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winter 2003  
Vol. 32, No. 2

FOCUS: Genetic Power

We Jews are commanded to choose life and to practice healing. Therefore, we cannot in good conscience stand in opposition to a technology that is potentially subject to abuse, but nevertheless presents us with the prospect of saving many lives that might otherwise be lost to illness.

by Mark Washofsky

n April 14, 2003, an international consortium of researchers and governments announced the completion of the Human Genome Project: the precise mapping of the structure of DNA in the human cell. The event also marked the fiftieth anniversary of James Watson and Francis Crick's dramatic discovery of the "double helix" structure of DNA. This half-century of scientific progress toward the understanding--and the manipulation--of human genetics confronts us with a set of prospects that range from the exciting to the intimidating and even the frightening.

New techniques of genetic testing and the development of gene therapies offer wondrous possibilities for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. Yet the very fact that we can accomplish something called "genetic engineering" raises the specter of this technology being abused in ways that threaten the well-being of society, the environment, and even our species. From the perspective of religion, we may ask: Does the intentional alteration of the human genetic structure violate the order of Creation and usurp the role of God? And if human life is sacred, divinely created in God's own image, who are we to reshape the very genetic code of human life according to our own will?

Our Jewish tradition provides some guidance in responding to such moral challenges. Rabbis and other Jewish thinkers have been weighing the moral dimensions of such issues for decades, always seeking to understand them in light of the principles and precedents encapsulated in our sacred texts. Out of their writings, the beginnings of a Jewish perspective on these issues have emerged.

Genetic Engineering--Permitted or Prohibited?

According to most rabbinical scholars, genetic engineering is not a violation of Jewish law. It is not considered a transgression against the natural or the divine order of things because the Torah consigns the natural world, and the human body as part of that world, to human control. In Genesis 1:26, God designates human beings "to rule over...all the earth," and the great commentator Moshe ben Nachman notes that this license includes the power "to uproot and to destroy" and to otherwise manipulate the created universe for our own benefit. True, there are some prohibitions against the mixing of "diverse kinds" (kilayim) of plants and animals (Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:9), and we might derive from this a ban against altering the existing biological structure of species. However, the leading Israeli halachist Rabbi Shelomo Zalman Auerbach taught that these biblical verses refer specifically to the mating of animals and the mixed seeding and grafting of plants, not to modern technologies of genetic engineering, and his views have become predominant in subsequent halachic literature. Indeed, many Jewish legal authorities argue that the mitzvot in the Torah apply only to the visible world; thus the microscopic universe of cells and molecules, chromosomes and genes would be exempt from any prohibitive Torah legislation.

Nor does Jewish tradition necessarily oppose our attempts to "improve" upon the nature of the human species. For example, a number of talmudic and midrashic texts instruct prospective parents on the steps to take in order to conceive healthy, wise, attractive, or male children. These measures, which usually involve the specific positioning of the marital bed or the thinking of "wholesome" thoughts during intercourse, may not impress us today as particularly effective. The point, however, is that our sages did not condemn these efforts to influence the process of human procreation as arrogant intrusions upon God's prerogatives. In short, we do not "play God" when we intervene into the workings of even the most intimate and sensitive aspects of the natural world, because such intervention lies within the bounds of what the Torah--according to rabbinic interpretation--permits human beings to do.

True, none of these texts touches upon anything that remotely resembles contemporary genetic science. Had the biblical, rabbinic, and medieval authors contemplated today's technology, they might have arrived at different conclusions. What we can say for certain is that Jewish tradition does not offer a clear, obvious, and principled objection either to human genetic research or to the application of genetic engineering. We can therefore conclude that our tradition permits us to do so--if we have good and sufficient reason.

The Mitzvah of Healing

One good and sufficient reason to engage in genetic engineering is the mitzvah, the obligation, to rely upon medical science to cure diseases. Although the Torah does not explicitly mention such a duty, Jews have long deduced its existence from passages such as the statement in Leviticus 18:5 that we shall "live" by God's mitzvot--that is, say the rabbis, we should not die by them. From this we deduce that the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, preservation of human life, is one of the Torah's chief concerns, taking precedence over virtually every other mitzvah, and that the practice of medicine, the goal of which is to save life, fulfills this commandment. We should therefore welcome developments in the therapeutic application of human genetics, such as genetic screening and testing, which help identify an individual's predisposition for a particular health risk or genetic disorder and expedite preventive measures. The same applies to the largely experimental field of gene therapy, which offers the promise to replace, manipulate, or supplement a person's nonfunctional or faulty genes by inserting healthy genes into the genome. Such therapies may one day treat and even cure numerous deadly diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, arthritis, sickle cell, Tay-Sachs, and Canavan's. In short, we are commanded to "choose life" and to practice healing, and if our tradition does not explicitly prohibit us from engaging in genetic engineering, we Jews cannot in good conscience stand in opposition to a technology that presents us with the prospect of saving many lives that might otherwise be lost to illness.

These reasons should speak with special force to Reform Jews. From its inception, our Movement has adopted a positive attitude toward the culture of modernity. Experimental science is a key element in this culture, and we have never sought to hinder its advances on religious grounds; quite the contrary, we have regarded science as a force for human betterment and liberation.

Yet our faith in modernity should not blind us to the potential dangers of "progress." The dark history of the past century teaches us that technology, with all its potential to redeem the world and alleviate human suffering, can wreak incalculable damage when its use is not guided by morality and social responsibility. If, as Nachmanides writes, human beings enjoy the power "to uproot and to destroy" the existing structures of the natural environment for their own benefit, this power cannot entail the right to destroy the very environment or society we seek to enhance. We had therefore better ask, sooner rather than later, some hard questions about the new advances in genetic science. Can we predict the biological consequences of genetic alterations that we introduce into humans who will then pass these new traits on to future generations? Are we prepared to cope with the socio-ethical difficulties that the new genetic therapies will undoubtedly raise? Will we be able to safeguard the privacy of genetic information? How will we guarantee that genetic treatments are made available to all who need them and not only to the wealthiest members of society? Can we insure that genetic treatments will not create a social elite comprised of those with "good" genes, thereby promulgating discrimination against those with "bad" or "undesirable" ones? The pessimists among us warn that genetic engineering will precipitate inevitable social and environmental disaster. If our society cannot arrive at satisfactory answers to these troubling questions, the pessimists might be right.

Therefore, it is our responsibility as Jews to take action in the face of the potentially devastating consequences of an otherwise permitted activity. Our role models should be the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud, who adopted a number of legislative enactments which restricted an individual's powers under existing law because they might lead to abuse. For example, Rabbi Hillel justified his enactment permitting a creditor to collect his debt on the sabbatical year despite the fact that Torah law cancels that obligation (Deuteronomy 15:1-3) on the grounds that potential lenders would fear monetary loss as the sabbatical year approached and refuse to loan money to those in need. Society is entitled to impose restrictions upon the use of otherwise permitted technologies in order to protect its members from the abuses which these technologies might engender.

In the spirit of mipnei tikkun olam, Reform institutions are already calling for such safeguards. The Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and the CCAR Board of Trustees have announced their support for research and funding of somatic gene therapy, in which the changes introduced into the recipient's genome are not passed along to the next generation; they have withheld support for germ line gene therapy, in which modifications of the parent's egg or sperm cells are passed along to his or her descendants.

This is the balance that Jewish tradition would have us achieve--to embrace the positive accomplishments of genetic science while maintaining a constant vigilance against its misuses. Our success--or our failure--in this endeavor will say much about the kind of people we are and the kind of future we will build.

Rabbi Mark Washofsky is professor of Rabbinics at HUC-JIR, chair of the CCAR Responsa Committee, and author of Jewish Living (UAHC Press).

Reform Resources

Jewish Living by Mark Washofsky offers a comprehensive guide to Reform Jewish practice from bar/bat mitzvah to blessings, havdalah to Haftarah, and tikkun olam to tikkun leil shavuot. Coverage of the Reform response to genetic advances can be found on pages 239-241 and 449. For more information contact the UAHC Press, (888) 489-UAHC,

The text of the CCAR and Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism resolution on somatic gene therapy and germ line gene therapy is available at their website.

The Department of Jewish Family Concerns has issued a series of twelve Bio-Ethics Program Study Guides which present Jewish perspectives on the given subject, resource and reference material, starter "thought pieces," and more. "Genetic Screening/Human Genome" (number 5) examines the genetics revolution from a Jewish perspective; "Cloning" (number 10) addresses issues regarding the human genome project and human cloning; and "Genetic Testing" (number 12) looks at how the genetics revolution impacts on issues of privacy and testing. For more information about these and the other study guides contact the Department at (212) 650-4294, fax (212) 650-4239, or e-mail

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