Is Monotheistic Theology an Obstacle to Universal Bioethics?

-Avi Gold,
Ben-Gurion University, Be'er Sheva, Israel

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 11 (2001), 50-51.
This paper, presented at TRT5, is the result of three presentations on the topic of Monotheism and Bioethics. These presentations were given in Be'er Sheva, Israel, in Chennai, India, and in Tsukuba Japan.

From the time of the first presentation in Israel, until the third presentation in Japan, I have discussed the topic with many people of several religious backgrounds: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and others. Now, I would like to present an updated paper on monotheism in the context of universal bioethics, and specifically the tradition of the Seven Laws of Noah, and their relevance to this topic.

Initially, the question asked was: Is Monotheism an Obstacle to Universal Bioethics? In the context of universal bioethics, the discussions are often quite secular, but if bioethics are to be universal, then religion must be taken into account. Millions of people worldwide are members of various religious groups, and their attitudes towards bioethics and opinions must somehow fit into the scheme of universal bioethics.

Religious systems which are polytheistic are more accepting of multiple approaches, so I focused on monotheistic religions to see how they could function with a universal bioethics model. As a representative of monotheistic religions, I concentrated on Judaism, although obviously the same issues need to be examined in other religious traditions as well.

Judaism is a monotheistic religion, and in it there is a strict belief in One God. Numerous laws and regulations exist in the Torah, and other Jewish scriptures, prohibiting the worship of multiple gods, and distancing from contact with such practices. It is therefore interesting to see how Judaism deals with the outside world, and with various groups which do not share its theological system. This, of course, has implications for universal bioethics in a world which includes many different religions and faiths.

The rabbis over the centuries have had to deal with this very issue. It is not an issue which came up only in modern times. In various contexts, various policies were practiced, but two details must be kept in mind: One- It was always held to be important that tradition be maintained, even in difficult situations (and this is still the case). Two- It was (and is) recognized that interaction with the outside world is necessary. Complete isolation was rarely possible, and when possible, it did not really provide a long-term solution.

Some would advocate discarding traditional practice and its theological system in order to eliminate barriers from international contact and interaction. While this approach holds appeal to some, obviously tradition cannot be maintained in this way, and if the purpose was preserving tradition, then this approach is self-defeating.

Others attempt the path of discarding the outside world in favor of preserving tradition. This approach has been taken by some, but it is clear that total isolation is not an option in the long term, especially in the 21st century.

Therefore, some other approach must be examined. The rabbis of the Talmud mentioned a tradition which contains within it just such an approach to the outside world. This is the tradition known as the Seven Laws of Noah, a tradition which appears in the Talmud and in a few other ancient Jewish sources. I think the framework of the Seven Laws of Noah has tremendous potential as a method of approaching the outside world, and that it has a great value within the context of universal bioethics.

The topic of the Seven Laws of Noah and their function has been discussed in detail in various sources, although until modern times, most of the discussion has been mainly theoretical. It is now, in recent decades, that various people are considering how this tradition can be translated into practice, outside the realm of theory.

Briefly put, the tradition of the Seven Laws is as follows:

After the Great Flood which destroyed the world, and with it, all of humanity except for Noah and his family, God gave Noah and his family seven laws. These seven laws were to serve as the basis for human society, and to be followed always by all of Noah's descendants (i.e. all of humanity). The seven laws are: 1) Prohibition of idolatry 2) Prohibition against cursing God 3) Prohibition of murder 4) Prohibition of adultery and other illicit sexual relations (such as incest, etc.) 5) Prohibition of theft 6) Prohibition of "ever min ha-Hai" (against eating a live animal or eating a part of an animal while it is still alive) 7) Commandment to set up courts of law

The importance of this framework of seven laws is in at least two things: One- Since it is defined as applying to all of Noah's descendants, and all of humanity is included in this definition, this framework can be used as a way of viewing the world as a whole in its most inclusive manner. Because, we are all, descendants of Noah. So, no matter what religious systems exist, all of humanity has a common link as descendants of Noah. If the world is viewed from this angle, some of the foreignness of the "other" disappears.

Two- These laws are, for the most part, moral definitions, and so it is interesting to examine this framework of moral principles within the discussions of universal bioethics, and within discussions of genoethics, as defined by Shinagawa (1).

Obviously, there are details to be discussed in each of the Seven Laws, but in general, the basic principles of these can be found in cultures and traditions worldwide.

The one law of the seven which causes the greatest issue is that of idolatry. Therefore, this law must be examined carefully, because it holds a key to multi-religious discussion. The next question which follows then is: What is the meaning of idolatry in the context of the Seven Laws of Noah?

As is usually the case, there is disagreement as to exactly how this law should be interpreted. However, according to some rabbis, there is a distinction between what is considered idolatry within the Seven Laws and what is considered idolatry for purposes of Jewish observance. The main difference is in the concept of "shittuf". This word does not have a standard translation in English, but I would recommend "associationism". I have already suggested a Japanese translation for this term as "rensou-shinron" (2).

The basic meaning of "shittuf" is connecting someone or something with God, either in worship or in oaths. By practicing "shittuf", one makes use of an intermediary to reach God, rather than approaching God directly. The difference between this and idolatry is that in practicing "shittuf" one affirms the existence of the One God, while in idolatry the many gods believed in are taken to have independant authority.

The discussion of "shittuf" in rabbinic literature was primarily a discussion of the status of Christianity, whether the issue was belief in a trinity or prayer to saints. Either way, according to those who distinguish "shittuf" from idolatry, a Christian is engaging in shittuf and therefore is not an idolater.

The question then is: What about the status of other religions in terms of this "Seven Laws" framework? After all, the main discussion in rabbinic literature about other religions is on Christianity. Other religions are hardly ever mentioned.

The way to approach other religions is by the same set of guidelines. If the theological framework in a given religion is purely monotheistic or engages in "shittuf" then such a framework would not be idolatrous within the Seven Laws, assuming one follows the approach that holds "shittuf" as distinct from idolatry.

This is why it was a special challenge for me to give my second talk in India. In January, when I presented the second lecture in Chennai, the audience was multi-religious, and for the first time, it was possible for me to discuss the Seven Laws with Hindus. I found a high degree of agreement, and indeed Hindu scriptures speak of an underlying Unity in the universe. Whether or not they use the term "God" is irrelevant, because terminology is culturally-based anyway. The description of God in Jewish sources is a Unity over everything without shape or form, and this fits well the Hindu descriptions. Most recently, the conference in Tsukuba, Japan provided opportunity for initial discussion with Japanese people about Buddhist and Shinto traditions. This was very important for widening the range of comparison in discussion of monotheistic frameworks, their interaction with other systems, and universal bioethics. One further point should be noted, when examining how classical Jewish texts dealt with other cultures and traditions of other lands. Even in the case of a religious system which does not practice "shittuf", but rather idolatry itself, there are still principles existing within Jewish sources that allow for co-existance.

The most important of these is the Talmudic statement "minhag avotam beyadam" (3). This means "the traditions of their ancestors are in their hands". This statement was said about the various nations living in other lands outside Israel. In other words, despite the fact that some of these religious systems are contrary to the Jewish concept of God, nonetheless, the rabbis stated that those nations received their traditions from their ancestors, and so it was seen as an internal matter for those nations. So coexistance with other systems can exist, even when the starting point is a strict monotheistic system.

In conclusion, I would like to say that monotheism need not be an obstacle to universal bioethics, and that the Seven Laws of Noah provide an interesting framework for discussing universal bioethics from a monotheistic viewpoint.


1) Shinryo Shinagawa, An Essay on the Standardization of Ethics, Journal of Health Care, Medicine and Community No. 12, (November 1997), 42-53.
2) Personal correspondence to Prof. Shinagawa, Oct 25, 1998.
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hullin, 13b.

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