The Sanctity of Human Life

David Novak

"Readers who appreciate erudite arguments and rigorous scholarship will be interested in this book."
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Heated debates are not unusual when confronting tough medical issues where it seems that moral and religious perspectives often erupt in conflict with philosophical or political positions. In The Sanctity of Human Life, Jewish theologian David Novak acknowledges that it is impossible not to take into account the theological view of human life, but the challenge is how to present the religious perspective to nonreligious people. In doing so, he shows that the two positions—the theological and the philosophical—aren't as far apart as they may seem.

Novak digs deep into Jewish scripture and tradition to find guidance for assessing three contemporary controversies in medicine and public policy: the use of embryos to derive stem cells for research, socialized medicine, and physician-assisted suicide. Beginning with thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Nietsche, and drawing on great Jewish figures in history—Maimonides, Rashi, and various commentators on the Torah (written law) and the Mishnah (oral law)—Novak speaks brilliantly to these modern moral dilemmas.

The Sanctity of Human Life weaves a rich and sophisticated tapestry of evidence to conclude that the Jewish understanding of the human being as sacred, as the image of God, is in fact compatible with philosophical claims about the rights of the human person—especially the right to life—and can be made intelligible to secular culture. Thus, according to Novak, the use of stem cells from embryos is morally unacceptable; the sanctity of the human person, and not capitalist or socialist approaches, should drive our understanding of national health care; and physician-assisted suicide violates humankind's fundamental responsibility for caring for one another.

Novak's erudite argument and rigorous scholarship will appeal to all scholars and students engaged in the work of theology and bioethics.

Table of Contents


1. On the Use of Embryonic Stem Cells
Normative Questions and Normative Contexts
Philosophy, Politics, and Theology and Their Interrelations
The Status of the Embryo in Current Jewish Discussion
Natural Law in Judaism
Three Rabbinic Texts Pertaining to Abortion
The Embryo before and after the Fortieth Day of Gestation
Law and Scientific Evidence
The Beginning of Human Life
Permission or Obligation?
Political Realities

2. A Jewish Argument for Socialized Medicine
Universal Health Care: Canada and the United States
Moral and Theological Problems with the Practice of Medicine
Medicine as a Sacred Profession
Medicine as a Calling
Nonsectarian Medicine

3. Physician-Assisted Suicide
Theology, Philosophy, and Politics
Who is Guilty in Physician-Assisted Suicide?
The Physician Kills the Patient
The Physician Orders the Patient Killed
The Physician Orders the Patient to Commit Suicide
The Physician Prepares the Patient for Suicide
Suicide as a Reflexive Act
Suicide and Personal Responsibility
Public Philosophy in a Secular Society
Suicide: Public and Private
Society's Claims on the Individual Person
Struggling against the Politics of Death




"Novak's voice deserves to be heard. This meticulously researched book reveals that there are multiple ways of examining the thorny bioethical issues of modern time."—JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association)

"Readers who appreciate erudite arguments and rigorous scholarship will be interested in this book."—The Catholic Register

"The scope of the book is breathtaking and thought-provoking . . . Novak offers refreshingly complex assessments of the interface among biology, society, and morality. Furthermore, the book's explicitly metaphysical orientation is suggestive. The Sanctity of Human Life engages multiple methods and powerful convictions about human life's emergence, its endurance, and its dissolution. From beginning to end, this is no small feat."—American Journal of Bioethics

"[The] strength of this work is that it is written from the point of view of a Jewish theologian who is also a trained philosopher in the natural law tradition . . . [The] emphasis on drawing from philosophy, theology, and political theory is commendable indeed. Novak honestly and forthrightly speaks of how his theology informs his ethics."—Christian Apologetics Journal


Supplemental Materials


Winner of the 2008 Typographical Covers or Jackets, Large Nonprofit Publishers Category of the Washington Publishers Book Design and Effectiveness Awards

About the Author

David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies as professor of the study of religion and professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. In 2006 he was appointed as a member of the Canada Assisted Reproduction Agency.

208 pp., 5.5 x 8.5

ISBN: 978-1-58901-176-2
Sep 2007

208 pp., 5.5 x 8.5

ISBN: 978-1-58901-504-3
Sep 2007

208 pp.

ISBN: 978-1-58901-466-4
Sep 2007

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