- Frank J. Leavitt, Ph.D.
The Jakobovits Centre of Jewish Medical Ethics, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben Gurion University of the Negev
Beer Sheva, ISRAEL (Home Tel/FAX: +972-2-9963048)
(Disconnected from Friday dark until Saturday dark, Israel times)
The daughters of Shakespeare's Lear make us ask whether external manifestations of love are the real thing. And Lady MacBeth makes us wonder whether life has a meaning or is "a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing."
In medieval Christian Europe morality plays were common, intended to teach ethical lessons.
In Israel every year, towards the end of winter, we have a few days or weeks of warmth. Then it gets cold and dark and foggy and bitter again, and when we think we will never again see the light, along comes the Festival of Purim, and the children put on costumed Purim Plays, full of joy and buffoonery, based on the story in the Biblical Book of Esther, where we expected a great tragedy, thought we'd be wiped out in mass genocide, and then we were surprisingly saved and sadness gave way to joy. I think this simple faith, and the ability to find light in the darkness, joy in the face of tragedy, are among the most important lessons in bioethics. It is for example something which a good nurse can perhaps convey to her patients and their families. And Jewish children have been teaching this for centuries, "ethico-dramatically" in their Purim Plays.
Professor Tomio Tada, an immunologist in the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Tokyo, wrote a Noh play, "The Well of Ignorance", placing the question of heart transplants in the setting of traditional Japanese legend. The play was performed in 1994 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and was followed by a discussion of "the cross cultural ethics of organ transplantation" (2).
Still, Prof. Ors has done us a service in drawing attention to innovative methods of teaching bioethics. Teaching clinical ethics to medical students is extremely demanding and difficult, in my experience more difficult than teaching nurses or biology students. So new and unusual techniques, such as "ethico-drama", can be very tempting. But with all due respect to Dr. Ors, I wonder whether such techniques could be used by some as gimmicks which may help some others avoid facing the problem. I cannot help feeling that when we truly love our subject, know it well, and have a certain indefinable and non-measurable "soul contact" with our students, we will teach successfully. And when these things are lacking, all the new techniques in the world won't make us good teachers.
In the last issue, Jayapaul Azariah raised the question of the definition of "life" (3). This question is certainly central to bioethics: the ethics of life. I am no closer than anyone else to an answer to the question: what is life? But I do not think we should be too quick to reject scientific answers. Perhaps there is really no contradiction between scientific and spiritual explanations. Perhaps the genetic code is one revelation of the spirit?
Azariah quoted Muller-Hill who contrasted what he called "this new bible written by scientists in four letters" with the "Old Testament and the Mosaic Law" which Muller-Hill claims "few scientist read". But in some countries there are some, for example, in Israel there are religious Jewish scientists who work daily with the "four letter" code while they regularly read and ponder Scripture. There is not necessarily a contradiction between religion and science. God created both. I think this is one of the great logical and bioethical contributions of monotheism. If two things seem to be both true but also seem to contradict one another, maybe they are both true because they both arise from the same Source. This does not mean that the many gods do not exist. They exist but they are really all the same One God. And perhaps the genetic code is really a manifestation of that One God. Indeed some Jewish mysticism teaches the world was created in Hebrew letters. Perhaps what Muller-Hill calls the "four letter" code is a start at understanding the Code of Creation.
Before there was bioethics, a discipline called "philosophy" used to try to reconcile religion and science. Now too many, if not all philosophers, have abandoned this great challenge and gone in for professional super-specialization and career advancement. So interdisciplinary, cross cultural bioethics must take up the great challenge of trying to see whether science and spirituality are perhaps really just two aspects of one great truth.
1) Ors, Y. "Ethico-drama" and education in bioethics", EJAIB 5 (1995), 154.
2) Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, USA. March, 1994.
3) Azariah J. "Biophysics, biology and bioethics: a fusion of horizons", EJAIB 5 (1995), 120-123.