The term "Judeo-Christian" has entered our civic vocabulary for good reason. On many of the deepest issues of human life--the meaning of sex, the dignity of the family, the creation of human beings--Jews and Christians stand together against the secular image of man.
But occasionally, even close friends have disagreements. In a March 2005 essay in the online magazine Slate, William Saletan observed that traditional Catholics and conservative Jews do not always think alike when they gather at meetings like those of the President's Council on Bioethics. According to Saletan, Catholics raise deep questions and then presume to answer them with divinely confident reason. Jews raise those same deep questions but seem less certain that reason can ever finally settle them. Catholics oppose clear evils like embryo destruction. Jews worry about diffuse evils like the "corruption of our sensibilities."
There's some truth in Saletan's claim, though matters are, of course, much more complicated. The particular Jews he discusses--Leon Kass, Charles Krauthammer, Yuval Levin, and even me--are hardly representative of Jewish bioethics. In many respects, we are outcasts. We oppose most or all forms of embryo research, for instance, and vehemently oppose the creation of embryos solely for research and destruction. By contrast, with all the division among the branches of Judaism--about keeping Kosher, intermarriage, driving on the Sabbath-destroying embryos for research is a point of remarkable theological agreement. The preeminent Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jewish organizations in America have all given their ethical endorsement, seeing embryonic stem-cell research as not only permissible under Jewish law but an embodiment of Jewish values. Reverence for life means seeking cures for disease; ex vivo embryos are a justified sacrifice--or little sacrifice at all--in the sacred cause of medicine.
A few prominent Jewish ethicists and halakhic experts dissent, seeing embryo destruction as potentially a prohibited form of feticide. But these voices are in the Jewish minority. Most Jewish thinkers support embryo research with few qualms, and many Jews see opposition to embryo research--or even the denial of federal funding for such research--as an illegitimate imposition of Christian values.
Rabbi Elliot Dorff is a typical example. His guidelines on embryonic stem-cell research--adopted nearly unanimously by Conservative Judaism's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards--begin by describing, at great length, the cutting edge of stem-cell science: the various methods and sources for deriving embryonic stem cells, the potential to test new drugs and develop new cellular therapies, and the state of research at different American laboratories. The document revels in its scientific sophistication before turning to the fundamental ethical question: Should Jews support the destruction of human embryos for research?
To answer this, Dorff turns to Jewish law on abortion, and especially the Jewish understanding of what embryos and fetuses are as they develop. After forty days, he says, the fetus is classified by the ancient rabbis as "the thigh of its mother"; before forty days, he says, the embryo is "simply water." Dorff says that it makes sense to follow such teachings only if they cohere with the truths of modern science. And then, inexplicably, he concludes that they do, ignoring the significance of what we now know biologically: that a new organism exists from the moment of conception; that the very first cell divisions are orderly and purposeful; that forty days is a meaningless moment from the standpoint of...