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NAJM Press Release 6:

-- Physicians, Scientists and Rabbis Gather at the International Conference on Judaism and Contemporary Medicine --

Michael Akerman, MD

A distinguished panel of physicians, scientists, health care professionals and prominent Rabbinic authorities from around the world gathered in Brooklyn on Friday, November 15th through Sunday, November 17th, at the International Conference on Judaism and Contemporary Medicine.

The conference, founded in 1988, was designed to discuss the challenges that contemporary medicine poses in light of the Jewish values. Dr. Michael Moshe Akerman, Associate Professor at SUNY- Downstate Medical Center stated that Judaic teachings are the source of the Judao-Christian-Moslem tradition of Western Civilization and that speakers and conference attendees alike received "food for thought." Everyone was impressed with the depth and sophistication of the conference sessions. In the words of Rabbi Kasriel Kastel, the annual conference has “opened up a dialogue which has had a positive impact on many individuals”.

The conference, which is organized by the National Association of Judaism and Medicine, and accredited through the State University of New York - Downstate Medical Center, was convened at a time when daily news headlines herald breakthroughs in medical technologies and the ethical and moral dilemmas that surround them. The conference was attended by physicians, nurses social workers, rabbis and lay people from across the world and from such prestigious institutions as the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic.

The conference opened with a plenary session on stem cell research. Dr. Miriam Feuerman, Professor of Biology at SUNY- Downstate presented the scientific backround for the discussion. She pointed out that under the guidelines released by President Bush, the supply and quality of stem cells available for research is felt to be too limited and inadequate. At the same time, the potential value for healing diseased or damaged body parts is enormous. Rabbi Yakov Spivak, the session moderator, related a story from 1977 about stem cell research in the view of the Grand Rabbi of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory. Rabbi Schneerson, after suffering a severe heart attack, was quoted by his cardiologist as having said: “The same cell (the fibroblast) which forms scar tissue in the damaged heart after a heart attack stems from the same cell in the embryo which differentiates to form normal heart muscle. Shouldn’t medical science be able to figure out how to stimulate these cells to heal a damaged heart back into a normal heart with normal heart muscle rather than scar tissue?” Dr. Feuerman pointed out that this was one area of current stem cell research. Rabbi Dr. Richard Weiss elaborated on the halachic (jewish legal) status of an embryo and a fetus. He concluded that most poskim (rabbinic decisors) today lean toward a more lenient position than President Bush and would probably allow use of stem cells from excess embryos which were never designated for implantation and also from aborted fetuses which were aborted only for reasons of preserving the health of the mother. In other words, Jewish law would support stem cell research and allow for the development of new stem cell lines as long as it was done within the above halachic framework. This would normally require supervision of the medical establishment to prevent overextending the leniency. Rabbi Weiss concluded that “This would be a very positive development in view of the obvious potential of stem cell research to help mankind.”

A dramatic and emotion filled session discussed issues in the aftermath of the Arab terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center. The session opened with the announcement that “anyone who had relatives or friends at the WTC should probably leave the auditorium”. Pathologists Dr. Howard Baum of the New York City Medical Examiners Office spoke about the process of DNA identification of bodies and Dr. Cantanese of SUNY – Downstate discussed other modes of body identification. The slides they showed detailed the horror and human destruction and keenly documented the various types of fragments of body parts that were excavated and available for analyses for body identification purposes. They mentioned that to date, approximately 1400 of the 2800 people assumed to have perished at the WTC had been identified. Of that number, approximately half were identified only through DNA techniques. Rabbi Mordechai Willig, member of the Beth Din (Rabbinic Court) or the Rabbinical Council of America and Professor at Yeshiva University, New York, discussed the importance of this identification process for allowing widows to remarry and families to inherit estates. Rabbi Willig had been personally involved in several cases and had personally toured and reviewed the pathologic techniques used by the NYC medical examiners office. He stated that in the view of Jewish law, “DNA identification of a dead body part is proof positive evidence that the part belonged to the person in question.” Therefore, if other only suggestive information placed the person at the WTC site the person could be assumed to be dead for purposes of Jewish law. He also stated that “any person known to have been in the North Tower of the WTC above the floor of the plane crash at the time of the incident is halachicly accepted to be dead” even without finding any remains of the person. This is because expert testimony has verified that there was no possible avenue of escape to lower floors. Through these analyses alone, several Jewish women have already been given permission to remarry. Dr. Adena Berkowitz, JD was the Chair of this session.

One of the most touching moments of the day was the luncheon program in honor of Dr. Fred Rosner. The NAJM had received letters of thanks and blessing from President Bush, Governor Pataki, and Mayor Bloomberg. In addition, the National Association also received an official citation from the Borough President of Brooklyn, Marty Markowitz. The official letters and the citation thanked the Institute for all of its work in bringing increased awareness to and increasing the presence of morality and ethics in the medical profession. Rabbi Yakov Klass, editor of the Jewish Press presided over the luncheon and presented the citation to Dr. Michael Moshe Akerman, Executive Director of the National Association of Judaism and Medicine. Dr. Akerman, in his talk outlined that “true science only discusses physical facts and is morally neutral. We need to turn to other sources for knowledge of right and wrong.” Just witness Nazi Germany, the center of knowledge, science and culture in the early 1900’s, which served as the source of one of the worst holocausts known to mankind.

Rabbi Klass presented a special citation from the Borough President to Dr. Fred Rosner, for his 40 years of spreading knowledge, light and morality through his work. Dr. Alfred Soffer, internationally renowned editor of the Archives of Internal Medicine, Chest and other journals as well Director Emeritus of the American College of Chest Physicians, praised Dr. Rosner for his knowledge of medicine; hematology; ethics; Jewish history and law; and the works of Maimonides. He also cited Dr. Rosner’s “productivity in bringing over 800 articles and 34 books on medical ethics, morality and the work of Maimonides to the medical journals and to a whole generation of physicians and scientists worldwide”. Dr. Rosner was specifically praised for his translation from German to English of the classic circa 1900 book by Julius Preuss called “Bible and Talmudic Medicine”. Dr. Edward Reichman, keynote speaker, called Dr. Rosner “the father of Jewish Medical Ethics” and further elaborated to Dr. Rosner’s clinical knowledge and publications. Dr. Rosner promised that as long as “G-d gives me the strength, I will continue to produce more books and translations that would benefit medicine, ethics and morality”. Dr. Rosner mentioned that he had just finished translating the six volume Hebrew encyclopedia on Halacha and Medicine written by Dr Avraham Steinberg, and that this translation would soon be printed. This encyclopedia was the winner of the Israel Prize for literature in 1999. On behalf of the NAJM, Dr. Akerman, Dr. Yizhak Kupfer, and Dr. Reichman presented Dr. Rosner with a sterling silver Maimonedian style Chanukah Menorah to symbolize the light that Dr. Rosner has brought and will continue to bring to the world. Dr. Joann Bradley, Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement at the SUNY-Downstate Medical Center also spoke and personally congratulated Dr. Rosner and the Institute. In honor of Dr. Rosner , Dr. Akerman and Dr. Powderly, Chair of the Department of Humanities, are fundraising to sponsor a visiting professorship and curriculum of Jewish medical ethics at SUNY-Donwstate.

This year’s conference, as in every year since the conference inception, hosted a session on mind – body medicine with insights from Jewish philosophy and from the Kaballah. Dr. Robert Pollack, Director of the Institute of Science and Religion at Columbia University presented along with Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb and Rabbi Dr. J. Immanuel Schochet from Toronto. Although, physical matter and inclinations seems on the surface to be dichotomous with the spiritual processes of intellect and emotions, Judaism explains how the “soul can unite with the life force of the body to affect habit and behavior”.

In fact, in a preconference seminar, Rabbi Dr. Alter Metzger had also discussed this concept vis-à-vis Freudian psychology. Whereas “Freud emphasized the intrinsic animalistic nature of mankind, Judaism teaches that this can easily be overcome with proper education and training”. Rabbi Metzger related a 1906 encounter between a Chassidic Master and Dr. Freud where Dr. Freud replied that this was “umeglech”! However, subsequent students of Freud, Jung and Adler have gone deeper into the psychology of Freud and many of Freud’s conclusions are not accepted today. Rabbi Schneerson was quoted as saying that the “Freud was right that there are different layers of human consciousness” and dirt to be uncovered. However, at the deepest layer, we all have “diamonds”that we have to uncover and polish.

Other highlights of the conference included, Dr. Robert Kleigman, Chairman of Pediatrics from the University of Wisconson and Rabbi Tzvi Flaum, chairman of the Vaad Harabonim (Rabbinic Council) of Far Rockaway and Lawrence, discusing cases and issues pertaining to the neonate and premature infant. Dr. Avraham Steinberg and Miryam Wahrman discussed animal experimentation. Dr. Alan Bennet, Dr. Alon Glatt and Dr. Avraham Steinberg discussed triage of limited resources under conditions of war and terrorism. Dr. Steven Brenner, Dr. Susan Lobell and Rabbi Yizchok Breitowitz, JD, discussed new methods of artificial fertilization.

In preconference seminars, Rabbi Dr. J. Immanuel Schochet elaborated on moral lessons still needing to be learned after the holocaust. He cited incident after incident from Yugoslavia to Central Africa that illustrated how unfortunately “humankind had not changed much over 5000 years of atrocities and that 50 years after the holocaust anything can still be rationalized”. He elaborated and explained how humankind needs to realize that there is an “absolute and universal source of morality” in order to prevent future holocausts. Dr. Daniel Drubach from the Mayo Clinic presented a paper based on research in neuropsychology. He discussed how “the brain acclimates to the constant presence of G-d in the world” and therefore we don’t appreciate G-d’s presence without making special efforts.

On Shabbat, lively discussion ensued between Dr. Axel Pflueger, Dr. Eli Rosen, Dr. Robert Feldman and Dr. Avraham Steinberg. They discussed the unfortunate but not uncommon case of a patient requiring huge doses of morphine for pain relief from cancer but at the same time in danger of dying from this treatment. Dr. Steinberg explained that “pain relief is also a medical treatment and that if the intention is to treat pain that high dosages are permitted to be used”. They also discussed the levels of surgical risk that are permitted to be undertaken by patients with terminal illnesses.

In addition to the National Association of Judaism and Medicine, and SUNY-Downstate Medical Center organizing the conference, the National Council of Young Israel, the Orthodox Union, the Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, the Lubavitch Youth Organization and the Institute for Jewish Medical Ethics of San Francisco participated in the conference. Further information on speakers, other Institute activities as well as audiotapes, videotapes, and computer CD disks of this and previous conferences may be obtained through the Institutes web site, www.NAJM.org or by calling 917-760-2770.

Editor's Note: The conference and pre-conference seminars are fully accredited through the ACCME to provide category 1 continuing medical education to physicians towards the American Medical Association Physician’s Recognition Award.

For more information please contact Dr. Akerman at SUNY or the NAJM office at 917-760-2770.


For more information, contact us:

Michael Akerman, MD, Chairman, Conference on Judaism and Medicine
c/o SUNY-Downstate Medical Center
450 Clarkson Avenue, Box 19
Brooklyn, New York 11203

Telephone 917-760-2770

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