There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank.
It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. People solve such problems every day. They solve them, and having solved them push on.1
Bioethical deliberations most frequently occur outside of the situation of concern. For example, scholarly debate about withdrawing or withholding life-sustaining interventions rarely takes place in clinical settings but rather in classrooms, conferences, and published materials. And discussions about the ethics of genetically engineering human DNA probably occur more often outside labs than in. Such distance—temporal and physical—is perhaps advantageous, as it allows participants in the debates to be dispassionate, unpressured by unfolding exigencies, and have access to relevant materials. In a profound way, and somewhat like revelation itself, bioethical deliberation comes from beyond, from places and times disconnected from yet very much concerned about a particular technology, circumstance or issue.
What happens when there is no beyond, no place outside a bioethically complex situation? What happens when such deliberation cannot occur in relative comfort or with calm reflection unimpacted by the situation at hand? How might bioethical thinking from within a complicated situation function?
A pandemic, like the current COVID-19, is such a situation. Because the pandemic is global in scope, there is no “beyond” to this coronavirus from which to look back upon it. On the contrary, vast swaths of humanity are confined to their homes, away from their workplaces, out of schools, off sports fields. Even synagogues are shuttered. All have been impacted, some more intensely than others. Since none are beyond the pandemic, whatever is thought about it, including bioethical thinking about it, is necessarily being done from within it. The context is not only unusual; so too are the pressures. Outbreaks of disease, uncertainty about transmission and prognosis, fears of infection and of economic instability, conflicting demands on leadership, the need to coordinate behavior across domains and communities, increasing socioeconomic and racial disparities, intensifying racial tensions, and so much more combine as extraordinary pressures exerting on all who think about the ethical features of a pandemic while from within it.2
Thinking from within a pandemic informs what follows. Insofar as this pandemic continues to unfold in 2020, the following offers only preliminary starts and openings for further conversation. Hardly exhaustive, these thoughts gesture at the immensity and complexity of this, any and the next, pandemic. What follows is meant to invite further Jewish bioethical conversation from within.