Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Correcting Jewish Views on Stem Cell Research

A function of this blog is correcting mistaken views about Judaism held by Jews. The same reader comment that prompted me to declare myself guilty of being “Christian-friendly” also castigated Eric Cohen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center for having written on National Review Online that:

On the stem-cell question, the conscience of Judaism has been misguided….Jews seem to have forgotten even the minimal liberal wisdom of tolerance — the wisdom of not trampling on the moral opinions of their fellow citizens, like pro-life Christians, who believe embryo destruction is not only evil but the gravest evil. As Jews, don’t we owe our fellow citizens the minimal decency of not asking them to pay for the activity that most offends them?


The disgruntled reader triumphantly held up his own misconception about the stem-cell issue: “Remember: embryonic stem-cell research is one of the few subjects on which all Jews across the board — from secular humanists to ultra-Orthodox — agree.” He felt this made Cohen and me a couple of Stepin Fetchits for Christianity, especially Catholicism.
Uh, not exactly. Cohen may have meant that the conscience of the Jewish community has been misguided. If so, I’d agree with him. But Judaism itself is not misguided. Perhaps the most distinguished writer on Jewish legal issues today in the mainstream Orthodox community is Rabbi J. David Bleich of Yeshiva University, where he holds the Herbert and Florence Tenzer Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics. Bleich takes a view on stem cells in which he commends Christian, particularly Catholic, leadership on the issue.


As Cohen points out elsewhere, Bleich doesn’t represent anything like a consensus among Orthodox Jews, but he speaks with considerable and widely acknowledged authority from the classical sources. Rabbi Bleich’s essays in Tradition, the journal of the (modern Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America, represent the highest level of Jewish legal scholarship. The sources define Judaism. What the sociological grouping called “Orthodox Jews” says at any given moment, or “Reform Jews” or “Conservative Jews,” does not. You can download the whole essay for yourself.
The concluding two paragraphs are key. After a long legal analysis, he writes of “the absence of a halakhic [legal] imperative to engage in stem cell research” and the “grave halakhic issues posed by destruction of even nascent embryos.” 
He speculates that if Maimonides himself were alive, he would see the Catholic church as 

uniquely fulfil[ling] a…role in the transcendental divine plan, i.e., it tenaciously promulgates the notion of the sanctity of fetal life and the teaching that abortion constitutes homicide. Non-Jews who engage in that endeavor do so with divine approbation. Non-Jews engaged in fulfilling a sacred mission are surely deserving of commendation, applause and support.

If that puts Cohen, Rabbi Bleich, and me all in the position of “self-hating Jews,” I guess I’d wear that badge proudly.
Comments read comments(15)
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Your Name

posted May 8, 2009 at 11:32 am

Sorry David, but I don’t see you a qualified to “correct” anyone.
Aren’t you the “pseudo Jew”?

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Paige Cunningham

posted May 8, 2009 at 12:41 pm

This is my first time to visit your blog. Thank you for providing links. I was hoping to find a higher level of conversation than is apparent from the first comment by “Your Name.” Ad hominem attacks reveal the paucity of argument.
Better luck next time!

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Your Name

posted May 8, 2009 at 1:12 pm

CORRECTION to the misspelling in my previous post.
Mr. Klinghoffer,
Your prevarication never ceases to amaze me.
Your citing of Rabbi Bleich was completely disingenuous, and you know it.
Here is the truth of the matter: According to (Orthodox) Rabbi Moshe Tendler — Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spector Theological Seminary and a renowned authority on Jewish medical ethics, who also holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from Columbia University — “a fertilized egg in a petri dish does not have ‘humanhood.’ Without implantation into the uterus, it remains a ‘zygote’ or pre-embryo, and is not viewed as an ‘abortus’ as the church views it.”
Rabbi Tendler is also the son-in-law of the late Moshe Feinstein.
(Mr. Klinghoffer: do you even know who Rabbi Feinstein was- without, that is, without having to check him out on Wikipedia?)
One more thing: it is Stepin Fetchit, NOT Stepin FetchitS.

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David Klinghoffer

posted May 8, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Actually, I debated the stem-cell issue with Rabbi Tendler in the Jerusalem Report way back in 2001. In retrospect, we may have been talking, or writing, past each other.
The question being discussed here is not the narrow one of whether in isolation from all other real-world factors, including our being guests in this country, stem cell research involving the destruction of potential human life *by Jews* is permissible under Jewish law. The real issue is what our attitude should be toward the formation of laws in this *non-Jewish* country. If asked for advice, what would we say?
Wisdom, not only technical halachik expertise, is relevant. In addition, Torah treats abortion much more strictly with non-Jews than with Jews. For them, it is a capital offense. For us, not. That by itself would suggest that merely answering the stem-cell question for Jews doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve answered it for non-Jews. With such realities in mind, Rabbi Bleich seeks to answer the larger question and brings wisdom to bear on it. That’s why I find his view especially valuable.
Finally, the plural of Stepin Fetchit would be Stepin FetchitS, no? Please try to read what I wrote a little more carefully next time.

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posted May 8, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Are you serious?
“…including our being GUESTS in this country. The real issue is what our attitude should be toward the formation of laws in this *non-Jewish* country.”
Where does it say in the U.S. Constitution that the status of non-Christians in America is that of “guests” i.e., second-class citizens?
Jews are full-fledged citizens who, as such, have the obligation, as patriots, to offer to our fellow citizens whatever wisdom our venerable tradition has to bear on any given issue – including abortion.
Now I know who you REALLY are: The real-life Lionel Bengelsdorf (cf. Philip Roth’s Plot Against America).

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David Klinghoffer

posted May 8, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Baruch, as much as possible I try to regard the Torah as my Constitution. In that framework, a Jew in exile is a guest wherever he lives, no matter how welcome. What the U.S. Constitution says or doesn’t say is a different matter.

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posted May 9, 2009 at 10:19 am

Clearly you do not lack in self-appreciation.
You state that “A function of this blog is correcting mistaken views about Judaism held by Jews.”
You also claim that “(with regard to the stem cell issue, Eric) Cohen may have meant that the conscience of the Jewish community has been misguided. If so, I’d agree with him.”
Who anointed you to be the decisor to make such a determination?
What incredible gall.
You dismiss Rabbi Tendler’s extensive lamdus as mere “technical halachik expertise” – which is to say, that, as far as you are concerned, Torah living consists of little more than a checklist
of technicalities.
What chutzpa!
Rabbi Tendler is Rosh Yeshiva at Y.U. RIETS (which makes him Rabbi Bleich’s boss and superior), a baki in Talmud with a Ph.D. in biology, and a member of a family with outstanding yichus, while you are nothing but a polemicist-journalist. Yet you dare to present yourself and your eccentric views as not merely equal in stature but superior to him in his field of specialization (Jewish medical ethics) and overall Yiddishkeit!
How utterly disrespectful and contemptuous of a Torah gadol, and, as such, a repudiation of the very institution of gdolim, upon which Orthodox Judaism depends.
You need to ask Rabbi Tendler for mechila, and owe the readers of this blog an apology for your impudence and disrespect.
How dare YOU, a pisherke convert, presume to dictate to born-and-raised, kishke Jews what Judaism is all about.
re abortion and U.S. law: in the case of a Jewish woman with a troubled pregnancy, how ecumenical of you to cede decision-making authority in this matter from her rabbi (and the halacha) to the National Association of Evangelicals and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. What a fine Christian gentleman you are!
One more thing: You allege to be Orthodox, but in your blog photo you do not appear to be wearing a kipah. How so? Are you fearful of looking “too Jewish”? Which is, indeed, ironic, since this is a Jewish website!
I saw your previous blog item on deleting comments. Deleting this post will only further validate its contents.

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posted May 9, 2009 at 10:51 am

Jewish definition of limits for abortion contradicts the assumptions in the stem-cell article by Mr. Klinghoffer, Please read the following. Halacha for abortion is 180 degrees opposed to the stem-cell asumptions by Mr. Klinghoffer.

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maryann moon

posted May 9, 2009 at 11:17 am

I do not feel like I committed homocide when I had an abortion. The soul that makes the
decision to experience third dimensional reality on Holy Planet Earth at any time is not thwarted
for long, by the abortion decision. He or she WILL come onto this plane of existence, one way or
another, whether
this time or another time. He won’t be thwarted for long.

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Your Name

posted May 9, 2009 at 3:08 pm

“Halacha for abortion is 180 degrees opposed to the stem-cell asumptions by Mr. Klinghoffer.”
As is the case for most of what Mr. Klinghoffer types.

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posted May 10, 2009 at 9:29 am

With 300 babies being killed by their mothers in Israel everyday, where is the Jewishish outcry against this holocaust.

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Charles Cohn

posted May 10, 2009 at 12:56 pm

The one thing I firmly believe is that stem-cell research could someday save my life. Being totally nonreligious, that’s all I care about.

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Steven Klein

posted May 12, 2009 at 3:01 pm

Charles Cohen wrote that “stem-cell research could someday save my life.”
Perhaps, but so far the number of people successfully cured of anything as a result of stem-cell research is zero.
Cohen also wrote, “Being totally nonreligious, that’s all I care about.”
Perhaps being religious could save your life. Don’t you care about that?

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