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Playing catch-up with science

When it comes to genetic screening and engineering, Judaism’s ‘jury’ still out

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Progress in detection of genetic diseases is spurring a new push for Ashkenazi Jews to get screened, but timeless questions of Jewish medical ethics are being raised anew.

Rabbi David Golinkin, the Conservative Jewish law expert, says the core issue has not changed since the days when screening was available only for Tay-Sachs disease.Golinkin will be scholar-in-residence at Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn during Shabbat on Sept. 23-24.

“The main discussion vis-à-vis genetic disease is whether it justifies abortion,” Golinkin told The Jewish Standard in Jerusalem, where he lives and works at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

The Conservative approach adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) in 1983 concludes that there is a clear precedent in Jewish tradition “to permit abortion of a fetus to save a mother’s life, to safeguard her health, or even for a ‘very thin reason,’ such as to spare her physical pain or mental anguish. Some recent authorities also consider the well-being of other children, and the future of the fetus itself, as reasons to permit abortion.”

The responsum (decision on a matter of Jewish law) stipulates that the family’s rabbi should be involved in decision-making when a fetus is found to have “major defects which would preclude a normal life.”

The writings of Rabbi David Feldman, a noted Jewish medical ethicist and rabbi emeritus of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, are appended to the 1983 responsum. Feldman “insisted years ago that one can only abort for concern over maternal health and not the potential health of the fetus,” said Avram Israel Reisner, onetime rabbi of the New Milford Jewish Center and currently a member of the CJLS’ subcommittee on biomedical ethics. “That is the norm and the standard, but there are other voices asking about the economic and psychological well-being of the family.”

Reisner, who is rabbi of Congregation Chevrei Tzedek in Baltimore, said, “Judaism allows for abortion when necessary, but defining ‘necessary’ is all over the board.”

Even in the secular world, he said, controversy surrounds a new test to detect Down syndrome in the first trimester of pregnancy, which will inevitably lead to more abortions. While Jewish authorities generally permit termination of a pregnancy only for a fatal defect such as Tay-Sachs, the earlier test for Down is significant because Jewish law draws a distinction between the first 40 days of pregnancy and beyond.

“We don’t abort a Down syndrome baby after 40 days of gestation,” said Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler of Monsey, a renowned microbiologist as well as Jewish medical ethicist and a longtime dean of Yeshiva University’s rabbinic seminary. “If it is possible to detect it before 40 days, it becomes a halachic [Jewish legal] issue that has to be resolved.”.

Reisner believes that “earlier genetic tests [for additional conditions] will follow as the science gets better.”

All of Judaism’s religious streams agree that premarital genetic screening is a better option.

Tendler noted that American health insurance companies cover the cost of screening for a variety of common Ashkenazi genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis. This has been so effective that Tay-Sachs has been virtually eliminated in the Orthodox world, said Tendler.

Feinstein advised people to get screened before starting to date for marriage.

Many authorities allow pre-implantation genetic diagnostic (PGD) testing of fertilized eggs. Although this requires in vitro fertilization, which is expensive, Reisner added, “PGD can resolve a problem one step earlier than abortion. But it certainly may not be used for something like sex selection.”

Jewish medical ethicists are more united on questions of genetic engineering — specifically, human cloning. Golinkin outlined the concerns in his 2003 book “Insight Israel: The View From Schechter.”

“Who is the mother — the egg donor, the cell donor, the surrogate mother — or all three? Who is the father — the cell donor, the mother’s father, or perhaps the clone has no father? Or perhaps the clone is the identical twin of the cell donor? May we clone someone without their knowledge? May we clone a dead person? Does the nucleus donor fulfill the mitzvah to ‘be fruitful and multiply’? If a child is fatally injured in a car accident, may we take one of his cells and clone him? These questions show just how complicated human cloning is from a moral and religious point of view,” he wrote, concluding that “the [rabbinic] arguments against cloning human beings are much more convincing than those in favor.”

Feldman told The Jewish Standard that cloning humans “sounds exciting and promising, but there are so many things that can go wrong along the way.”


More on: Playing catch-up with science


Tackling the thorny issues of modern life

Rabbi David Golinkin to be Fair Lawn scholar-in-residence

“There’s a huge thirst for learning,” says leading Conservative scholar and halachist Rabbi David Golinkin, who will be Shabbat scholar-in-residence at Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn on Sept. 23-24.

President and professor of Jewish law at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, Golinkin served for 20 years as chairman of the Vaad Halachah (the Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, which writes responsa (answers to questions of Jewish law) for the Conservative (Masorti) Movement there. He has lectured in such cities as Puerto Rico, Paris, London, Montreal, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Tucson, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, Chicago, and Reno.

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Oslo, Birthright, and me

Yossi Beilin, to speak at Tenafly JCC, talks about his past

For a man who never served as Israel’s prime minister, Dr. Yossi Beilin had an outsized impact on Israeli history.

A journalist for the Labor party paper Davar who entered politics as a Labor Party spokesman before being appointed cabinet secretary by Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 1984, Dr. Beilin made his mark with two bold policies that were reluctantly but influentially adopted by the Israeli government: the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, and the Birthright Israel program.

On Thursday, Dr. Beilin will address “The future of Israel in the Middle East” at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, in a program sponsored by the Israeli-American Council.

Dr. Beilin — he holds a doctorate in political science from Tel Aviv University — ended his political career in 2008, having served as a Knesset member for 20 years, and as deputy foreign minister, justice minister, and minister of religious affairs.


A new relationship in Ridgewood

Conservative, Reconstructionist shuls join forces, work together, retain differences

Last December, Rabbi David J. Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood wrote a thoughtful and perceptive op ed in this newspaper about why the word merger, at least when applied to synagogues, seems somehow dirty, perhaps borderline pornographic. (It is, in fact, “a word that synagogue trustees often keep at a greater distance than fried pork chops,” he wrote.)

That automatic distaste is not only unhelpful, it’s also inaccurate, he continued then; in fact, some of our models, based on the last century’s understanding of affiliation, and also on post-World War II suburban demographics, simply are outdated.

If we are to flourish — perhaps to continue to flourish, perhaps to do so again — we are going to have to acknowledge change, accommodate it, and not see it as failure. Considering a merger does not mean that we’re not big enough alone, or strong enough, or interesting or compelling or affordable enough. Instead, it may present us with the chance to examine our assumptions, keep some, and discard others, he said.


Mourning possibilities

Local woman helps parents face trauma of stillbirth, infant mortality

Three decades ago, when Reva and Danny Judas’ newborn son died, just 12 hours after he was born, there was nowhere for the Teaneck couple to turn for emotional support.

Nobody wanted to talk about loss; it was believed best to get on with life and not dwell on the tragedy.

Reva Judas wasn’t willing to accept that approach, and she did not think anyone else should, either — especially after suffering six miscarriages between the births of her four healthy children.

She soon became a go-to person for others in similar situations, and eventually earned certification as a hospital chaplain. In January 2009, Ms. Judas founded the nonprofit infant and pregnancy loss support organization Nechama (the Hebrew word for “comfort”) initially at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center and then at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck.

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