by Joe Hades,
visiting professor at Old Dominion University
A lecture on Religion, Ethics and Dying: Controversies and Perspective, took place on Thursday, Sept. 4, at Old Dominion University. Representing the Catholic and Jewish approaches to death and dying, Dr. Gerard Magill, a tenured professor in the center for healthcare ethics at Duquesne University in Pittsburg and Dr. Jonathan Crane, a professor of bioethics and Jewish thought at Emory University in Atlanta, spoke to a packed house.
The program was presented in coordination with ODU’s Institute for Jewish Studies and Interfaith Understanding, ODU’s department of Philosophy and Religious studies, Eastern Virginia Medical School and United Jewish Federation of Tidewater’s Maimonides Society.
Each panelist spent 20 minutes presenting his views. While both men seemed to agree that advancements in technology and medicine are moving at a faster pace than society is able to keep up with, and that religion provides guidelines for dealing with death and dying, they came from very different approaches.
Magill emphasized that in Catholicism, attempts are made to not over complicate death and dying and are geared towards keeping it as simple as possible. Crane, however, said that Judaism derives its medical ethics from one of the most complicated sources, that of the Shulcan Aruch, a 16th century compilation of Jewish law, penned by Rabbi Joseph Karo. Crane gave examples of how even a single segment of the text can be interpreted in vastly different ways, making it anything but straightforward.
In many ways, these different approaches encapsulate the theological differences between Judaism and Catholicism. Catholicism tends to keep things simple to the point where in the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church rather than deal with complexity, simply banned books altogether, such as the work of Plato and Aristotle.
Judaism, theologically, goes to the other side of the spectrum where its most studied text, the Talmud, is 90% commentary and often sites contradictory traditions to provide answers to problems and questions. If there is a question, the Talmud often shows how one rabbi said to do one thing, while another rabbi said to do something else.
Following the 20-minute presentations, the panelists fielded questions from the audience, again basically agreeing on the answers, but giving different approaches to how to deal with the various situations. At one point, Magill in his thick Scottish accent turned to Crane and said, “Can we find something to disagree on please?” which got a good laugh from the audience.
During the question component of the event, the creativity and imagination of the panelists was apparent. Not only did they both offer fascinating theories on how to bridge centuries-old religious traditions with an ever-changing world, but they directly addressed the need for imagination. They made it clear that thinking must be expanded as much as possible to incorporate all strands of thought from Eastern philosophy and Chinese medicine to fantastical storytelling; because death and dying are complicated and the technology to assist death is advancing so fast that anything less than a demand for wide thinking and imaginative problem solving will simply be stagnant.
Author’s note: The evening was a wonderful success. It was a clear and fascinating talk by brilliant panelists to a packed hall. As a new comer to ODU, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the level of scholarship orchestrated by the University, as well as the depth of questioning from the audience. It seemed to represent all that is finest in the American academic tradition: People of different faiths, coming together in an amicable way to discuss difficult ethical dilemmas, with optimism and depth.