Rabbi and Professor Face Off In Bioethics Debate


By Masha Leon

Published July 29, 2005, issue of July 29, 2005.
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It was thrust and parry at the Aleph Society’s June 21 dinner at the Essex House, at which Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Zaslow refereed a dialogue on bioethics between Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz and University of Chicago professor Leon R. Kass.

Born to a secular family in Palestine in 1937, Steinsaltz — whom Time magazine hailed as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar” and whose monumental output includes a 38-volume translation of the Babylonian Talmud — told me in delicious litvishn yidish that when his parents didn’t want him to understand what they were saying, they spoke in Yiddish. Kass, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and whose books include “Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity: The Challenge for Bioethics” and “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis,” was appointed in 2001 by President George W. Bush as chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics. During my chat with Kass and his wife, Amy Apfel Kass (a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute), he told me that he had attended the Sholem Aleichem and Arbeter Ring schools in Chicago!

The following are a few brief excerpts from a dialogue lasting over an hour that touched on the prolongation of life, infertility, organ transplants and more. “First of all, my training was in science,” said Steinsaltz disarmingly. “Being a rabbi is just a hobby with me. Judaism as a religion is very much for progress.” Alluding to the book of Genesis, he said: “God said something like this — ‘I didn’t create a perfect world; [it has] all kinds of holes and problems. Now you people go and make it better.’” Turning to Zaslow, he smiled and said, “As a journalist you want to see blood… I don’t think you’ll see much blood.”

“What puzzles me, rabbi,” said Kass, is that “other rabbonim seem to say: Look, life is good, death is bad. Progress means anything that would preserve, extend life in its full vitality without limits. And yet I’m not sure that one could be true to our humanity, even our Jewish mission… if we [are to be] preoccupied primarily with extending our lives… indefinitely.” Steinsaltz smiled. “As a Jew, I am for progress; as a Jew, I am for giving humanity more power… but I have also to be responsible for the price.” Replied Kass: “The presumption is to err on the side of life, not to make a judgment that there is such a thing as a life unworthy of life.” The rabbi lunged: “We are discussing what we may call policy, policy of the future.” Apropos cloning, Steinsaltz was adamant: “I personally don’t trust any government to make these decisions. Incidentally, I am a member of the Israeli Medical Association, and I don’t trust them.”

Kass rebutted: “I don’t fully agree with the rabbi in his distrust for the government, because the alternative is to leave things to be unregulated. I do think we should have laws against euthanasia; I don’t think that doctors ought to be able to think that killing the patient is one therapeutic option. The scientists and the bio-tech lobbyists want no beginning legislation because they are afraid if you have a little, [then] behind them come the church and the Inquisition and they are going to shut down the laboratories. It’s, I think, a false worry; the country cares too much about progress to shut this down.”

At the end of the debate, Steinsaltz good-naturedly added, “For me it’s a great astonishment that the American government sometimes appoints people who are nice people to do this job. This is really astonishing.”

* * *

A tribute to the Danish people’s rescue of 7,000 of its Jewish countrymen in October 1943 was the theme of the New York City premiere of “Kings and Fishermen,” the centerpiece of the Academy for Jewish Religion’s June 20 “A Musical Celebration of Courage and Soul.” (It was Danish fishermen who helped rescue the Jews.) An oratorio by composer Charles David Osborne and librettist Aryeh Finklestein, this magnificent work — performed by the Zamir Chorale and Orchestra under the baton of maestro Matthew Lazar — included narration by actor/singer Theodore Bikel, Rabbi Arthur Schneier of the Park East Synagogue, and Gustav Goldberger, a former attorney with the U.S. Department of Energy, whose father was chief cantor of the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen during World War II. Rescued in 1943, Gus Goldberger is now a grandfather of 28; his sons and sons-in-law are all rabbis.

Addressing the audience at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall — among whom sat Itzhak Perlman, Brigitte Saks (a representative of the Jewish community of Copenhagen) and event sponsors Rita and Stanley Kaplan — Ulrik Federspiel, Denmark’s ambassador to the United States, said: “Sixty years ago, on May 4, Denmark was liberated from the Nazis.” Though born in 1943, Federspiel did not see his father until liberation because, as the ambassador explained, “he was one of the Danes caught by the Gestapo and imprisoned because of his involvement in organizing the rescue of the Jews… Furthermore, my wife [Dr. Birgitte Federspiel, a pathologist] was born in Sweden because her mother [was among the Jews who] fled from Denmark in one of those fishing boats while she was pregnant with her.”

“Songs that Touch the Jewish Soul,” a montage of assorted works performed by a corps of talented AJR-trained male and female cantors, completed the evening. Included were Sol Zim’s arrangements of “A Rebbe Folk Medley” (a pastiche of Yiddish folk songs), “The Best of Naomi Shemer” (who wrote the song “Yerushalayim shel Zahav,” “Jerusalem of Gold”) and Zim’s wrenching solo rendition of “Avinu Shebashamayim,” “A Prayer for the State of Israel.”

It occurred to me that “Kings and Fishermen” might be subtitled “Megillat Denmark” and performed in October on the anniversary of the rescue. Esther saved the Jews of Persia; the Danes saved the Jews of Denmark.

In 1974, I attended a dinner emceed by radio personality Barry Farber honoring the Danish people for their 1943 rescue of 95% of their Jewish citizens by spiriting them across the water to Sweden. My then-tablemates at the Plaza included several middle-aged members of the Danish underground who had participated in the rescue. “There is no reason to honor us,” one said to me. “We did nothing out of the ordinary.”

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