Mar 17, 2010: Jewish Ethics - Present and Future

In this final session of our course, we will examine two ethical issues that are currently in the news, and can be expected to continue to play a role in our national discourse in the coming decade.

The handout for this session can be found here.  The online chat transcript of the class can be found here.  Click below for the audio recording of this class:

We'll begin by discussing the Jewish ethics of eating.  We'll want to semantically distinguish, here, the difference between the traditional Jewish dietary laws (known as kashrut), and Jewish ethical eating in the more contemporary context.  As far as kashrut is concerned, you might consider perusing my own writing on the subject (my Rabbinical School thesis) found here, especially the first one and a half chapters.

Ethical eating begins with a certain mentality - a certain intentionality that what we eat, and how we eat, matters in some bigger sense of the word: matters to God (if we believe in God), and matters to the animals that are involved in our food chain.

We'll also talk about eating mindfully, including an awareness of where our food comes from, and who is involved in its production.  Included in this part of our conversation will be a discussion about how food production workers are treated.

It would also be important in this discussion to step back and reflect on our consumption of meat.  What are the Jewish ethics of meat-eating?  What is the unique environmental impact of meat-eating?  What does it mean to kill other organisms so that we can eat them? 

In the context of that last question, I strongly encourage you to check out this book.

For more information on Judaism and vegetarianism, click here.

Click here for a copy of Rabbi Eric Yoffie's recent Biennial Sermon to the Reform Movement which incorporated many of these issues.

You should also check out the website of Hazon, the of-the-moment gurus on Jewish ethical eating.  Check out this material, which Hazon published in partnership with the Reform Movement.

Now, let's turn our attention to a second ethical issue that is dominating public policy conversation right now, and is sure to persist as an area of interest in the decade to come.

Within the swirling debate surrounding health care and health insurance reform in our country right now, a small part of that conversation continues to revolve around the question of reforming our country's laws concerning medical malpractice.

Republicans, in particular, have pushed for the limiting of physician liability in malpractice lawsuits as a way of lowering health care costs.  Check out this material for a basic summary of this position.

At the moment, this issue tends be regarded as a partisan one.

For our purposes, I would suggest that we leave our secular partisan identities aside for a moment - as we consider that our own Jewish tradition has quite a lot to say about the limits of physician liability.  As a subsection of a larger Jewish conversation on bioethics, this discussion is an important one...It will inform us of the Jewish perspective on the role of the doctor; and, in doing so, it will hopefully broaden our own ideas about the larger secular debate about the state of health care and health insurance in our country today.

For an introduction to Jewish Bioethics in general, you might consider Dr Fred Rosner's "Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law."  For an introductory text that specifically addresses the issue of physician liability in malpractice suits, check out Rosner's "Contemporary Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law."  Much of that book is available free online here.  As you will see from the presentation handout, I have also made extensive use "Jewish Living" by my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Mark Washofsky.

We'll see, in our discussion, that in the context of this discussion, Jewish law interprets the notion of "tikkun olam" - of bettering the world - in two radically different ways.  One of those readings is connected to the notion that doctors are to be held to a so-called "higher standard" when it comes to that which they should be held responsible.  For more on this, click here for a copy of a responsum (a Jewish legal ruling) on these questions from around 2003.

We will conclude, humbled by the notion that our sources don't always give us the clear cut answers that we are hoping to find: a fundamental realization during any study of Jewish ethics.

1 comment:

  1. As president of Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I am very happy to see this discussion of ethical eating..

    Below are some reasons that Jews (and others) should be vegetarians:

    Animal-based diets are a major factor behind the current epidemic of diseases in the Jewish and other communities.

    Animal-based agriculture is a major contributor to climate change and hunger, water scarcities, rapid species extinction, soil erosion, deforestation and other environmental threats

    Plant-based diets are most consistent with Jewish mandates to preserve our health, treat animals with compassion, protect the environment, conserve natural resources and help hungry people.

    I hope Jewish leaders will do a tremendous kiddush Hashem by getting the question, "Should Jews be Vegetarians?" onto the Jewish agenda.

    For more information, please visit, where I have over 140 articles and 25 podcasts of my talks and interviews, and, to see our award-winning movie "A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World."