The Sanctity of Human Life

The Sanctity of Human Life

The Sanctity of Human Life

The Sanctity of Human Life


Heated debates are not unusual when confronting tough medical issues where it seems that moral and religious perspectives often erupt in conflict with philosophical or political positions. In The Sanctity of Human Life, Jewish theologian David Novak acknowledges that it is impossible not to take into account the theological view of human life, but the challenge is how to present the religious perspective to nonreligious people. In doing so, he shows that the two positions -- the theological and the philosophical -- aren't as far apart as they may seem.

Novak digs deep into Jewish scripture and tradition to find guidance for assessing three contemporary controversies in medicine and public policy: the use of embryos to derive stem cells for research, socialized medicine, and physician-assisted suicide. Beginning with thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Nietsche, and drawing on great Jewish figures in history -- Maimonides, Rashi, and various commentators on the Torah (written law) and the Mishnah (oral law) -- Novak speaks brilliantly to these modern moral dilemmas.

The Sanctity of Human Life weaves a rich and sophisticated tapestry of evidence to conclude that the Jewish understanding of the human being as sacred, as the image of God, is in fact compatible with philosophical claims about the rights of the human person -- especially the right to life -- and can be made intelligible to secular culture. Thus, according to Novak, the use of stem cells from embryos is morally unacceptable; the sanctity of the human person, and not capitalist or socialist approaches, should drive our understanding of national health care; and physician-assisted suicide violates humankind's fundamental responsibility for caring for one another.

Novak's erudite argument and rigorous scholarship will appeal to all scholars and students engaged in the work of theology and bioethics.


The term [the sanctity of human life] has a definite religious ring. It seems to denote the fact that human life is related to God. Moreover, although the term [sanctity of human life] (qedushat ha hayyim) does not appear—to my knowledge—in any of the classical Jewish sources, all the classical Jewish discussions of the life-anddeath questions with which I deal in the three essays here certainly assume the idea. Does that mean this term can only be used in theological discussions of the normative issues to which this term and the idea it names pertains? If that is the case, how can the idea of the sanctity of human life enter philosophical and political discussions in which not all discussants hold theological assumptions about God and humans' relationship with God? Clearly, in the secular space in which basic questions of public philosophy and policy are discussed today, one cannot assume any theological consensus, even among worshipers of the same God, even in the same faith—let alone among those in different faith communities. So how can one use a theologically charged idea such as the sanctity of human life in the absence of any general theological consensus anywhere?

This question leaves a Jewish theologian such as myself, who is very much concerned with the normative issues I discuss in this book as they are raised both within my tradition and within the world at large, with a dilemma. I could confine my discussion of the sanctity of human life to theological reflection on how it operates within the normative Jewish tradition—that is, the way it has operated in decisions already made and the way it ought to operate in decisions now to be made. I would have to find a more secular idea, however, when I speak as an ethicist or moral philosopher in a secular context. After all, the normative questions I discuss here— stem-cell research, universal health care, and physician-assisted suicide—arise in universities, research laboratories, government bureaus, and hospitals, not in synagogues, yeshivahs, or rabbinical courts (and not in churches, theological seminaries, or ecclesiastical . . .

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