Ladies and gentlemen
I am very pleased to have been invited on the occasion of the Third International Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics to convey to you the best greetings from the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities. My sincere thanks to the organisers for this opportunity.
Within our Federation, which is the umbrella organisation for Jews in Switzerland, we are continually faced with issues of Jewish ethics. An example of this comes in the form of being involved in the official consultations of the Swiss Government, when it comes to legislation proposals, most recently in the area of reproductive medicine or euthanasia. Of course issues of medical ethics also affect us Jews always also personally in a very direct way.
This year’s conference focusses on the interesting question of what Jewish ethics can contribute to truth and economics in medicine. You will, dear delegates, therefore be consciously stepping beyond the technological and scientific fields into areas with an interpersonal and social dimension. I am sure that this will lead to many interesting discussions!
If there is a main thrust of Jewish ethics, then arguably one of the most important Jewish scholars Hillel, put it best when he said: “What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to others”. As related in the Talmud, Hillel considered this statement to embody the very essence of the Torah.
Jewish ethics are in general not driven by calls for ethical conduct, as we know it from secular life. Rather, ethical issues are dealt with by studying the Torah and the Talmud and the commentaries on these. Neither are moral questions in medicine answered on the basis of personal feelings and moral concepts, but call for in-depth analysis of Jewish Law. But experience and familiarity with the halachic texts are not enough; the circumstances of each case have to be taken into account as well. So the experts make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
It is important to understand that the basic principle of Jewish ethics is that God is the ultimate owner of the world. Man is just a “tenant”. As God’s custodian man must take care of the world and creation. This applies to human life in particular, of course.
In our faith this is sacred and is of absolute, sacrosanct and infinite value. One of the most fundamental aspects of the Jewish faith is that God created man in his own image, as it says in the Torah. So, there is an element of the divine in every human life: life is God’s greatest gift to man and everyday endeavour should be raised to a level of holiness.
From the Jewish perspective this has a number of consequences. Thus in practice the Halacha allows all commandments and prohibitions to be put aside where it is a case of saving a human life. Acquisition of knowledge and use of technologies for the purposes of avoiding and fighting disease are not only allowed but actually demanded. But this does not mean “playing God”. In the very first chapter of the Torah God demands that man be his partner and servant in creation. This obligation must be complied with within established guidelines, however. Man is therefore characterised by the fact that God has on the one hand granted him creative power, but on the other also provided him with the opportunity and obligation to exercise restraint: the Biblical mandate to man to populate the earth and to conquer it, is balanced by the obligation to serve and protect the environment.
It is clear from just these basic remarks, how much responsibility according to Jewish teaching is incumbent upon us as humans in matters of life and death, illness and medicine. Conferences like this one are therefore particularly important in allowing us to consciously discuss this responsibility in all its dimensions.
I wish you all a stimulating, inspiring and successful conference.