Eubios Ethics Institute | Book List | TOP - Asian Bioethics in the 21st Century

7.2. The International Impact of Asian Bioethics

- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences,
Ben Gurion University of the Negev,
Beer Sheva, Israel

All historical generalizations are biased, exaggerating a few aspects of enormously complex phenomena. But sometimes we can move a little forward in our search for truth if we focus single-mindedly on one or a few things, while ignoring others. I shall focus on three points: I, The role of the Jews in the development of Western culture; II, The inseparability of Jewish spirituality from Asian; and III, The implications for Asian bioethics.

1. The role of the Jews in the development of Western culture:

The most influential book in Western culture is the Bible. There are really two bibles: the Hebrew, and partially Aramaic Israeli Bible, and the Greek Bible, which is Christian. The Christians call the Hebrew Bible "The Old Testament", and the Greek Bible "The New Testament". The Hebrew Bible contains many commandments, which the Christians believe were nullified by a new prophecy given to Jesus. But they accept the Hebrew Bible as a whole, as God's truth, and as the background to Christianity. So what Christians call "The Bible" usually consists of the Hebrew and the Greek Bibles, bound together. The influence of the Bible can be found almost everywhere in Western literature.

Jews influenced Western Culture in many other ways. In medieval Spain, Jews and Muslims preserved and continued the Greek tradition of philosophy, medicine and science. Some of this knowledge was in Hebrew. But much was in Arabic and inaccessible to European Christians. Between 1148 and 1159, however, the Almohade family conquered Spain. Many Jews fled. Among them were the translators, the Ibn Tibbon family, who translated many works of Jewish and Arabic philosophy, science and medicine into Hebrew.(1) These books made their way to Christians, who knew Hebrew from Biblical scholarship, and translated from Hebrew to Latin. Among the most influential were works of Aristotelian philosophy, and commentaries on Aristotle. The works of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) lead to the development of monopsychism in Europe, "Latin Averroeism", according to which there is only one soul for all humans. We are all really the same person. More important was the Latin translation of Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed. The Catholics recognize its immense influence on Scholasticism, the philosophy of the Catholic universities.. (2)

Modern philosophy and science are considered to have begun in the 17th Century. Rene Descartes was a great mathematician, physicist and physiologist, who developed his philosophy by grappling with prima facie contradictions between science and religion, and attempting to put scientific methodology on a firm foundation. The negative part of Descartes' revolution was his rejection of Aristotle and of Scholasticism. But he had to study them deeply before rejecting them. He did not succeed in escaping from their influence, as was shown by the scholarly work of Etienne Gilson.

When Maimonides discussed prophesy, the transmission of knowledge from God or angels to humans, he refers to this kind of knowledge by an Arabic phrase which was translated as clare & distincte in Buxtorfio's 1629 Latin translation of Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed. (3) And here we find that a few years later Descartes is liberally using the same phrase, clare & distincte, to describe the essential quality of absolutely certain conceptions, which he claimed, we received directly from God. For Descartes, mathematics was a form of prophesies. A further point is that it is well known that emptying one's mind, achieving a kind of mental nothingness, is central in much Asian spirituality, in Zen meditation, and in martial arts. In Kashima-Shinryu, the totally relaxed, alert and clear-minded warrior ready for battle is referred to as being in a state of emptiness, called mugamae (7).

The path to enlightenment begins with emptying one's mind. Descartes vowed to empty his mind of all the confused and doubtful things that he had come to believe. Only what remained, i.e. those thoughts that he could not at all doubt, he would regard as "clear and distinct" and he would accept them as true. The book in which he describes his attempt to empty his mind of his education, culture, conditioning, in order to make way for clarity, he called in Latin Meditationes. This same word in English, "meditation" is used today to refer to various Asian methods of calming and cleaning the mind. Various Biblical texts refer to warriors as "empty", and I hope to show in the book which I am writing that the reference is to a clarity and readiness to respond, similar to mugamae. Descartes' meditation is too similar to Asian concepts to ignore the possibility of a connection.

I have, by the way, been ignoring the role of the Muslims in carrying ideas from East to West, not because it is not important, but only because I know little about it, and know more about Judaism.

I have mentioned the flight of Jews from Spain between 1148 and 1159. But it is amazing how quickly things began to change in Europe after the en masse expulsion of Spanish Jews in 1492. Some people think that ancient astronomy remained static until Copernicus revolutionized everything. But it is known that fundamental assumptions of the old astronomy were questioned by Jews and Muslims in Medieval Spain. The so-called "fixed stars", for example, were discovered to move. (4) And Copernicus published his new theory in 1543; just 45 years after Spanish Jews began to spread around Europe. I am not saying that Jews brought the heliocentric theory to Copernicus. But they do seem to have sparked a spirit of scientific creativity that inspired Copernicus among many others.

The effect of Spanish-Jewish refugees on European religion and literature is widely acknowledged. John Milton (1608-1674) is best known as a Christian spiritual poet. But his translations of Psalms show a good knowledge of Hebrew, and probably familiarity with rabbinical commentaries and the Aramaic Biblical translations. He was a major philosopher of the English Protestant Reformation. He studied Maimonides'. He showed extensive familiarity with Judaism in his pamphlets justifying Cromwell's revolt against the Church and the monarchy, and the beheading of King Charles I. In his essay, "The tenure of kings and magistrates" (in Ref 5) he develops a social contract theory of the relationship between a people and their ruler. The theory is based on Bible and Judaism. King David and King Shaul received their authority from the people. So a modern ruler has that, and only that authority which the people give him. Milton describes in stirring language the revolt of the Ten Tribes of Israel against Rehavam, a king who exploited his people, rather than serving them. And he argues that a modern nation also has the right to revolt against a ruler who fails to serve. The social contract theory is often credited to John Locke or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but Milton propounded it earlier and more eloquently.

All bioethicists will have immediately recognized this democratic doctrine of social contract as the background to the contract model, as opposed to the paternalistic model, of doctor-patient relationship. June Leavitt has been exploring rabbinical influence on English literature, especially with respect to the Countess of Pembroke. (8)

The influence of Jews on Europe is important to Asian bioethics only to the extent that the Jews were the bridge between East and West. Let us now look at the place of Jews in Asian spirituality.

2. The inseparability of Israeli spirituality from Asian

That Israel is part of Asia is obvious from looking at a map. But at an exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, I once saw quotations from two fathers of the modern State of Israel. Theodore Herzl said that the Jewish State would be a bulwark of civilization against the barbarians of Asia. David Ben Gurion, on the other hand, said that the meaning of Zionism is the people of Israel becoming, once again, an Eastern people.

Herzl's attitude is a racist distortion, influenced by European racism. He reminds one of other Jews who, until this day, imitate European racism forgetting how much we, ourselves, have been victims of this same racism. Sometimes people can forget their own great treasure and envy those who have much less. Just as Jews -- fooling only themselves -- have often tried to imitate those who treated us the most badly, so Indians sometimes imitate the British, and Japanese sometimes imitate the Americans. Sakamoto taught us the concept of Asian Bioethics, to restore Asian pride. But sometimes Asian bioethicists look like all they care about is importing American principles into Asia. This is a shame because there is so much to learn from Shinto, Hinduism, Judaism and Buddhism. Rather than being ashamed of the reluctance of Israelis and Japanese to donate organs, we should try to understand what it is about Judaism and Shinto, which makes it hard to accept brain death.

Ben Gurion saw the situation much more clearly. In returning to the Land of Israel, we have returned to our Asian roots. The Bible says that Avraham, the father of the Jewish people and of many of the Muslims, came to Israel from Ur Kasdim. This is usually identified with a city in Iraq. But we have no evidence that he did not come from much further East. Later, Avraham is said to have given gifts to some of his sons, and sent them Eastward. Our tradition says that these "gifts" were the foundations of much Asian spirituality.

The Israeli people tended to become xenophobic during our thousands of years of exile and wandering. We tended to think of ourselves as better as and holier than other peoples. We had a myth that anything good or profound which other peoples have, must have come from us. But since we returned to our own Land, the time has arrived for us to behave as a mature nation, recognizing the greatness of other peoples as well. It may be that we sent much wisdom eastward, but we seem also to have received a great deal of wisdom from the East.

There was a Jewish community for two thousand years in Kerala, in southwest India. Kerala has a spiritual martial art, Kalarippayattu, which is also said to be two thousand years old. One wonders whether it does not preserve elements of the Biblical warrior culture.

There is also a great deal of literature, mostly by amateur historians, tracing evidence of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel having settled in various parts of the world. There are tantalizing references to where they settled in the Bible and rabbinical sources. Through a combination of history, speculation and imagination, they have been traced to places as far apart as Denmark, Ethiopia, India and Japan. There is a fascinating website giving evidence of the presence of the lost Ten Tribes in Japan. (6)

Rabbi Avihail, an Israeli rabbi, is devoted to finding the Lost Tribes and returning them to Israel. Many people in Mizoram, in Northeast India, are descendents of the lost tribe of Menasha. Some of them are now my neighbors in Kiriat Arba, Israel.

There is a village in the north of Japan called Herai. The local people believe that the name is an abbreviation for Heburai, the Japanese word for Hebrew. It is believed that Jesus visited Japan in his youth, learned spiritual doctrines there, and returned to Israel to teach. But his doctrines were too radical, so he was sentenced to death. He escaped crucifixion, returned to Japan, lived and taught until old age, and was buried in Herai.

In Morioka, I was told that many farming people in the north of Japan believe their ancestors were Jewish. My own work on this subject was inspired by Professor Humitake Seki of Tsukuba University. It is focused on similarities between spiritual aspects of Biblical warrior tradition, and the Japanese Samurai. It might be thought that nothing could be farther apart than soldiers and bioethics. But it is relatively easy to be ethical in peacetime. Behaving ethically when someone is trying to kill you is much harder, and perhaps more valuable. There are many points of similarity. Jewish stories about Mica-el the Angel of War are amazingly similar to Japanese stories about Takamikazuchi-no-Kami. Takamikazuchi is believed in Kashima Shinryu tradition to be the god of swordsmanship. Yaakov's battle with the angel in the Book of Genesis is so similar to Takamikazuchi's battle with the "gods of the earth" in the Kojiki, which one feels that one is reading the same story from different perspectives.

The Biblical warriors used a hand-held shield only for defense against arrows and spears launched at a distance. Unlike other Mediterranean and European soldiers, but exactly like the Japanese, they did not use a shield in close combat. Indeed most of the references to shields in the Bible refer to God as our spiritual shield. These and many other examples are treated in my book, which is still in preparation.

The historical hypotheses need to be examined with careful scholarship. In Israel we have a saying that in every falsehood there is some truth, and in every truth some falsehood. It is also possible to examine the similarity of ideas, while refraining from speculating about historical connection. There may also be non-historical reasons for similar of ideas: similar genetic causes of intellectual and imaginative predisposition or perhaps even similar experiences of prophecy. But whatever the causes, it cannot be denied that Israeli culture is Asian, and that Asian culture profoundly influenced the West from late medieval times onward.

3. Implications for Asian Bioethics

A number of ancient sources suggest that various geographical locations have unique spiritual influence on the people who live or visit there. A book by John Michell has many photographs and drawings of holy places in Europe and the Americas (9). Jews believe in the holiness of the Cave of the Machpela, in Hevron, and of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Unlike what may be believed in other religions, it is not the occurrence of an historical event that makes a place holy. The opposite is the case. The Cave of the Machpela is not holy because the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried there. They were buried there because the place is holy. The Temple Mount is not holy because King Shlomo built a temple there. King Shlomo built a temple there because the place is holy.

There are many other holy places in Asia. Tsukuba-san Mountain, in Japan, seems to have a unique sexual energy. It is signified by the two peaks, which enshrine the god and goddess of creation: Izanagi and Izanami. All over the mountain, pairs of stones can be seen: one stone tall like a pillar, the other one round with a crack. I have been told that in the old days, before Western influence corrupted Japanese culture, bacchanalian orgies were held annually on Tsukuba-san. It is said to have been an excellent solution for childless couples. Tsukuba-san is one of many examples of Asian places with unique spiritual influence.

All of Asia, from Israel to Japan, has long been a source to the world, of spirituality, philosophy and culture, of which some examples have been discussed in the first two sections of this paper. Spirituality, philosophy and culture are the foundations of ethics. Much of what is good in international bioethics can be traced back to Asia, as I have already suggested.

Of course, not everything in international bioethics is good. And not everything in international bioethics comes from Asia. At the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, I saw a sign quoting Mahatma Gandhi as saying that the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number is unacceptable because it allows us to sacrifice the minority for the majority. We should, he said, work for the greatest good possible for all. And he added that while the world has enough resources for every person's need, it does not have enough for one person's greed. Reflecting on the difference between utilitarianism and Mahatma Gandhi, one gets a clue of the difference between Western and Asian bioethics.

The west has achieved a strong hegemony in international bioethics. In spite of the efforts of people like Sri Aurobindo to explain the nobility of Asian culture to the world, and to prove that it is not the primitive bundle of superstition and ignorance which British imperialists and Catholic missionaries made it out to be, imperialist attitudes still abound.

Asian Bioethics can be defined geographically. Any bioethics that is produced in Asia is Asian bioethics. It seems to me that the solution to the current western hegemony is simply to encourage more Asian bioethics. But it should be produced in the context of openness to Asian spiritual, cultural and philosophical sources: Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinto, Yoga, the Tao, martial arts, or at least the more spiritual ones like Kashima Shinryu and Buddhist martial arts. The spirituality, philosophies, and cultures of Asian minorities, the Jews, the Druze, the Kurds, the Bedouin, also have a great deal to teach. I hope at the same time that the current fad of imitating Western bioethics will come to an end. It is not a little ridiculous that the medical system in the United States, where medical treatment depends on ability to pay, should be looked up to as a model of biomedical ethics.


1. Charles Touati . La Pensee Philosophique et Theologique de Gersonide. Paris, les Editions de Minuit, 1973. 16.
2. Teaching of Moses Maimonides, in Catholic Encyclopedia, Internet edition.
3. Rabbi Mosis Majemonides (sic). Doctor Perplexorum. tr. Johanne Buxtorfio, Fil. Basileae, 1629. II, 45.
4. Pirush (anonymous commentary on the first book, Sefer ha Mada, of Maimonides' Mishne Tora. Published in traditional editions of the Mishne Tora.
5. John Milton. Prose Writings. K M Burton, ed. London & New York. Everyman's Library. 1958, 1974.
7) Karl F. Friday with Seki Humitake, Legacies of the Sword: the Kashima-Shinryu and Samurai Martial Culture. Honolulu, University of Hawai'i Press, 1997.
8) Leavitt J. The influence of medieval rabbinical commentaries on the Countess of Pembroke's Psalm 58. Notes and Queries (in press)
9) Michell J. The Earth Spirit: its Ways, Shrines and Mysteries. London, Thames and Hudson, 1975.

JArticle top

Eubios Ethics Institute | Book List | TOP - Asian Bioethics in the 21st Century