Beyond Stem Cells

Were you queasy last week, when U.S. senators quoted the Bible in their effort to stop potentially life-saving stem cell research?

Did you feel discomfort on Monday when Pope John Paul II told President Bush he condemned the study of human embryos because the practice would "devalue and violate human life?"

The cynic in me suspects what’s going on: This pseudo-debate, focused on a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, asserting that man was formed from the "dust of the ground," is merely a setup for an inevitable (and, one hopes, tolerable) compromise in which the Bush administration retains the support of the Christian right while allowing science to proceed. Give them airtime, then cut a deal.

Nevertheless, the show is uncomfortable to witness. The stem cell debate replays an argument dating back at least to the second century and the ways Christians and Jews translate Exodus 21:22, on the killing of a fetus during battle. But are we, in 21st century America, faced with so many competing views of life’s beginnings, eternally limited by that trap?

One can grant Christian believers their view that six fertilized cells in a petri dish constitutes life, but not grant them a czar-like grip on whether destroying those cells — containing untold pharmaceutical miracles — equals murder.

Embryonic stem cells contain the basis of all other cells and hold the potential for resolving many serious diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Yet, this one-sided faith-based debate can hold research hostage, and jeopardize the lives of thousands. Where does spiritual commitment end and life-threatening intolerance begin?

The stem cell debate is hardly the only distortion of the religious enterprise of our political era. At a time when "faith-based" organizations are being sold out to the lowest bidder, I wish the Jewish community would rise and reject public monies that torture our civic purpose. Absent that, it’s time now to redefine our political strategy and return to our basics. Now is the time to reclaim and harness the Jewish secularism within which so many of us were raised, and to reassert, as a result, the pluralistic tolerance which guarantees a civic role for all faiths and, yes, even for those without religious faith.

Nearly 20 years ago, the current battle over who would control the public discourse heated up. Richard John Neuhaus’ book, "The Naked Public Square," urged the religious Christian community to adopt a new political activism based on opposition to secular humanism, a universalistic philosophy dating back to John Dewey during the 1930s. It had great appeal among Jews as a corollary to Zionism.

Neuhaus’ target was Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision which supported abortion without due respect for religious beliefs on when life began.

"From the pro-life viewpoint, [abortion] is a matter of how we define the human community for which we accept collective responsibility," Neuhaus wrote.

The stem cell debate, dominated as it is by Christian understanding of "ensoulment" of cells at the time of conception, without competing respect for a non-religious sensibility, is the apotheosis of Neuhaus’ call to action. "The Naked Public Square" is now dressed to suffocation.

The Jewish community has been slow to respond to the growing dominance of Christian political activism. In fact, our religious groups are at a particular disadvantage in the current climate, because they appear to be merely asking America to accept the Jewish version of religious truth over another: either "ensoulment" begins at conception, or at birth. Our numbers aren’t big enough.

Secular Judaism has no such disability. While grounded in the Jewish religious calendar, love for Israel and the romance with Yiddishkeit, secular Judaism in the public sphere respects and relishes the widest diversity of thought and culture, including the rights of the nonbeliever to have no opinion at all. Secular humanism has a profound respect for privacy, for the wall between church and state. Secular Judaism reminds America that the goal is not to create a Bible-true or Torah- true society, but an America in which all can flourish.

As Samuel G. Freedman writes in "Jew vs. Jew," secular Judaism was "not so much defeated as loved to death. America made a promise to Jewish immigrants, and to its enduring grandeur as a nation, it kept that promise. It welcomed history’s wanderers into a greater whole."

But though America accepted bagels, rugelach and Steven Spielberg into its culture, the creation of the "greater whole" remains unfinished today, and not only for Jews.

In an article reprinted in the magazine of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Ya’akov Malkin, professor of Rhetoric and Aesthetics at Tel Aviv University, calls secularism "principled pluralism."

"We see the passing of divine authority from those who speak in God’s name … to human beings who decide according to their own reason and by means of the decision of the majority, and in accordance with the principles of the prophets who believed in the primacy of social justice over any cultic mitzvot."

In America’s coarsening political environment, such sympathetic love of diversity may be just the ticket.