Contemporary Conundrums Addressed at Conference on Judaism and Medicine


by Fay Kranz Greene - NEW YORK, NY

May 17, 2005

Terminal Care and the Terri Schiavo Case; Embryonic Death and the Creation of Human Embryonic Stem Cells; Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Terrorism and Sexuality and Judaism were just a number of the themes explored at the National Association of Judaism and Medicine (NAJM), last Sunday, at the Hilton Hotel in New York City.

The all-day event, jointly sponsored by SUNY Downstate Medical Center and Chabad Lubavitch of Midtown Manhattan, drew 250 guests, among them many health professionals who chose from a smorgasbord of workshops, seminars, and open-panel discussions on a broad range of issues that concern the relationship between modern medicine and Jewish law.

In the hotly debated area of stem cell research, Rabbi Yizchok Breitowitz, JD, Professor of Law, University of Maryland and a noted scholar, stated unequivocally that from a Jewish perspective, stem cell research is permitted by Jewish law, and even required because of its life-saving potential. He endorsed the removal of most current restrictions on harvesting stem cells to make the technology more widely available.

In an interesting aside, the founder of NAJM, and conference chairman Moshe (Michael) Akerman, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center told the audience about a conversation that took place in 1978 between the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of blessed memory and his cardiologist, Dr. L. Teicholtz.

The doctor was explaining to the Rebbe that after a heart attack, heart muscle dies and new cells, called fibroblasts, grow into the dead area and replace the muscle as scar tissue, leaving the heart muscle less effective in pumping blood. The Rebbe, who understood the implications perfectly, told Dr. Teicholz that these same fibroblast cells in the embryo grow into normal heart muscle. It therefore follows, said the Rebbe, that medicine should be able to figure out a way to cause these fibroblast cells to grow back as healthy heart muscle instead of scar tissue. “Ironically, 27 years later, current stem cell research makes this vision of the Rebbe into a realistic possibility,” said Dr. Akerman.

In a plenary session called “Faith and Recovery,” Bernie S. Siegel, MD, Founder of EcaP,, Exceptional Cancer Patients and Richard Sloan, PhD, Professor of Behavioral Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University debated whether there was any scientific evidence to support prayer as a recovery tool in patients and whether doctors should be involved in promoting manifestations of a spiritual nature. Panelist Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet, PhD, Professor of Philosophy from Toronto, presented sources in Jewish law and Kaballah that discuss prayer, faith and the role of G-d in healing. All agreed that personal faith is important both for spiritual and physical recovery; but the role of the physician in this process was left to be debated at a future conference.

The keynote address was delivered by Rabbi Dr. Moshe D. Tendler PhD, who made an impassioned plea to rabbis to give clear halachic guidance to doctors and patients in the burgeoning arena of unprecedented medical technology. Rabbi Tendler, who was accorded a standing ovation, insisted that halacha is immutable and can inform all past and future medical discoveries.

The featured presenters at the conference were culled from the leading medical, scientific and rabbinic authorities in the U.S. Canada and Israel and included: Dr. Velvl Greene, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at Ben Gurion University, Beesheva, Israel; Robert Jacobs, MD, CEO and Senior Vice President, SUNY Downstate Medical Center; Amy Friedman, MD, Associate Professor of Surgery and Co-Director, Division of Transplantation, Yale University School of Medicine; Angelo Aquista, MD, former Director, NYC Office of Emergency Mangement; Avraham Steinberg, MD Professor and Director of The Center for Medical Ethics, Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School, Jerusalem; and Susan Lobel, MD , Director of the In Vitro Fertilization Program at the Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn, New York.

Rabbi Yehoshua Metzger, director of Chabad of Midtown Manhattan, has also become a partner in the work of the conference, using his outreach skills to help expose greater numbers to the conference. “"This conference is a wonderful complement to the the scope of the educational programs of Chabad of Midtown,” he said. “It was especially heartwarming to see the enthusiasm of the hundreds of participants who took off an entire Sunday to study Torah, Halacha and its impact on medical ethics.”

The International Conference on Judaism and Contemporary Medicine was founded in 1988 by Dr. Akerman, with guidance and direction from the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

For more information on the Conference, or to obtain tapes or videos, see (www.NAJMedicine.org).

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