00:00:00 -0500 Whenever I meet with scientists, I’m always struck by their optimism—and their discontent.
]]>Orphans by Designhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2005/12/orphans-by-design
Thu, 01 Dec 2005 00:00:00 -0500 Orphan is one of those words that seems old-fashioned to modern ears”a word that evokes abject poverty in a Dickens novel. But in the years ahead, our reproductive technologies may lead us down a new, terrible path of creating orphans by design. In this case, the problem is not the tragic death of parents but the deliberate creation of children without living biological mothers or fathers”as if such bodily origins do not much matter, as if nurturing were the only dimension of parenthood that still has any meaning.
]]>A Jewish-Catholic Bioethics?https://www.firstthings.com/article/2005/06/a-jewish-catholic-bioethics
Wed, 01 Jun 2005 00:00:00 -0400 The term Judeo-Christian has entered our civic vocabulary for good reason. On many of the deepest issues of human life”the meaning of sex, the dignity of the family, the creation of human beings”Jews and Christians stand together against the secular image of man.
But occasionally, even close friends have disagreements. In a March 2005 essay in the online magazine
, William Saletan observed that traditional Catholics and conservative Jews do not always think alike when they gather at meetings like those of the Presidents Council on Bioethics. According to Saletan, Catholics raise deep questions and then presume to answer them with divinely confident reason. Jews raise those same deep questions but seem less certain that reason can ever finally settle them. Catholics oppose clear evils like embryo destruction. Jews worry about diffuse evils like the corruption of our sensibilities.
Theres some truth in Saletans claim, though matters are, of course, much more complicated. The particular Jews he discusses”Leon Kass, Charles Krauthammer, Yuval Levin, and even me”are hardly representative of Jewish bioethics. In many respects, we are outcasts. We oppose most or all forms of embryo research, for instance, and vehemently oppose the creation of embryos solely for research and destruction. By contrast, with all the division among the branches of Judaism”about keeping Kosher, intermarriage, driving on the Sabbath”destroying embryos for research is a point of remarkable theological agreement. The preeminent Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish organizations in America have all given their ethical endorsement, seeing embryonic stem-cell research as not only permissible under Jewish law but an embodiment of Jewish values. Reverence for life means seeking cures for disease;
embryos are a justified sacrifice”or little sacrifice at all”in the sacred cause of medicine.
A few prominent Jewish ethicists and halakhic experts dissent, seeing embryo destruction as potentially a prohibited form of feticide. But these voices are in the Jewish minority. Most Jewish thinkers support embryo research with few qualms, and many Jews see opposition to embryo research”or even the denial of federal funding for such research”as an illegitimate imposition of Christian values.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff is a typical example. His guidelines on embryonic stem-cell research”adopted nearly unanimously by Conservative Judaisms Committee on Jewish Law and Standards”begin by describing, at great length, the cutting edge of stem-cell science: the various methods and sources for deriving embryonic stem cells, the potential to test new drugs and develop new cellular therapies, and the state of research at different American laboratories. The document revels in its scientific sophistication before turning to the fundamental ethical question: Should Jews support the destruction of human embryos for research?
To answer this, Dorff turns to Jewish law on abortion, and especially the Jewish understanding of what embryos and fetuses are as they develop. After forty days, he says, the fetus is classified by the ancient rabbis as the thigh of its mother; before forty days, he says, the embryo is simply water. Dorff says that it makes sense to follow such teachings only if they cohere with the truths of modern science. And then, inexplicably, he concludes that they do, ignoring the significance of what we now know biologically: that a new organism exists from the moment of conception; that the very first cell divisions are orderly and purposeful; that forty days is a meaningless moment from the standpoint of continuous embryological development; that by forty days the primordial head, arms, and legs have already formed, the primitive heart tube is present, the nerves of the face are developing. The notion that simply water is the best metaphor for understanding the unfolding human being in our care is absurd. It is morally and theologically irresponsible to seek the fruits of modern science in the form of stem-cell research without confronting the facts of modern embryology in order to understand what embryos really are.
Jewish thinkers such as Rabbi Dorff commit two errors simultaneously. They embrace modern biomedical science as a faith in itself, and thus lose the mystical vision that might allow them to see embryos as more than sim ply microscopic cells. And they appeal”oft en se lectively”to ancient religious sources without confronting the new scientific facts that make some of these sources a problem. They are, at once, too attached to modern biology and too removed from modern biology. And one wonders whether some of Dorffs confusions”like describing gametes and embryos in the same breath as potential building blocks of life, or equating embryos with other cells of the body, or describing the destruction of an embryo as taking a part of an object”are not deliberate efforts to make embryo research seem more innocent than it is.
Perhaps the problem is simply that most Jewish thinkers have chosen one Jewish value”the good of healing”as the prism through which to see the old sources. Other considerations”like the law against deliberate killing or the belief in the sanctity of every life as created in the image of God”might lead to different conclusions. The Jewish sources themselves pull in many directions: the
declares that he who causes the fetus to be destroyed in the womb.. . destroys the artifice of the Holy One . . . . For these abominations the Spirit of Holiness weeps. R. Meir Simchah says that the killing of a fetus is punishable by death at the hands of heaven. Nachmanides finds that the Sabbath may be violated to save an unborn child, even in the first forty days of development.
57b interprets the biblical text Whoso sheddeth the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed to include Whoso sheddeth the blood of man, within man shall his blood be shed. And who is a man within man, the rabbis ask? A fetus within the womb.
To be sure, there are many Jewish sources that cut in other directions, especially in the standing they accord to embryos in the first forty days. But these sources deal mostly with the laws of purity for potentially pregnant women or for women who miscarry; they do not deal directly with the moral meaning of deliberately killing early embryos. Likewise, the key text in Exodus, which requires a man who causes a miscarriage by colliding with a pregnant woman to pay a monetary fine, does not deal with the meaning of deliberate killing. Deliberate killing, however, is what embryo research necessarily requires, especially research that creates embryos solely for exploitation and destruction.
Some Jewish thinkers, including Dorff, argue that the embryo
has limited moral standing be cause it cannot develop to term outside the womb. But surely all human beings deprived of the environment they need to flourish have limited potential for life. A bird trapped in a cage may never learn to fly, but it is no less a bird for the harm we caused by putting it there. A grown woman without food or water will surely die, but this lack of sustenance does not make the doomed person less than human. If anything, it challenges the humanity of those who left her there to die in the first place.
Perhaps the one great halakhic exception to the pro-embryo research consensus in modern Judaism is Rabbi J. David Bleich, a giant of ethical and legal scholarship in the Orthodox Jewish world. Bleich rejects the argument that embryos and fetuses
possess greater moral standing than embryos and fetuses
. But he reminds Jews to stand more humbly before the mystery of new life by reminding them of Ecclesiastes: As thou knowest not what is the way of the wind, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child; Even so thou knowest not the work of God Who doeth all things. And Bleich concludes his meditation on the ethics of stem-cell research by praising the Catholic Church for its witness in defense of nascent human life: The Catholic Church now uniquely fulfills a different role in the transcendental divine plan,
, it tenaciously promulgates the notion of the sanctity of fetal life and the teaching that abortion constitutes homicide. Non-Jews who engage in that endeavor do so with divine approbation. Non-Jews engaged in fulfilling a sacred mission are surely deserving of commendation, applause, and support.
Bleich is not convinced, as Catholics are, that early embryos are the moral equivalent of full human persons. Neither are some of the Jewish conservatives involved with the Presidents Council on Bioethics. Bleichs questions are grounded in the mystery of Jewish sources, and the chairman of the council, Leon Kass, sees a possible tension between our moral intuitions about early embryos and the rational account of early embryos as full persons; he opposes embryo destruction but is not convinced that
embryos are necessarily equal. My own view is that the Catholic arguments are indeed the most rational, but accepting them in a moment of trial”such as choosing between the child who is dying and the embryo who might save him”would require a faith that is truly other-worldly and thus seemingly absurd to this-worldly eyes.
But whatever fine philosophical differences may exist in theory, Jewish conservatives who engage publicly on these issues have spent the past several years fighting for prohibitions on embryo destruction. As Jews, we know well what it means to treat some human lives as less than human, or some human beings as there for experimentation. We know the moral hazards of justifying such dehumanizing violations on the grounds that embryos are going to die anyway, just the way some Nazi doctors justified their inhuman experiments. Embryo destruction is not the moral equivalent of the Holocaust, but the lessons of the Holocaust should give us the wisdom to oppose making embryo destruction the new foundation of modern medicine. That, it seems to me, is the heart of Jewish wisdom.
But it is also only part of the story. In the post-Holocaust age, the Jewish mind is not only keenly aware of the dangers of mistreating innocent life. Jews are also afraid of the demographic death of the Jewish people. The pathos of infertility”a continual theme in the Hebrew Bible”is more powerful than ever, while the place of procreation remains central to the Jewish idea of holiness, to Jewish self-understanding as a sacred people, to the Jewish obligation of passing down Gods way from one generation to the next. As it says in
Sat, 01 Jan 2005 00:00:00 -0500 Human Dignity in the Biotech Century: A Christian Vision for Public Policy
edited by Chrles W. Colson and Nigel M. De S. Cameron
Intervarsity. 252 pp. $14 paper