Memorial essay: Professor John Goldsmith and Lord Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovitts

- Yeruham Frank Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for Asian and International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel
Fax: + 972-7-6477633
Email: yeruham@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 178-9.
We lost two great Jewish bioethicists at the end of October, 1999. This will not be a standard obituary but a memorial by a friend who did not appreciate how much I valued these people until it was too late. For this reason I did not act as much like a friend as I should have. Prof Goldsmith and Rabbi Dr Jakobovits were both great men, and they both had the humility which comes only of greatness. I do not, therefore, think that either would mind if I write about them in alphabetical order

John Goldsmith,MD, was one of our medical school's "full-time professors without pay". After a distinguished career in the California Department of Health, active in developing some of the most advanced environmental policies in the world, John came to Beer-Sheva to devote his "retirement" to tireless full-time work aimed at gaining for environmental epidemiology in Israel the same respect and influence which it has in Western countries.

In a tiny office stuffed with books, journals and papers, you could see him working at his computer at all hours, with such concentration that I often hesitated to interrupt him with a question. But when I did, he always smiled. He was always kind and gentle and listened sympathetically and gave reasoned answers, even when some of my extreme ideas did not find favour in his eyes.

I never knew John to waste time with small-talk. Even when we met in the hospital coffee shop, the conversation immediately focused on the two topics dearest to his heart: the environment and the Jewish religion.

In my opinion one of John's greatest contributions to philosophical bioethics was his raising of the question of moral culpability in the face of weak statistical correlations. There is a correlation between cancerous growths and proximity to microwave transmitters, such as television and cellular telephone transmitting towers. But the percentages are very, very small.. Is this, therefore, sufficient reason to demand the closing of the transmitter? And perhaps more importantly, can someone, who lives near such a transmitter, and is suffering from a cancerous growth , justifiably demand the payment of damages from the owners of the transmitter? After all, other cancer patients never lived near microwave transmitters. And many people who live near microwave transmitters never got cancer. So what do we mean by "cause" when we ask what caused the cancer? This raises questions in the philosophy of science to which much more work ought to be devoted. Indeed John's work more than anyone's, made it clear to me how intimately bioethics and philosophy of science are connected.

Towards the end, John would often fall asleep at his computer. Then he would awaken with a start, curse his physical deterioration, and go right back to work. He finally moved to a home for the aged in Omer, near Beer-Sheva. I managed to visit him twice, and will always regret that I did not find the time to visit him more often. In our conversations at the home for the aged, he spoke slowly but was always absolutely lucid.

John was fond of saying to me that we are not doing enough to bring environmental issues into the medical curriculum. I think this is quite right. Our ethics centre is teaching clinical ethics as well as philosophy to medical students. . But we don't find enough time for environmental ethics. Perhaps John's passing will shock us into rectifying this.

The general lack of environmental action in Israel is further evidence that John did not get the recognition that he deserved. There are plenty of "environmental quality" campaigns, getting schoolchildren to go out and pick up papers from the street. But little is done to rectify more serious dangers like greenhouse gases, open burning of municipal refuse, open untreated sewage ditches (like the one in Mt. Hevron, where Jews of Kiriat Arba and Palestinians of Hevron cooperate together to pollute everybody's environment.) I have often thought of proposing a "Let's Litter" campaign, urging that everybody go ahead and throw papers and plastics in the streets in order to protest the fact that the real health hazards are being ignored. But then I can imagine John's kindly face, smiling and admonishing me for my extremism.

Leaving for Japan at the end of October, as the plane took off from Ben Gurion airport, I opened the newspaper to see the article announcing the passing of Lord Rabbi Jakobovits. It was not a little strange because Eszter Kismodi and I, just a few days before, had been planning his next visit to Beer Sheva, which we had scheduled for December, l999.

Jakobovits in a way founded modern Jewish bioethics by publishing his book, Jewish Medical Ethics, in the l950's. I vacillated whether or not to write "in a way" in the preceding sentence because, as I said, I appreciate him much more today than I did before he left us. If I had written this a year ago I would have argued that rabbis have been giving answers to questions of medical ethics for thousands of years. And of course no one can compare with Maimonides as Israel's Greatest Bioethicist. But now, missing Jakobovits, I realize that -- really -- Maimonides wrote in the context of medieval medicine . And thousands of years of rabbinical questions and answers were written in a jargon, a kind of combination of Hebrew and Aramaic, which almost nobody can understand unless they studied in a Yeshiva. Jakobovits really was the first to make Jewish bioethics accessable to an international readership, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, and relevant to modern medicine.

Of course I sometimes debated with the Rabbi about the extent to which Jewish religious sources really are relevant today. On many of the big issues -- like embryo status, or like the question whether you may disconnect a ventilator in the case of a terminal patient who is suffering terribly and has asked to be allowed to die -- rabbinical authorities are divided. So the religious sources do not answer the question but leave us free to make our own decisions.

Moreover, on questions of genetic intervention with nature, cloning, stem-cell cultures and the like, ancient sources are silent. And as Rabbi-Dr Mordechai Halperin once argued at a Mossad-ha-Rav Kook conference on halacha and medicine, what the Rabbis did not prohibit is automatically permitted, especially if there is a promised benefit for human health. But this means that the development of guidelines for these procedures will have to be a matter for international, cross-cultural debate and discussion: a multilogue among many nations, religions and secular cultures: Jakobovits' work deserves no small part of the credit for the fact that Jewish bioethicists will make a substantial contribution to this multilogue..

Jakobovits was Chief Rabbi of Ireland, and later of the U.K. and of what was left of the British Empire. He was knighted, and later made a Life Peer. In the House of Lords he was active in debates leading up to bioethical legislation, most notably the Embryology Act.

But I did not know the Rabbi in any of these capacities. My contacts with him were much more personal, as he came over the years on his annual visits to participate in the teaching of ethics in our Health Science Faculty in Beer Sheva. It took us some time to understand that his powers as a lecturer were less than they had been in his younger days, and even then his manner was more suitable to an audience in Britain or America, rather than to our highly critical and somewhat impatient medical students. But we discovered that in spite of his failing health he could be quite effective in individual tutorials with students. He particularly enjoyed meeting with fourth-year nursing students and experienced nurses, in my Nursing Ethics Seminar, helping them to develop topics for their seminar papers and guiding them in finding Jewish sources which deal with their topics.

In spite of his prestigeous position, the Rabbi had a grand simplicity. When he visited Israel, he would stay in Jerusalem, travelling once a week to Beer Sheva. He knew that our ethics centre is not adequately funded. So although we always offered a taxi he insisted on travelling by bus like an ordinary Israeli. Indeed, he enjoyed these bus rides and always descended from the bus smiling, as he strided purposefully in his black English suit, necktie and bowler hat, into the blazing hot Middle Eastern sun. When his health finally did fail, and Lady Jakobovits rightly insisted on an air-conditioned taxi, he did not like it very much.


Go back to EJAIB 9(6) November 1999
Go back to EJAIB
The Eubios Ethics Institute is on the world wide web of Internet:
http://eubios.info/index.html