“He has told you, O man, what is good. What does God require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
Bioethics deal with the ethical questions surrounding the taking, giving or altering of human life. As Judaism’s focus is on life, bioethics are of prime Jewish concern.
For Jews, the ultimate question relating to all bioethical issues is how much we are allowed to tamper with life, the sacred gift granted to us.
In order to understand how Judaism deals with problems of bioethics we have to look at how ethical principles are formulated and how Jewish ethics can and does evolve to deal with dilemmas that arise from the rapid advances of science in general and medicine in particular.
The Sources of Ethical Principles
The famous verse from Micah quoted above epitomises the principles of Jewish ethics as the rules for a good and correct life, as Micah reminds us that the ethical life requires a spirit of justice, charity and humility.
Jews obtain their moral values from the Hebrew Bible, and the totality of the moral law is described as Torah. Torah values are similar to those of the other two great monotheistic religions which also claim Divine origin for their moral codes, as well as proclaiming that God’s commandments are absolute for all times and for all situations.
Judaism complements the authority of the Biblical law with the concept that as well as the written Torah there exists alongside it the Oral Torah which has the same imprimatur as the written. Just as the written Torah was revealed at Mount Sinai to Moses it is traditionally held, the Oral Law was given at the same time. This enables Judaism to grapple with socio-historical changes, as the Oral Law is continually evolving through the labours of our rabbis (teachers) who use its authority to interpret the written Torah. The authority of particular rabbis as interpreters of the law hinges on their acceptance by their peers because of their outstanding knowledge and the excellence of their character, recognised both during their lifetimes and after their deaths.