Building Bridges

- Kerstin Jage-Bowler, Mag. Theol.
Garibaldistr. 47, 13 158 Berlin, Germany

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 7 (1997), 9-10.
The European Union has declared this year 1997 is the "Year against racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia". These three things lie quite close together, in the sense of misunderstanding, mistrust, intolerance and scapegoating. We are living in a fast moving time and witnessing an extraordinary revolution of technology: the "global village" is much more real than it was only a few years ago. But is the "ethical evolution" on a similarly fast track? Or is it rather slippery, there? Issues of trust and mistrust, understanding and misunderstanding and learning to listen to and to tolerate "the other", touch every part of life - and our own personal histories as well.

During my stay at the 2nd international Colloquium on Medicine, Ethics and Jewish Law, organized by the Dr. Falk Schlesinger Institute for Medical Halachic Research in Jerusalem in July 1996, I met a young Jewish Doctor from Berlin. We were talking about our work and I told him that I am writing a thesis on Jewish Medical Ethics. He commented: "You are a German, a German Christian, and you are working on Jewish Medical Ethics?...How did you become interested in the subject?...and then: "And, this was an absolute hit, was it?"

And indeed, it was "a hit". The Jewish approach to Ethics, to Medical Ethics is rich and interesting indeed. It has lots of stories, laws, discussions, and there is plenty of movement within the tradition. The Jewish law, the "halakhah", as it is called, is concerned with decisions and rules, pointing out how to reach these decisions, and it is therefore concerned with development. This development of the Jewish law is a development from within. One talks about the "dynamic nature of the relationship between halakhah and scientific process" (1), as Malmonides (1135-1204) described: "You must, however, not expect that everything our sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days; and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science" (2). I often experienced reactions like the one in Jerusalem during my work in the last two and half years: astonishment, amazement, but overall quite positive. And indeed, why am I interested, how do I keep interested...?

Another, equally possible but far more painful reaction, was: "What? You are a Christian and a German, and you are interested in Jewish Medical Ethics? How can these possibly go together? That can't, can they?" I never knew what to say, then. But I was lucky: most of my Jewish partners and friends were always encouraging and very helpful, especially at Jew's College and Leo Baeck College in London, and in Beersheba (Israel). The perhaps inevitable initial mistrust turned very quickly into collaborative work on texts or discussions of ethical questions.

I am very aware of the situation of Germans and of Christians in all exchange and friendship and dialogue. It is painful and shameful to learn about the dark chapters of history and Christianity, carried to the extreme but by no means confined to Nazi Germany. Fifty one years after the Shoah (less than a "normal" human life) only about 50 000 Jews are still living in Germany and their decision to stay is not without criticism (cf. the recent visit of president Weizmann in Germany). Nevertheless, I fell this is a sign of hope, of mutual understanding, of forgiveness (reconciliation?), for Germans, and also for Christians. The recently published and highly controversial book, Daniel Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners", brought the subject up again, the question of the responsibility of the German people and the German individual. The lecture halls were packed, the newspapers sold well before and during Goldhagen's stay in Germany. Old questions and new questioning.

I believe it is still risky to talk about Jewish approaches, Jewish life and Jewish Ethics as a German and even as a Christian. The "mixture" is just not right; too much blood, too much guilt, too much injustice is too close. This point, I think, is one of my weaknesses, it limits my approach and gives rise to a certain shyness and a concern not to be critical too quickly. The fear of colonizing or stealing Jewish thoughts, as has happened more than enough in Christian history. "Shyness" because of an (inherent) possibility of misuse of the work. But perhaps I am forced by my context to face hard questions squarely: "Where the hurt is greater the reconciliation must be deeper. The discipline involved prevents us from the most dangerous religious temptation - lacking respect for reality as it is, and inventing an artificial, expurgated one to which we can apply our simplified answers." (3)

But it is an approach which will, I hope, prove to be of value. My feelings of value. My feelings of shyness and inadequacy may lead to a willingness to listen and to ask (rather than to talk and to answer). A lesson still to be learned: how to listen attentively to "the other", to ask how the other understands and approaches life.

Although I am now in my third year of my Ph.D. ("Choosing life - Jewish perspectives to questions concerning the end of life") my interest is still very much alive. Working within the field of Jewish Medical Ethics is a very rich experience and has its own fascination. Listening to the ancient texts and discussions and learning form them remain the source of understanding; a challenge to "postmodern" Christian perspectives? Laws and stories, usually thought to belong to dusty shelves in libraries: through listening, learning and discussing they come to life, they sharpen perception and deepen knowledge. Learning from the "traditional" approach to ethics (of "orthodox" and "conservative" Judaism), one is working from within the "halakhah", and is always concerned with life and with the well-being of people. The first and last question is always: Is the developed halakhah, the expressed rule, the proposed ethics, responsible? Responsible before G-d - responsible in the face of human experience?

I have learned that open mistrust is often more honest than superficial trust (which asks "Where is the problem?". And I hope and I believe that we have the chance to talk about the feelings of shyness and mistrust and, while talking and listening to each other, we can keep walking and take a few, small first steps to build bridges of understanding.


1. R. Dr. D. Sinclair, Brain Death, The Jewish Law Annual, Vol.IX,1991,260

2. Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, taken from the translation of the original arabic text "Dalalat al-Hairin" by M. Friedlaender. 1956, (1904), Dover Publ., N.Y., 278 (R. Sinclair uses this quotation in his article quoted in the Jew. Law Annual. 1991)

3. R. L. Blue, To Heaven with Scribes and Pharisees, 1975, 1Of.

Commentary on Jage-Bowler

- 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)

Kerstin Jage-Bowler raises a very serious problem which we must face if we are to take cross-cultural bioethics seriously. On the one hand we can learn a great deal from one another's cultures. There is also a need for communication and bioethical co-operation even between people who are in violent conflict. For there are matters of common interest, like environmental health, clean air and water, infectious disease control, etc. I also think that when two nations are in conflict there is still plenty of opportunity for deep understanding between individuals.

Governments can make war, but I do not think that governments can make peace. Individuals can make peace among individuals. But what do you do when the wounds still hurt? Kerstin says she has "learned that open mistrust is often more honest than superficial trust". This is true and I myself also tend to shoot from the hip and state my feelings and criticisms bluntly, not caring whom I offend. But perhaps we can also learn from Japanese ways of avoiding confrontation. As Ruth Benedict explained in her well-known book, after World War Two the conquering Americans were surprised not to meet fierce guerrilla opposition in Japan. Instead, in spite of the barbarous bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese put their energies into settling down to building peace. Had the Japanese put their energies into guerrilla warfare instead, this would have been "more honest", But the world would have lost greatly.

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