About the Course (Jewish Medical Ethics)

Jewish Learning for the Modern Mind 

David Bilchitz 

Can the ancient texts of Judaism have relevance to determining whether cloning is ethical? Can Jewish tradition help determine whether passive euthanasia – or perhaps even assisted suicide – is morally permissible? These questions are at the heart of a recent course on Jewish medical ethics that I have recently finished teaching. 

The course forms part of the offerings by the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish learning, an Institute of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The organization now has over 50 branches world-wide, educating Jewish adults from across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The South African chapter was brought into being in Cape Town 14 years ago by Viv Anstey and its Johannesburg wing opened in 2012 under the leadership of Ariella Milner. The Melton school focuses on adult education and encourages continuous and life-long learning.  A few hundred students in South Africa have now graduated from its various programmes which range from deepening understanding on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians; the Holocaust, Hebrew literature as well as Jewish ethics, history, philosophy and much else. These programmes are all-based on a lively methodology that has three important prongs. 

First, the programme is text-based. Whilst often in education today, the trend is for teachers to synthesise texts for their students without engaging the original; Melton places text at the centre of every lesson. In the course I taught, texts usually begin with the originating central core of Jewish tradition, the Torah. It then moves to rabbinic texts, and then engages with modern approaches and responsa. Students thus are able to understand the cross-generational interplay of texts. 

Secondly, the programme is interactive. It seeks to reproduce the excitement of learning in a beit midrash (traditional house of learning) with a learning partner (chavruta). The teacher is not in class simply as the font of knowledge but utilizes questions to encourage student understanding and critical assessment of the texts. Students have different backgrounds and bring their unique perspectives to bear on the text – as a teacher, I too learn from my students in the discussion. 

Finally, the programme is expressly inclusive. The texts that are presented – particularly the modern ones – highlight the differences of view that exist in the Jewish world – for instance, within and between denominations or political perspectives. The goal is not simply to understand that there are diverse positions but rather what the key values and approaches are that drive these differences. Diversity is not threatening but helps render learning more vibrant rather than being a dull recitation of dogma. 

Together, this approach empowers students to engage with ancient as well as modern texts in Jewish tradition. In relation to the medical ethical course I taught, rarely is it possible to give definitive answers and the lessons do not aim at simplistic solutions but in opening up the questions. 

Take, for instance the fraught question of euthanasia – In ancient times, there was very little that could be done to keep people alive. On the other hand, today, it is possible to artificially keep people alive for a lengthy period.  It is not surprising therefore that ancient tradition hardly deals with this possibility. However, there is, for instance, a Talmudic case (Ketubot 104a) which appears to have a bearing on the issue. It deals with Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi – a famous sage and chief editor of the Mishna – who was severely ill. His colleagues and students did not want him to die and kept praying continuously for him to remain alive. The text suggests that these prayers were successful – yet, when one of his female servants saw how much he was suffering, she could not bear it anymore. She took a jug and dropped it from the roof. The noise momentarily stopped the rabbis from praying and Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi died. 

The question our students were confronted with concerned the relevance of the text to modern day dilemmas surrounding euthanasia. On the one hand, the text did not have anything to do with medical interventions but dealt with the stopping of prayer: it thus seems clearly distinguishable. At the same time, the text provides an example of the servant intervening to allow Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi to die. Can this serve as a precedent for euthanasia and, if so, what kind of precedent is it? When we look at this intervention by the servant, could it be seen as removing an impediment preventing the Rabbi from dying (passive euthanasia) or was it in fact a direct intervention that caused him to die (active euthanasia)? 

In the Melton lesson, after engaging with this text, we also trace the usage thereof in modern responsa surrounding euthanasia, exploring the approaches different Jewish medical ethicists adopt in this regard. Ultimately, the issues are difficult and students leave the lesson with a deeper understanding of the ethical issues at stake as well as what characterizes particularly Jewish approaches to these questions. 

Feedback from students indicates that the Melton method is effective and enriching. For instance, Dr Glenn Goldblum wrote after the course:  

‘Not only has the course content been fascinating and so relevant, but the teasing out of the issues in greater depth from the Jewish perspective has added to its interest value and learning. In addition, I’ve greatly enjoyed the group participants, their personal realm of experience and range of professional expertise, with their concomitant added contribution to the course’. 

With many excellent students, it has been my privilege to teach in these programmes for the past six years together with many other illustrious faculty members of the South African Jewish community. The Melton programmes continue to enhance the knowledge of those in our community with a hunger for learning and open-minded desire to explore the variety, depth and richness of Jewish thought and law. 

David Bilchitz is a Professor of Fundamental Rights and Constitutional Law at the University of Johannesburg and Director of a leading research institute in Constitutional and International law, SAIFAC. He was also chair of Limmud International and is committed to advancing Jewish education.