Project Genesis

Basics of Judaism

Science and Torah

A General Perspective on Stem Cell Research, Cloning, Etc

Question: I’m trying to find out info about the Jewish stand with regard to the following related topics:

  1. Stem cell research

  2. Cloning

  3. GMO’s – Genetically Modified Organisms (eg. corn, wheat, cattle and other agricultural organisms).

  4. Pharming – Genetically breeding organisms that can produce specific bio-chemicals essential to human health. Examples include bacteria that produce insulin and other hormones, goats that produce spider-silk and other medically useful proteins in their milk, and pigs and other animals whose genome has been altered to produce organs that can be matched to and transplanted into humans.

Thank you for your help.

Answer: I would like to answer your question in a few installments, as there is much to discuss. The topic I would like to address first is a more general question, which has ramifications to each of your specific topics. Namely, is there a specific prohibition to alter the “natural order”, and, if not, what is the Jewish perspective of these alterations? Almost all of the following information is from “Bioethical Dilemmas” by Rabbi J. David Bleich.

Many philosophers and theologians posit that morality can be discerned from analysis of “natural law.” They assert that since Divine wisdom creates and guides all creatures, man’s intellect can extract from the natural world a moral law. This view would seemingly prohibit actions which counteract or circumvent the natural order. Their view could be bolstered by Torah prohibitions against crossbreeding. Additionally, the phrase “...And they will be one flesh” can be interpreted as teaching that only through sexual union can humans reproduce, even if other means could be permitted for plants and animals.

However, there is no evidence in Jewish tradition that this view is shared by Torah thought. Indeed, the great Biblical commentator, Rashi, views the prohibitions of the crossbreeding of species as chukim, non-intuitive laws dictated by God. Although there are those who disagree with Rashi’s explanation and recognize a “natural order,” they must necessarily view the prohibited actions specified by the Torah as the exceptional cases, and not broadly applicable to cases not specifically enumerated.

Additionally, there is some evidence that “supra-natural” tinkering is acceptable to Jewish thought. In Genesis 1:28, Adam is instructed to “fill the earth and conquer it.” This is generally understood to be an imperative to use the world as he sees fit, provided that the action is not explicitly proscribed. Throughout Midrashic literature, man is seen as instrumental in the completion of God’s creative process. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) relates that two great scholars, Rabbi Chaninah and Rabbi Oshia would meet on Fridays to create a calf to be eaten on the Sabbath using the secrets of the mystical work, Sefer Yetzirah. The implication of the text is that there is absolutely nothing immoral or forbidden in asexual or homologous procreation. In fact, the medieval scholar, Meiri (ibid. 67b) asserts that asexual reproduction is not only permissible but scientifically possible (he lived in the 13th century!).

I hope you find this a satisfactory introduction to our subject. I will follow with the specifics of cloning, stem-cells, etc.. in the near future.

R’ Daniel Fleksher

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