Va’etchanan – Loving God Through Stem Cell Research

One of the oddest of the 613 commandments offered in the Torah is found in this week’s Torah portion. On Shabbat morning, Jews all over the world will hear the words of Va’etchanan read aloud, including the commandment that we are to “to love God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Even young children pick up on the fact that it’s odd for God to command us to love God. After all, love is a feeling and commanding a human being to have an emotion seems strange.

However, there are ways for us to express our love for God that transcend our emotions. We can love God in physical ways as well. Our actions toward the betterment of people’s lives are a reflection of our loving relationship with the Divine. If we believe that God created humans and we were partners in the creation of the world, then we have a responsibility to help other humans be healthy and live long lives.

In his commentary on the Torah, Rashi explains that “with all your heart” means that we should serve God with all our powers for goodness, compassion and charity.

Last night I had the pleasure to learn from one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. Dr. Eva Feldman, of the Taubman Institute at the University of Michigan, is using her knowledge, talent and heart to change the world for the better.

Feldman, a soft-spoken professor of neurology at the University of Michigan’s School of Medicine, has made significant contributions to the fight against ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Diabetes in a very short period of time. Last night, she explained to a living room full of some of Metro Detroit’s young adults how her clinical trial of a stem cell therapy for ALS has allowed dozens of patients to walk better.

A. Alfred Taubman, the Michigan shopping mall magnate and mega-philanthropist, helped create the Taubman Medical Research Institute with a $22 million endowment in 2007 and named Feldman as the institute’s first director in January 2008. (Taubman is the University of Michigan’s largest individual donor, with total giving of more than $142 million including $100 million specifically for innovative medical science.)

Three years ago, Dr. Feldman and the Taubman Institute educated citizens in Michigan about the importance of stem cell research in the study and treatment of disease, which led to voters approving a constitutional amendment lifting restrictions on stem cell research. As a result of the election, the Taubman Institute opened the first core facilities in Michigan to derive embryonic stem cell lines (one of the few in the nation).

Dr. Eva Feldman is a pioneer in this field of medical science, but she has also learned to be a quiet fighter. She has to fight against politicians who seek to make her research illegal and she has to fight against those who claim that what she is doing is unethical. Some even accuse her of playing God. There are many who cite their religious beliefs to criticize Dr. Feldman’s work, but I am convinced that her research comes from a place of deep compassion for humanity. Dr. Feldman is motivated to find ways to treat and cure disease. She does this through the power of modern scientific and medical innovation. She explained to our group that she is pro-life because she uses the leftover frozen embryos created for couples using IVF to have children. These embryos would have been destroyed in a garbage disposal, but Dr. Feldman is able to use these stem cell lines to learn more about genetic diseases, create treatments for suffering patients, and help find cures for such life-threatening conditions as cancer, ALS, and Diabetes.

We were all created in the image of God and we owe it to each other to use modern science and medical innovation to benefit the lives of God’s creatures. Using stem cells to fight (and potentially cure) diseases isn’t playing God, but it is a form of loving God. Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that it can be determined if a person really loves God by the love they bear toward others. Dr. Eva Feldman strikes me as this type of person.

Shabbat Shalom.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Using Our Brain to Drive on Shabbat

Here is my recent post on the “Jewish Techs” blog at the Jewish Week:

Previously on the “Jewish Techs” blog, I discussed the technical halachic (Jewish legal) minutae surrounding the permissability of using the Amigo Shabbat Scooter from the Israeli-based Zomet Institute. The Shabbat Scooter is made by Michigan-based Amigo, founded by Allan Thieme, which began making the Jewish Sabbath-approved scooters six years ago.

But now there’s something even more impressive on the horizon that will further push Jewish legal scholars to determine if its use is acceptable for the Sabbath.

Engineers and futurists are now discussing a sitting vehicle which is driven solely with brain activity. Yes, you read that correctly: brain activity. But can it be used on Shabbat when observant Jews refrain from electricity and traditional forms of transportation.

The Jerusalem Post reports, “This intriguing thought was discussed on Thursday by Rabbi Dr. Dror Fixler, an electrooptics engineer at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, who was one of the speakers at Thursday’s 18th Torah and Science Conference of the Jerusalem College of Technology, Yeshiva University in Israel and BIU… Fixler showed a recently released clip of a ‘proof of concept’ vehicle that has a person inside who merely thinks of how to maneuver it. The vehicle drives itself safely, turning corners, slowing down and giving more gas. While this is ‘not something one should do at home,’ the Autonomos company successfully tested the proof-of-concept car a few months ago, said the BIU engineer.”

So how does this contraption work? A special cap, worn by the operator, contains 16 sensors and trains the car’s computer by examining the human brain’s electromagnetic signals. The operator of the vehicle simply points to the left and the right, which teaches his movements to the computer without speaking. Once the vehicle is trained, it can maneuver itself.

“Fixler said that the issue of the brain thinking and action – which could or could not be approved by rabbis as permissible Shabbat activity – could raise halachic arguments. Even though the person does not take any physical action to manipulate and move the car, just thinking about it could be forbidden on Shabbat… Fixler noted that even without seeing something work such as a remote control it could be argued that the tool was under the user’s control without actually being observed as doing something; it is much more complicated if only the brain is in control.”

But is merely thinking about something an act that could be deemed a violation of the Sabbath laws in Judaism? There are thirty-nine categories of actions that are forbidden on Shabbat, but one has to actually engage in them to be culpable. It is forbidden for a Jewish farmer to plow his field on Saturday afternoon, but it is fine if he just thinks about plowing his field. The question of course is what happens if his thinking about plowing actually instructs his plow to do the work.

There are certainly those who would argue that riding in any moving vehicle on the Sabbath is a violation of Jewish law. However, in the case of the Amigo scooter or this futuristic contraption controlled by thinking the user is most likely going to be a disabled individual. In those cases, most authorities would likely issue a heter (religious exeption to the rule) so that individual could travel to the synagogue to be with the community on the Sabbath.

There are some very impressive scientific and technological inventions on the way that will further cause religious debate. These are innovations that our forebearers could have never predicted generations ago. It will be interesting to see how these rulings take shape and to what extent the halachic decisors try to fully understand the technological advancements and their implications for our community.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller