Off the Shelf: Moral quandaries

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When looking for answers to contemporary ethical questions, people debate whether the wisdom of the past is still relevant. Can answers to questions about social media be found in the Torah? What can the Talmud teach us about end-of-life issues based on technological advances the ancient rabbis could never have imagined? Do medieval codes offer insights into parent/child relationships when the world has changed so radically? Rabbi Neal Scheindlin, author of “The Jewish Family Ethics Textbook” (The Jewish Publication Society), certainly thinks so. In his well-written and interesting work, he shows how Jewish texts offer a variety of different opinions on these subjects, ones that give readers much food for thought.

The book, which was originally aimed at teenagers, also works well for adults, whether in classroom settings or study groups. It looks at a variety of areas: parent/child relationships, questions of honesty, activity on social media, sexual ethics and medical issues about reproductive technologies, abortion and end of life issues. Each section offers a general introduction, case studies and a series of Jewish texts (from ancient to contemporary times) that discuss the issue. These sections conclude with a series of questions to explore before Scheindlin offers his own comments on the texts.

What makes Jewish ethics challenging is that there is usually no simple answer to a question. Debates on ethical issues began in rabbinic times and have continued through the centuries. This leaves contemporary rabbis and readers to ponder the correct approach. Some of those differences between opinions are not based on halachic (legalistic) differences, but philosophical approaches to life. One example is the discussion about whether cloning should be allowed. One rabbi forbids cloning because he believes God did not intend humans to reproduce in that manner. Another rabbi believes that the process (which requires the clone to be placed in a woman’s womb) is natural enough for cloning to be acceptable. Scheindlin notes that their opinions “are not different analysis of [halachic] literature, but irreconcilable standpoints concerning human beings’ role in relation to God’s creation. Ethicists differ irreparably on where to draw the line between the appropriate use of human scientific ingenuity, which tradition encourages, and playing God, which it forbids. Human cloning unavoidably confronts us with this problem. Deciding about its ethics requires deciding how far we are willing to go toward making new creations in God’s world.” 

A fascinating discussion occurs around a problem of medical ethics: should medical treatment stop for someone who is dying? A Jewish concept known as goses offers one solution: when a person is actively dying, nothing should prevent that death. Yet, that concept came into being before the increase in medical technology. In ancient times, goses meant a person would die within three days. But what does that mean to those who have inoperable/incurable cancer who don’t want treatment because it would not prolong their life, only increase their suffering? (This is not a case of euthanasia, although that also comes under discussion.) Scheindlin notes the tension between doing something to hasten a person’s death (which most Jewish texts forbid) and not doing anything to impede dying. He also discusses the difference between when “a respirator can still be curative, for example, in helping a patient recover from surgery, but [when] in the last stage of terminal illness, the machine does not perform any therapeutic function.” The author also discusses different ways that death has been defined, which also influences when treatment might be stopped.

The discussion about social media does show the difficulty of applying ancient texts to contemporary times. One example deals with an inappropriate photo sent on Snapchat (where posts are not permanent) and what occurred after a fellow student took a screenshot of the photo and sent it to the school’s principal. Issues of privacy versus breaking the school’s code of appropriate behavior are discussed, as is the fact that the photo became known to a far wider group of people after it was reported. Should the person who took the screenshot have talked first to the person who posted the photo before going to the principal? Or did he do the right thing because it was a violation of school policy? But if something was done not on school grounds, does the school have a right to punish an individual? Jewish texts about how one should not be a tale bearer are offered for one point of view, while others note how people are required to act to prevent someone from being harmed.

“The Jewish Family Ethics Textbook” is an excellent work for anyone looking for an introductory text in Jewish ethics. The book would work in many types of group settings; Scheindlin encourages those reading it on their own to find a discussion partner so they can better appreciate the different points of view offered. What all readers learn is that there are no easy answers to many ethical questions, which is why it is important to explore these issues before facing them in real life.