this morning I addressed a group named Command A on the topic of jewish ethical issues of embronic stem cell research. held in delray beach, this group of well over 140 retirees — men from all walks of professional life in their working years, from doctor, to lawyer, to industry chief, and more — listened patiently as i outlined the history of stem cell research beginning in the 1800s in France, to the advances in our 20th century postwar era, to the modern advances made in the last 15 years. i also presented some of the points of contention in this costly endeavor — fiscal, physical, and human. then, i launched into a discussion of jewish law, jewish ethics, and the prevailing opinions of traditional and liberal theologians greeater than i. the folks enjoyed it so much, that i thought it would be a good idea to reproduce the article i wrote a number of months ago that prompted the group’s program chair to contact me a few months ago and offer me the speaking opportunity.


here it is.  what are YOUR thoughts?


The God Squad – Rabbi Richard Polirer


On The Morality of Embryonic Stem Cell Research


So, you ask, do I think that the ethical factors of using human embryos for research out-weighs the potential to effectively treat or cure numerous diseases which are currently incurable?


Unequivocally, I say this: You bet I do not!


Read on.


In today’s fast-paced world, most of us tend to look for quick and succinct answers; unfortunately, scholars of religion look for process. So here is “process” viz. a vis the Jewish authorities’ views on embryonic stem-cell research.


To begin with, it appears to me that our Jewish Rabbinic authorities have analyzed six preliminary areas of concern:

1. Is in vitro fertilization permissible, to begin with?
2. What is the Jewish approach to abortion(s)?
3. Are pre-embryos included in any possible prohibition of abortion?
4. May a very early embryo be sacrificed for stem cells that could save lives or cure disease?
5. May we fertilize ova specifically to create an embryo that will be sacrificed for its stem cells?
6. Should we make “fences” or protective laws to protect fetuses from wanton destruction, and may tissue from already aborted fetuses be used for research or medical treatment?

As we can see, there is great concern about the two-edged sword of scientific research. First, we are always worried about the slippery slope in the use of human life in “experiments.” Is it the way of Schweitzer or the road to Mengele? On the other hand, the idea of saving human life is a major tenet of our biblical faith. The tension between the two positions finds resolution only after agonizing case by case analyses; there are no blanket yeses or no’s. The literature is voluminous, and truthfully, Rabbinic authorities have come down on all sides of the issue. So, how did I decide?

Personally, I am most influenced by the work of Rabbi Moshe David Tendler, Ph.D., Professor of Jewish Medical Ethics and Professor of Biology at Yeshiva University in New York, and one of the world’s leading experts on Jewish Law and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is a recognized Rabbinic Authority as well as a world-class micro-biologist. I want to let him speak to us in his own words, delivered in 1999:

“Jewish law consists of biblical and rabbinic legislation. A good deal of rabbinic law consists of erecting fences to protect biblical law. Surely our tradition respects the effort of the Vatican and fundamentalist Christian faiths to erect fences that will protect the biblical prohibition against abortion. But a fence that prevents the cure of fatal diseases must not be erected, for then the loss is greater than the benefit. In the Judeo-biblical legislative tradition, a fence that causes pain and suffering is dismantled. Even biblical law is superseded by the duty to save lives, except for the three cardinal sins of adultery, idolatry, and murder. . . Mastery of nature for the benefit of those suffering from vital organ failure is an obligation. Human embryonic stem cell research holds that promise.

I don’t know about you, but I look forward to that promise. God has given us this science to explore and use – wisely.

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