The mitzvah of saving lives:What Jewish law says about Proposition 71

Two Jewish grandmothers are sitting in a park, watching their grandchildren play in the sandbox. Sadie says to Rachel, “So, nu, how old are your grandchildren?” Says Rachel to Sadie, “Well, Benjamin, the lawyer, is 3 and Naomi, the doctor, is 5 1/2.”

A truth about our people is nestled inside this well-worn joke. For thousands of years, we Jews have valued the legal and medical professions. Law is central to Jewish life; our rituals, customs, and traditions are animated by the legal discussions of the rabbinic sages. Though Jews from the various denominations disagree about the authority and origins of Jewish law, all agree that the system of mitzvot has something important to teach us about how to live. It’s no wonder, then, that so many Jews through the generations have pursued careers in law.

And medicine? For us, healing is not merely permitted by our tradition, it is commanded. The Torah teaches: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your fellow.” (Leviticus 19:16) The medieval sages who put together the codes of Jewish law interpreted this verse as a positive commandment to save the lives of those who are in danger, a mitzvah known as pikuach nefesh. Saving lives is so important, argue the sages, that pikuach nefesh supersedes virtually all other mitzvot.

This mitzvah relates directly to the upcoming election. On Tuesday, Nov. 2, Californians will have an opportunity to vote on Proposition 71: The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. Prop. 71 will create funding for stem cell research that scientists believe will someday make possible breakthrough cures for illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and spinal cord injuries.

Each one of us has a friend or loved one who is fighting one of these life-threatening diseases. We yearn desperately for a miracle cure that will simply make the pain, the worry, and the suffering go away. So what does Jewish law say about this issue?

Embryonic stem cell research — research on the type of stem cells that scientists think are most likely to yield life-saving cures — requires the destruction of a human embryo. Does the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh permit this type of research, particularly since even the most optimistic scientists admit that cures are still a long way off?

Most Jewish legal authorities, across denominational divides, believe that stem cell research is permitted because it might someday save the lives of millions of people. The potential benefits of this research are so great, they argue, as to justify the destruction of the embryo. Our tradition requires us to proceed with care. We must meticulously weigh our ethical concerns about how this research is carried out against the benefits to humanity that such science will likely afford.

Many Bay Area rabbis, after carefully considering the issue ( and Jewish teachings on the matter, have decided to endorse the initiative.

For us, Prop. 71 is a matter, ultimately, of pikuach nefesh.

Opponents of Prop. 71 include individuals who are against stem cell research as well as those who are critical of the way the financing of the initiative is structured. My training and experience as a rabbi leave me particularly unqualified to weigh in personally on the economic details of the plan. But former Secretary of State (and Treasury) George Shultz has endorsed the initiative, arguing that the proposition will ultimately pay for itself through health-care savings, jobs created in the biotech industry and royalties on drug patents that the state of California will own.

I know children who suffer from juvenile diabetes. I have friends fighting cancer and heart disease. I have lost loved ones to Parkinson’s disease and I have witnessed my father-in-law struggle bravely with a spinal cord injury.

We are not permitted to stand idly by as our neighbors and friends lie bleeding. Our tradition commands us to act. On Nov. 2, I urge you to vote for Prop. 71.

Rabbi Josh Zweiback is the senior educator at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

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