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Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Religious Ethics and Medical Ethics

The Jewish New Year - Rosh Hashanah – starts this evening, and the New York Times featured a front page article on “Bar Mitzvahs Get a New Look to Build Faith.” The article touched a very personal nerve for me.

Both my parents and all of my grandparents were Jewish, but the family I grew up in was very non-observant. We didn’t belong to a synagogue and didn’t celebrate the Jewish holidays, other than a very perfunctory Seder at my father’s ailing mother’s home in Brooklyn. But at 11 or 12 I asked my parents to send me to Sunday School, an almost unheard of request for a child to make. As best I can recall, I wondered how the universe was created and what my purpose in life should be, and had the idea that religion might help me answer these questions.

They enrolled me in Temple Emanu-El, a large reform congregation that was founded in 1845. I quickly concluded that I’d made a mistake. In class we memorized prayers in a language I didn’t understand, studied holiday rituals, and learned about the history of the Jewish migration to the US. We didn’t touch the big questions I was interested in. When I said I wanted to quit my father asked me to stick it out for the sake of his mother, who was happy at the idea of my having some Jewish education, even if it ended in a confirmation ceremony and not a bar mitzvah.

It’s clear to me in retrospect that I was searching for a community that shared fundamental values and collaborated in actions based on those values. I didn’t find what I was looking for at Temple Emanu-el, but during the summer when I turned 16 (and in the two summers after that) I worked as a counselor at Felicia Madison, a camp that served poor children from New York City. When I got to college I was able to create a combined major in philosophy and psychology – a program that let me explore the kinds of questions I had in mind in asking to go to Sunday School. And I worked as a volunteer at a public mental hospital, which led to a career in psychiatry and medical ethics.

I believe that an anthropologist studying my affiliations would see the involvements with psychiatry and medical ethics as structurally similar to an involvement with religion. I consort with colleagues who share an outlook on the world, values, and a commitment to forms of action. There’s no theology, but it is a community of belief.

The New York Times article describes an initiative by 80 congregations to place more emphasis on values, community engagement, and social action, than on theology and ritual. The problem the congregations are trying to solve is family departure from the congregation as soon as the bar or bat mitzvah has been accomplished.

If I’m forced to define myself in terms of religion I identify myself as “a religiously-minded Jewish atheist.” In my clinical practice I found religious language natural to use – “that’s something to pray for,” “if it happens it will be a blessing,” “XYZ is your calling,” and more. When a patient with chronic schizophrenia asked me to remember him in my prayers I said I would, even though I don’t do anything a religiously observant person would call “prayer.” I felt that his request was for me to care deeply about him and his quest for well-being, and since I did, I felt it was truthful to say I would remember him in my prayers.

At the end of his life my father turned against all religions because he saw them as sources of hatred, slaughter and war. He was thinking of fundamentalist religion. In my view all “liberal religions” are comparably true and good, and all “fundamentalist religions” are comparably false and bad. As I examine the course of my adult life, it’s clear that the calling of medicine has been my version of liberal religion.


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