Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics

People Of The Book: Classic Works Of The Jewish Tradition

By Dr. Henry Abramson

Few books demonstrate the enduring value of halachah as Dr. Avraham Steinberg’s monumental Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics. We live in an age when the most elemental aspects of the human condition are subject to unprecedented manipulation, with everything from the moment of conception to the last embers of consciousness open to revision and consideration. The headlong pace of scientific discovery threatens to overwhelm our basic humanity, radically redefining concepts like “alive,” “male and female,” and “parenthood.” Dr. Steinberg’s magnum opus, the first of its kind, restores a center of gravity to our medical universe and affords health practitioners firm ground for the innumerable moral calculations occasioned by modern medicine.

The six-volume Hebrew-language original was completed in 1989 with approbation from leading halachic authorities. Dr. Steinberg, a physician with extensive rabbinic training and military experience, surveyed the vast scope of medical challenges considered by Jewish law since ancient times and rendered them in alphabetical format, facilitating rapid consultation for doctors seeking immediate guidance on life-and-death issues. The Encyclopedia earned immediate acclaim for its erudition, comprehensive approach, and scholarly objectivity. The volumes were ably translated into a fluid English by Dr. Fred Rosner, a well-known and prolific author in the field, making Jewish thought accessible to a wider audience of non-Jewish bioethicists. This is especially significant, as Dr. Steinberg points out: “Judaism is unique among modern ethical systems in that it constitutes a continuum of recorded deliberations and decisions dating back several millennia. It combines deontological principals with casuistic analysis of an enormous variety of cases.” The Encyclopedia earned the author the prestigious Israel Prize for its contributions to scholarly literature.

The book is written for intelligent non-specialists. Each entry begins with relevant definitions, followed by a historical introduction to debate on the issue (often taking an impressively broad cross-cultural approach), and the scientific background. This is followed by a survey of the relevant Jewish texts, and a detailed analysis of specific applications, heavily reliant on modern responsa literature. Some entries include a discussion of the implications of secular law. The first entry of the Encyclopedia is “Abortion and Miscarriage,” for example, and over the course of 29 double-column pages Dr. Steinberg impressively relates the halachic material cataloging and documenting the approach of rabbis since the first appearance of the issue in the book of Exodus, the implications of the various abortifacient methods and situational variables, and also placing Jewish thought within the non-Jewish works, including modern American law. The reader is left with a concise, comprehensive yet comprehensible understanding of the major approaches of the Jewish legal tradition to this complex issue.

Understandably, a book of this nature is doomed to at least partial obsolescence almost as soon as it appears in print because medical technology evolves so rapidly. The book contains remarkably little discussion of pre-implantation genetic screening, for example, and elective gender reassignment deserves greater attention. Nevertheless, it remains a remarkable feat of scholarship, and may be considered cover-to-cover reading by anyone interested in Jewish medical ethics.

Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish history and thought, serving as dean at the Avenue J campus of Touro College. He may be reached at henry.abramson@touro.edu.

This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times, February 4, 2016.

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