This section presents brief statements of the Jewish view on some current issues. These are “virtual” statements. They are academic and hypothetical and for general guidance only. Specific cases require specific rulings from a rabbinical scholar.
The destruction of the culture and dignity of the Aboriginal people which has made indigenous Australians feel strangers in their own land resonates with Jews, who have such a long experience of persecution. To restore Aboriginal dignity and ensure Aborigines have full access to education, health and economic opportunity is an ethical imperative.
The unborn child is not considered a “full person”. Nonetheless, to terminate its potential life is a grave moral act, basically permitted only to protect the life or health (physical or mental) of the mother.
To give a child a family and home is a sacred deed of love, but the child’s birth ties remain (for example, if the birth parents are known they are entitled to filial respect). The child should be aware that he or she is a “child of choice”.
Cruelty to animals is forbidden by the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah which apply to both Jews and non-Jews. Animals are, however, placed by the early chapters of the Bible at man’s service. Hence certain animals and birds may be used for food if slaughtered according to the humane procedures laid down in Jewish law. (Fish do not have to be killed in any special way.) Humans must feed their animals before they feed themselves. Hunting is ethically unacceptable.
Hostility to Jews, whilst known in Biblical times, seems to have gone through three stages – religious antisemitism arising out of accusations that Jews killed Jesus; quasi-racial antisemitism deriving from late 19th century views that Jews were inherently tainted; and anti-Zionism, misrepresenting Zionism as racist and genocidal. The answer to antisemitism is education to eradicate prejudice of all kinds, to promote respect for others and to recognise that every group is entitled to be safe and secure from molestation.
Despite the negative attitude to graven images in the Ten Commandments, Judaism always had a concept of beauty, though not so much beauty of form as of character. Artistry was lavished on religious articles and the commandments were fulfilled as aesthetically as possible. Some rabbis opposed portraits and sculptures of human beings for fear of idolatry, though the first chief rabbi of the modern Holy Land, Rabbi Kook, enjoyed the National Portrait Gallery in London. Synagogues have no depictions of God or the human form.
To assist an infertile couple, artificial insemination using the husband’s sperm (AIH) is permitted under adequate supervision. AID (Artificial Insemination by Donor) is morally unacceptable; a child is entitled to unambiguous parentage. Sperm banks threaten the privacy and identity of the family unit.
The body belongs to God and must not be put at risk or desecrated, even after death. Autopsies are an intrusion upon the sanctity of the body and are not approved except when the law requires them or if they can directly advance medical science. Even then, an autopsy must be sanctioned by an expert rabbi and performed with the same respect and dignity that would be accorded to a living patient.
Judaism respects the gentleness and spirituality of Buddhism, but cannot support its non-theistic aspects or its denial of the legitimate pleasures of the world, its non-dynamic attitude to human nature, or its non-activist approach to ethical striving.
Honesty and truth are essential in all human situations. Employer and employee must consider each other’s well-being. Vendor and purchaser must not deceive each other. One of the questions we face when we die is “Were your business dealings honourable?” The Code of Jewish Law deals extensively with ethical business practices.
Though Biblical law prescribes capital punishment in certain cases, the death penalty was rarely imposed in practice, and there was great reluctance to take a life. Strict procedural rules developed in Jewish law made capital punishment almost impossible. If it did occur, it had to be carried out with dignity; even a condemned criminal had rights.
Though some people do not marry, celibacy is not encouraged, and certainly not as a policy. Marriage is regarded as natural and good, and congregations are expected to appoint married rabbis. When criticised for being unmarried, the one celibate ancient sage said: “What can I do? My soul is in love with the Torah”.
As a monotheistic daughter religion, Christianity has much common ground with Judaism. But Judaism does not draw theological conclusions from the life or death of Jesus, even though he was a Jew. Christianity has developed separate concepts of God, man, faith, the good life and the Messiah. The supposed Judeo-Christian ethic does not entirely exist.
Male circumcision is required on the eighth day of a boy’s life unless there are medical reasons for postponement. As well as a mark of Jewish identity, this symbolises the moral duty to keep one’s passions and desires under control. Jews practise this religious rite regardless of shifts in medical opinion, though many medical studies do regard circumcision as hygienically advisable.
As a general principle cloning is not prohibited, but there is a danger that dramatic scientific processes such as this may lead to frightening results in the hands of unscrupulous regimes. There are also technical questions as to the identity of the clone (Who is the clone? Who is the father? Who is the mother?)
Because of the Biblical command, “be fruitful and multiply”, having children is a religious and moral duty. If pregnancy would endanger the wife, contraception may be used by her, though not by the husband, as this would be a direct contravention of the Biblical law not to “waste seed”. Judaism believes that children have a right to be born and bring their own blessing into the world.
While one need not be Jewish in order to attain salvation, a person who sincerely desires to become a Jew can be converted. The procedure requires genuine motivation, study of and commitment to Jewish life, circumcision for a male, and immersion in the mikvah (ritual bath) for both males and females. Conversion for the sake of marriage to a Jew is not encouraged; love of Judaism is a higher motivation than love of a Jew.
Cosmetic surgery is permitted for medical reasons, e.g. after an accident or to enable a person to find a marriage partner or to earn a living, and according to some, even for the sake of vanity, though not if any danger is involved.
Burning a body is abhorrent to Jewish tradition, which requires respectful burial in the earth. Though burial does lead to physical disintegration, this happens gradually and in God’s way. Cremation is a deliberate destruction of the body, which is God’s property, and negates the belief in physical resurrection.
No-one lives forever, though there is a view that Adam’s sin brought death into the world. Life is precious and must not be shortened, though there are circumstances in which artificial impediments to dying need not to be continued. After death, body and soul separate; the body is buried and the soul survives. Life after death is spiritual, not physical; heaven is not a place but a state of being.
If every effort to preserve a marriage has failed, the chapter should be closed in dignity with a divorce, hopefully with the couple remaining on good terms. A religious as well as a civil divorce is necessary to sever a Jewish marriage tie. Divorce must be the last resort; counselling should be attempted in order to try to rehabilitate the marriage.
The duty to seek healing, including taking medicine, is axiomatic. However, drugs used for non-medical purposes have harmful effects on the person and personality, and it is forbidden to put oneself at risk. Even smoking is a dangerous drug. The Bible states that wine creates a happy mood, but artificial means of escaping from reality are not approved.
The environment must be preserved and not placed at risk by human greed or exploitation. Though the world is given to man to use and enjoy, it is a sacred charge that must be handed over to coming generations in good order. There is a duty, “Do not destroy”. Though the needs of nature are a high priority, in an emergency (e.g. to allow for burial of the deceased), genuine human need takes priority.
Is an infringement of God’s prerogative to ordain life and death. (“It is best that He who has given life should take it away; no-one should hasten their own death”.) Death has to come normally, though when a person is in great pain it is permitted to pray to God to allow them to die. If artificial impediments are prolonging one’s dying, there are circumstances in which they can be removed.
Though the theory of evolution has inherent scientific problems, a process moving from the simpler to the more complex forms can be reconciled with the Biblical account of stage-by-stage creation so long as we do not speak of man descending but ascending from what preceded him.
Man and woman are equal in the eyes of God, but they are not identical in form or role. Some commandments are specially for women; others are for men. Both males and females have a role in spiritual leadership and may be religious scholars and teachers, but the titles “rabbi” or “cantor” are limited in traditional Judaism to males. Some communities have women’s prayer groups. There are endeavours to remove disabilities that some women suffer in cases of divorce.
The compulsive or professional gambler is disqualified from being a judge or witness in a Jewish court. They are regarded as not using their time constructively to serve society, they jeopardise their own and their family’s stability and as they take risks with their money, they may take risks with the truth. An occasional “flutter”, e.g. a lottery ticket, is not a major problem.
All human beings are made in the Divine image and must be treated with respect, even if one disagrees with them. Their sick must be visited, their poor supported and their dead buried, regardless of their ethnic identity or religion. Jews suffered so much because of gentiles that some are still worried about “the goyim“.
Homosexuality and lesbianism conflict with the Biblical norm of heterosexual marriage and procreation. Homosexuals and lesbians must nonetheless be respected as people. The Talmud rejects the notion of a formal marriage between two people of the same gender, insisting that the term “marriage” be limited to a male/female relationship.
Intermarriage between Jews and gentiles creates problems for the children and complicates the marriage relationship. It weakens Judaism, since it is in marriage, family and the home that Jewish identity is based. In an open society, some degree of intermarriage appears inevitable, but good-quality Jewish education helps to ensure that Jews will marry within their own faith.
IN-VITRO FERTILISATION (IVF)
Provided it is the wife’s ovum and the husband’s sperm, IVF is permissible but with adequate safeguards to minimise risks.
A monotheistic daughter-religion of Judaism, which has more in common with Islamic than Christian theology. Jewish influences are evident in the Koran, though Mohammed turned against the Jews and criticised them in many passages. In the medieval period Jewish and Islamic culture co-existed constructively.
Marriage and the family are the basic units of society; marriage is the first commandment in the Torah. The unmarried person lives “without joy, without blessing, without good”. Mystics say that husband and wife share one soul. Couples, who live together without kiddushin (sanctified marriage), may have love and pleasure, but they have no guarantee of commitment and stability.
The verse, “Do not place a stumbling-block before the blind” is interpreted as meaning, “Do not misinform or mislead other people”. It ought to be the motto of the media, which do not always deserve the public’s trust. Great harm can be done with words, emphases and nuances, and with pictures, especially when complex situations are presented selectively or simplistically. The borderline between honest reporting and editorialising – open or implied – must be honoured if the media are to act responsibly.
Rabbinic teaching is, “If someone comes to attack you, forestall them.” Defence of oneself or one’s family, nation or country is a moral duty. War is no pleasure nor an ideal, but until it is eradicated, one must give military service if necessary. “Purity of arms” (the ethics of warfare) must be observed.
“Walking humbly with your God” is one of the prophet Micah’s teachings. It entails modesty in speech, dress and deed. Suggestive flaunting of one’s body, or real or simulated sex in public, contravenes the principle of modesty.
Saving a life is a religious and moral duty. To leave a person in danger infringes the rule, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour”. Organ transplants are life-saving acts, provided they are likely to succeed and do not imperil the life of the donor or hasten his/her death.
One need not be Jewish to achieve salvation. The righteous of all peoples have a place in the World to Come, and their conscience and convictions must be respected. This does not mean that all religions are equally true. There are insights, ethics and spirituality in other religions, but Judaism regards itself as the truest religion.
The Jewish greeting, shalom, means “peace”, not just the absence of war but a state of contentment and security. Peace is so important that the Bible commands, “Seek peace and pursue it”; the Jewish sages say, “Seek it in your own place and pursue it in other places.” Concessions and compromises are acceptable “in the interests of peace”. If peace begins with oneself and one’s own family, it can radiate into one’s community and throughout the world.
Biblical teaching insists, “Sin not against the child”. It is an unforgivable sin to prey upon and abuse children and rob them of their innocence. Jewish law prohibits not only genital penetration, but any form of illicit fondling or other inappropriate conduct for the purpose of gratifying sexual desire. People who work with children are especially obliged to protect their young charges.
Restraint and modesty are basic moral duties. Jewish teaching, which, objects to a “mouth speaking wantonness”, also opposes the depiction of sexual conduct in art and literature, on stage and screen. “Everyone knows why the bride enters the bridal chamber, but to speak of it (or publicise it) is a disgrace.” True, there were some rather bawdy medieval Jewish writers, but the norm in Judaism is modesty and dignity.
Poverty is “no great disgrace, but no honour either”. Affluence is a blessing and gives a person the means to help others, but most people cannot expect to be wealthy. Everyone must work hard to be self-supporting but if necessary the community should help, not merely on an ad-hoc basis but (preferably anonymously) to enable the recipient to re-establish him/herself.
Generally one must keep a confidence and not be “a tale bearer (who) reveals a secret”. But disclosure of information can be permitted in order to protect against an offence or injury: “If he does not tell, he will bear iniquity”. If required by a court, the testimony must be given “in camera”. The professional who feels the need to disclose information should urge the person concerned that he/she should him/herself admit the facts.
Is a denial of the rights of every human being, whatever their colour, creed or politics. All are equally children of God and members of the human community. No group is inherently superior or inferior. One may democratically criticise their conduct (though the Talmud says, “Criticise yourself and only then criticise others”), but not to the extent of vilifying or victimising them, or perpetrating or provoking violence.
That the dead live on is axiomatic. Whether a soul can be “recycled” by means of reincarnation is a matter of debate. Some hold that there is no reason why a soul cannot pass into another body; others find it difficult to believe that a soul can have many identities and wonder what will happen when resurrection occurs – into which of many possible bodies will the soul re-enter?
Human beings need God-inspired vision, spirituality and challenge. They need worship in order to keep in touch with these ideals and religious practices in order to bring principles into daily conduct. Life with religion can be hard but it is good. Religion sometimes divides people but it should unite them in mutual respect.
There are good monarchies and bad republics, but Jewish thinking prefers a republican model where leadership arises from the people and can be democratically changed. Whatever type of government a nation has, it is required by Biblical teaching to act correctly and be approved by God.
Sex-change operations are prohibited by Jewish law. Whilst early rabbinic writings acknowledge that a few people have both male and female characteristics, and some are of indeterminate sex, the treatment of a person with gender problems is by psychiatric therapy. Surgery in such cases is a form of mutilation. The Talmud asks how anyone can expect “the order of creation to be changed for their sake”.
When tobacco first became known, the pleasure it gave led some rabbis to think smoking was like offering incense in the Temple. The tendency these days is to prohibit it in order to protect one’s health. It is foolish to rely on the Biblical words, “The Lord preserves the simple.”
Stem-cells can be coaxed to provide the potential to cure diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Adult stem-cells are preferable from an ethical point of view; there is a debate about stem-cells from spare early embryos. Some argue that causing such embryos to be destroyed is an invasion of life; Judaism believes that the early embryo is not yet a full person and subject to safeguards can be used in order to save life.
Castration or surgical sterilisation, except when there are urgent medical reasons, is not permitted. It prevents the fulfilment of the commandment to be “fruitful and multiply”, and is a form of self-mutilation. Sterilisation is permitted to prevent danger to life, especially by a woman motivated by serious considerations, e.g. if she fears extreme pain in pregnancy or childbirth.
As no-one may willingly be enslaved, even to a job, a worker has the right to withdraw his/her labour when there is no other way to redress a valid grievance, but not if one is in an essential occupation such as medicine and would gravely harm the public. Workers whose strike action causes serious economic injury to the employer may be required to compensate the employer.
Life is a Divine gift and must be cherished and preserved. Taking one’s own life was once regarded as the ultimate defiance of God, and a suicide was buried away from the main part of the cemetery. Today we say that a suicide is usually caused by extreme pressure and is not done to spite God, and normal burial is allowed.
In an emergency, a childless couple may resort to a surrogate mother into whose womb a zygote is implanted. Ethical issues that need addressing include hiring out wombs for commercial gain or creating a trade in babies. Further debate is also needed about who the “real” mother is – the one who produced the ovum or the one who carried the baby; does the child, once born have the duty of “Honour your father and mother” in relation to both women?
Tattooing is disapproved as its origins were idolatrous, though technically it is banned only if done with indelible ink and in the form of writing. Even if issues such as self-mutilation, risking injury, etc., are ruled out, it is better to work on one’s heart, mind and soul than to concentrate on physical appearance.
Because non-payment of taxes is regarded as stealing the government’s money, leading to the curtailing of public utilities and services, taxation is valid and moral. To deceive or defraud the tax office is to transgress the prohibitions of stealing, desecrating God’s name and telling untruths. However, overpaying taxes may be avoided by legal means so long as facts are not withheld.
God originally meant human beings to be vegetarian. He allowed meat-eating as a concession to human appetite, but under strictly controlled conditions. In particular, animals had to be slaughtered humanely and the slaughterer could derive no pleasure out of the act of killing. Eventually vegetarianism will be restored as the ideal when “they shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain”. Some Jewish teachers say that Sabbath and festival joy require meat-eating, but this view does not have the status of a commandment.
The Biblical vision of a Jewish return to Zion sustained the Jewish people for countless centuries and has now begun to be realised in the State of Israel, dedicated, according to its declaration of independence in 1948, to the ethical ideals of the Scriptures. The need for a refuge has brought many Jews to Israel; idealism has brought many others. The road to peace with Israel’s Arab neighbours and the Palestinians has been difficult, but an Israeli poet sums up the feelings that will eventually make peace work when he writes, “Time is running out, put hatred to sleep; shoulder to shoulder let us water our sheep.”