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May 24, 2005

"Judaism is Wrong"

National Review Online has published a remarkable piece of religious over-reaching. It's entitled Judaism is Wrong On Stem Cells, a truly breathtaking pronouncement, no matter what the stakes and no matter what the religion of the pronouncer.

I freely admit that I have no idea what Mr. Cohen's Jewish affiliation is, that is whether he considers himself religious or secular, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, somewhere in-between, or somewhere else entirely. None of the points I make below judge in any way his Jewishness or Judaism, his religiosity, or his knowledge of Jewish soruces. I can only address the arguments offered in the piece. So this is offered in the spirit of debate, and not personally.

Donít assume that the OU speaks for all Orthodox Jews. Itís big, itís influential. Agudah is to its right, and the Rabbinical Council of America is to its left. Hereís the RCA statement on stem cell research. I couldnít fund an Agudah statement, but this is the closest I could come. I wouldn't characterize either of these as, "full steam ahead."

And donít assume that the OU (or the RCA) wonít come out with a statement opposing the creation of embryos solely for research. Judaism draws distinctions based on the reason for doing something all the time. Rabbi Jack Breitowitz, a very well-regarded expert in halachic matters draws this distinction. Meir Soloveitchik, a young man but from a very prominent rabbinic family, recently published an article making more or less your argument (the latest issue of the RCAís Tradition).

I don't know that the OU has come out in favor of research cloning. I certainly couldnít find anything online that clear-cut. Certainly the RCA at least seems wary of it. Personally, it worries the hell out of me. That said, even if the OU supports research cloning, why is their position disingenuous? NR argues in favor of parental notification Ė on narrow grounds pertaining solely to that issue Ė when it actually supports much broader restrictions on abortion. (I support greater restrictions on it myself, although I take a Jewish rather than a Catholic position on the matter, as Iím sure Mr. Cohen does, too.) The OU is addressing the matter at hand.

The fact that is that Orthodox Judaism is still working out its response to many medical issues, stem cell research among them. Frequently these responses work from analogy to previous technology, frequently they look for overriding principles. Orthodox Judaism works within the bounds of halacha, and frequently those lines have been drawn before. Many of the medical ethics issues arise from end-of-life questions, and there are clear Halachic definitions of death that need to be considered. Rabbis Ė Orthodox rabbis Ė will come to varying conclusions on many of these questions. The issues he raises will come into play. They may not be dispositive.

The difference between Rabbi Breitowitz and Rabbi Soloveitchik, and the NRO piece, is that their discourses are grounded in Jewish sources and Jewish law. National Review frequently argues that leftist Catholics are simply not arguing from Catholic sources with respect for Catholic principles and Catholic reasoning; rather they are arguing from secular liberal principles, seeking to impose them on their church. NR is right. It's jaw-dropping that they would publish something that looks like itís doing something very similar with respect to Judaism.

National Review doesn't have an anti-Semitic bone in its body. It need make no apologies and it needs no defense on that score. It publishes articles of Jewish interest - David Klinghofer comes prominently to mind - seeking to explain Jewish issues to a broader audience. Mr. Cohen himself has published a essay in First Things that attacks the issue with much greater subtlety and insight.

It's a shame that - nuance - isn't in display in NRO.

Posted by joshuasharf at May 24, 2005 07:27 PM | TrackBack

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