Genetic Engineering: A Call for Restraint

A biblical prohibition against mixing species teaches us that we are partners in creation -- but with limits

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Reprinted with permission from the column “The People & the Book,” The Jerusalem Report, May 2, 1996. This article is a commentary on the (double) weekly Torah portion "Ahare Mot – Kedoshim,” Leviticus 16:1-20:27.

Biogenetic engineering, the science (or art) of splicing genes and parts of genes (recombinant DNA) is practiced in laboratories all over the world. The products of this experimentation are beginning to appear in supermarkets, in the form of genetically altered foods. Examples include a tomato with an “anti-freeze” gene taken from Arctic flounder to help protect it against frost; trout that carries human growth genes, so that the fish will grow bigger faster; and even tobacco with firefly DNA that makes it glow in the dark, thereby permitting night harvesting.

jewish ethics of genetic engineeringThese bioengineered creations, known as “transgenic” organisms, are seen by many as promising new solutions for industrial agriculture’s constant problem: How to bring more food to the consumer, faster and cheaper. The genome of creation is a vast thing, the possibilities limitless.

There Are Many Questions. And Who Should Answer These Questions?

But should they [bioengineered creations] be exploited? Is everything conceived of in a lab to be produced? Concerned citizens may fairly ask whether these products are safe. The American Food and Drug Administration has ruled that the presence of genetic material from other organisms requires no special labeling -- rather than being an additive, said the watchdog agency, it is merely the extension of traditional methods of cross-breeding.

But is health the only concern? Do you want to eat a squash with sheep genes? Such hybrids evoke a visceral negative reaction that cannot be articulated in our modern languages of physical safety or utility, but reflects a more profound sensibility.

A reaction heard in the scientific community blames that negative reaction on popular ignorance and sensationalist treatment of the topic, a la Jurassic Park. A complicated, technical area should be left to the experts, it is claimed. This approach assumes that science and technology are subject to the judgment of technical expertise alone, and are free of moral dilemmas.

Yet science doesn’t even have a great track record on deciding whether budding technologies are minimally safe, as examples from radiation to DDT show. It has even greater difficulty dealing with whether the use of a new technology is moral or not. And it cannot even begin to articulate the question of whether the latest “advance” impinges upon the potential to create holiness in our lives. To answer that, we need to search elsewhere.

To Be God’s Partner Is Not to Be God

The Torah portion of Kedoshim is about just this -- holiness. Holiness seems to be a difficult, distant concept. But this Biblical conception of holiness is not about the mysterium tremendum. It is a code of behavior for everyday life, ranging from the ethically sublime (“love your neighbor as yourself”) to ritually obscure details of the sacrificial cult. It includes commandments known as hukkim, rules with no apparent purpose. And one of these is the prohibition of kilai’im (mixed kinds): “You shall not let your cattle mate with a different species; you shall not sew your field with two kinds of seed...” (Leviticus 19:19).

These laws clearly limit our intervention in the natural world. Yet one mainstream Jewish approach to our role in nature holds that the world is not yet perfect, but full of raw material and potential that we are commanded to actively develop and fulfill. We are to partner with God in daily completing the act of Creation.

There is a difference, though, between being a partner with God and being God. Now more than ever, with all the awe-inspiring achievements of modern technology, we are in danger of believing that we can control nature, that through our cleverness and power we can competently devise new creatures to serve our needs.

To Our Knowledge, the Tradition Can Add Wisdom

We moderns may be long on knowledge, but we’re painfully short on wisdom. At issue in the laws of kilai’im is whether there are, or should be, limits. How far is too far? These ancient, seemingly archaic conceptions of human self-restraint as a condition for holiness are essential for us to grapple with the ethical questions of appropriate technology, human needs, the natural world and “progress.” Rather than being beyond human ken, they articulate that gut opposition to technological hubris.

Many environmentalists turn to pre-modern, indigenous cultures tied closely to the land for a vantage point outside our modern ethos from which to critique it. Judaism is in many ways just such a tradition. Our own age-old “tribal” wisdom can play a vital role in formulating a critical assessment of the modern technology and consumer culture that set the tone of so much of our lives. Sometimes our human-based ideal of the good is just not enough. In order to be good, the late teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel said, we need to strive to be holy.

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Jeremy Benstein

Jeremy Benstein is the fellowship director of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv.