I recently had the opportunity to attend a thought provoking and stimulating conference sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies of Arizona State University. The conference was titled ” Health, Mortality and Morality: Jewish Perspectives. This was the annual Judaism, Science and Medicine conference, and it brought together many important scholars from North America and Israel for the purpose of looking at aspects of End of Life concerns. The keynote “Dying In The Age of Advanced Medicine: Should Doctors Intervene?” was give by Rabbi Elliot Dorf of the American Jewish University (you can listen to a pod cast with Rabbi Dorf, recorded at the conference, which is now available here on jewishsacredaging.com). Rabbi Dorf outlined the impact on a person of living with serious illness; the fact that it is, lonely, debilitating, infantalizing, reinforces a loss of control and, more often than not, is replete with boredom.
There was a significant amount of discussion from across all denomination lines on the impact of medical technlogy on “halacha” and how doctors now navigate the ever challenging waters of end of life decisions from within a Jewish framework. A theme throughout the discussions was the continuing vitality of Jewish law and the thrust in the tradition,. regardless of denominational affiliation, to find a way to do what is in the best interests of the person. This reinforced, for me, an aspect of Judaism that always comes up when this issue is raised; that of context. Each case, each person is different, Each life carries with it its own uniqueness of experience and approach to illness. Thus, a challenge is to treat each person within the context of his or her own life experience and where they may be at a particular moment. That often, as was pointed out, can be a concern given the realities of medical practice today.
These two days were filled with exciting concepts and insights. Nothing was “solved” (as if these issues can be given their complexity) however, it was a powerful statement, made by many, that our tradition is a living and evolving entity, especially in this area of bio-ethics. I think if you are interested in following up, it may be worthwhile to contact the Jewish Studies Department at ASU, which is in Tempe, AZ. I think, if I remember right, that the major papers are being collected for future publication.
Rabbi Richard F Address