Thursday, February 23, 2006

Dvar Torah: Mishpatim/Shabbat Shekalim

It's a little to busy to write a new D'var Torah this week so I decided to present a Responsa I wrote a few years ago for my Codes class at JTS about Stem Cell Research. It applies a number of concepts from this Torah portion, including the status of a fetus (ie: the penalty for "abortion" is only monetary) and that God commands us to heal. Here goes:

Matt Rutta

Codes for Talmud Majors

Fall 2004


Resolved: The use of human embryonic stem-cells for medical and scientific purposes is permissible under Jewish Law.

I concur with Rabbi Dorff’s responsa in the positive but have differing or additional reasons as to the permissibility to utilize stem cells. Therefore this statement shall be a concurrence to Rabbi Dorff’s responsa

The following things must be assumed permissible, as they were by the CJLS:

-Obligation of humanity to heal


-Organ Donation

God is the ultimate healer, as He says in Exodus 15:26, אני ה' רפאך, “I am the Lord, your Healer”. However, we see that there is still the obligation for humans to act as healers. A few chapters hence, in Exodus 21:19, it states:

אִם־יָקוּם וְהִתְהַלֵּךְ בַּחוּץ עַל־מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ וְנִקָּה הַמַּכֶּה רַק שִׁבְתּוֹ יִתֵּן וְרַפֹּא יְרַפֵּֽא:

“If he stands and walks outside on his staff, then the one who struck him will be cleared of charges but only has to pay for the man’s healing”. In other words, the man has to pay the other man’s medical bills. With this verse directly from the Torah we see that there were doctors at the time and that the Torah finds them to be a necessity. Therefore we are allowed to ‘play God’, per-se, and be doctors.

The CJLS has concluded through various responsa that Abortion is considered to be legal within the framework of Jewish Law. Mishnah Ohalot, Tosefta Yevamot, and Talmud Bavli Masechet Sanhedrin all agree that the fetus is not considered a person until yatza rubo, until the “majority” of it has emerged from the mother’s womb.

Rabbi Kassel Abelson, in his responsa on Prenatal Testing and Abortion says that “the fetus in the womb may be destroyed in order to save its mother’s life, for it is not a person and the case is not comparable to the case of killing one person to save the life of another. The fetus is considered to be less important until the moment of birth and can therefore be destroyed.

Additionally, the CJLS has deemed organ donation, that is, bequeathing bodily organs post-mortem in order to save or help another life to not only be permissible but praiseworthy.

Therefore with the assumption that humanity has the obligation to heal, and that the fetus is considered to be merely an appendage of the woman, comparable to an arm or a leg or any other body part, and not a living being, and with the knowledge that organ donation is commendable, then we can assume that stem cell research is also permissible within the framework of Jewish law.

With medical and scientific technology at the level it is today, there are definite capabilities for great discoveries and innovation in the field of healing and curing diseases. Recently the idea that stem cells, cells that contain the genetic material that can form any other type of human cell, can be used to recreate body parts, research the roots of diseases for purposes of finding a cure, and for many other matters that would prove revolutionary in the history of medicine and of humanity.

These stem cells are most easily extracted from embryos, where the cells are quite pristine. If we are permitted to abort a fetus, then, קל וחוֹמר, we can abort an embryo as it is even earlier in stage to a fetus.

I concur to the points made regarding Onanism and the status of a 40 day old embryo. As to the charges that it could be considered as Onanism, wasteful spilling of the seed (which is a heavenly capital crime), it is not because it is not wasteful. Also the Talmud refers to the embryo as merely a drop of water.

However, Rabbi Dorff stops at only curing disease. Would it be considered ‘playing God’ to also eradicate diseases and to create vaccines and immunizations for the prevention of diseases in the first place? Why should someone have to suffer with the disease if it can be prevented before it happens? Scientists and researchers are too limited by the definition of Rabbi Dorff’s paper. That which Rabbi Dorff defines as “enhancement” is very open ended. The removal of a disease from one’s genes and therefore also the genes of one’s descendents could be considered an enhancement. There has to be a fine line drawn between something like a mutation that causes six toes or conjoined twins, Down’s Syndrome, or Cerebral Palsy, and that which causes mere undesirables such as an unsightly nose or eye color. We are partners with God, not a replacement for Him. There has to be limits. These limits and distinctions can be discussed in a later responsa and ruling

Stem Cell Research, whether from an aborted embryo or one frozen for the very reason of stem cell research or fertility, should be considered permissible within the framework of Jewish Law subject to the restrictions laid forth within this document.

Shabbat Shkalim Shalom,

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