Deborah Drucker
2 August 2001

Judaism's View of Biotechnology

Recent advancements in biotechnology, not only enable the transplant of human organs, but promises radical breakthroughs in curing diseases, thereby saving and extending life. We are on the edge of reversing paralysis, restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, as just a few examples. Medical universities and research institutions are at the forefront of this race for cures, considered nothing short of miracles, just a mere 10 years ago, and now part of everyday reality.

Within the last 4 weeks, a gravely ill cardiac patient received a mechanical heart transplant, is off the ventilator, talking, and up and walking, albeit with assistance. Although his doctors are not expecting this device to prolong his life more than 30 days, he is doing better than anticipated ("Mechanical Heart Patient Walks without Assistance"). Stem cell research is currently being debated in Congress and even a staunch "Pro-Life" legislator recognizes the promise that this research holds for renewed and extended life, not to mention creating new life ("Senator Bill Frist Offers Support to Federal Funding of Stem Cell Research").

Fall-out from this flurry of technological, medical and scientific advances poses a serious threat to religious communities worldwide. Ethical, religious and spiritual questions, being raised to religious leaders, require answers to questions that have ever been raised before. The very foundation of religious beliefs can be shaken and has the potential to destroy and/or radically change every religion on earth

The Jewish religious response and the steadfastness of their positions and beliefs are what I will be exploring in the context of this paper. How can Judaism survive the onslaught of its potential destruction by this bio-technical revolution? I hold that the rabbinical body can address every inquiry based on principles developed throughout the centuries and will stand the test of time, while re-examing and confirming their strong beliefs, based upon the teachings of the Torah. An attempt will be made to include the position of three major Jewish sects: Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed. If possible, I will be also presenting the Hasidic stance.

Methods that I will be using include responsums (answers) based on halaka (jewish law) and its interpretations, found through various religious sites on the internet, texts on the Jewish religion and interpretation of the Jewish law. I am also anticipating an interview with a rabbi. Also included are texts based on biotech and technical breakthroughs and predictions.
Thesis: Judaism will survive despite its increasing vulnerability due to the emergence of extraordinary biotechnical advancements in America.

halakah, halakha — law (Hebrew and Jewish spellings respectively); right path

— The first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (The American Heritage Dictionary).

pikuah nefesh
— Duty to save life of person in mortal danger (Prouser). stem cells - "After an egg is fertilized, it begins to divide. When it reaches the 140-cell stage, there are a few cells in the middle of the ball that hang down like a little chandelier. These are stem cells."

— Answer to a religious question

Talmud — Hebrew for study or learning; the collection of ancient rabbinic writings consisting of the Mishnah and the Gemara, constituting the basis for religious authority in Orthodox Judaism (The American Heritage Dictionary).

— Hebrew, for ‘teaching, instruction’; in general, Torah refers to study of the whole gamut of Jewish tradition or to some aspect thereof. In its special sense, ‘the Torah’ refers to the ‘five books of Moses’ in the Hebrew Scriptures (Robinson 595).

Looking Back

The Jewish people have existed throughout the centuries, despite plagues, wars, the Spanish Inquisition, Pogroms, and The Holocaust, just to name a few. They have developed an uncanny ability to survive throughout the ages and have mastered, at least up until now, the ability to overcome severe persecution and impending threats of extinction (Dimont 15).

The Jews are a people, extremely small in number, with a current worldwide population of only 14 million, a drop in the bucket, compared to world population figures of about 6 billion (The Jewish Population of the World and World Population). So one could see that if the Nazis were not stopped, in their death march upon the Jews, which had already been responsible for the eradication of 6,000,000, that the probability of Jews coming at least close to total annihilation would have been fairly certain.

Not having the luxury of being popular among the masses, for most of their existence, the Jews have been enslaved, persecuted, ostracized, denied basic human rights, condemned to death, targeted for total destruction, and in others words not very welcome in the world. Any early prediction of their fate would have certainly been grim, based on how the world has always treated those of the Jewish faith. But no, not the Jews, although their path was paved with extreme struggle and hardship, while mighty civilizations disappeared, some leaving only vestiges of their existence, they not only strengthened their ability to survive at all costs, but continued to flourish throughout the centuries. Despite this dreadful treatment, the Jews survived and outlived other popular civilizations, and have made their mark in the world by great accomplishments and have excelled in the arts, music, medicine, law, science, education, government, business, and every other worthwhile human endeavor (Dimont 15-16). In many instances Jews forged new territory and lead the way for others. Some of humanities greatest contributors, such as Einstein, Freud, Jonas Salk, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Arthur Miller, Stephen Spielberg, Barbara Streisand and Neil Simon are a few examples of Jews who have made their impact on society and our culture (Dimont 14).

So how can such an inconsequential group of people, survive annihilation, rise to the forefront of the human experience and make such a difference in the world? In the following I will endeavor to explore some of the more reasons.

Since their emergence, as a people, the Jews did not have the benefit of a nation of their own, until State of Israel was established in 1948. Vulnerable to conquest, the Jews often losing battles were divided by the victors and forced to leave their homes and were sent to all parts of the world. Also driven by persecution, they left to parts afar to set-up life anew and, in many some cases, actually prosper throughout the world. This scattering throughout the world is known as Diaspora. Although being banned from Judaic practice and struggling through the political and anti-Semitic crusades, the mere fact that they were living in Diaspora, dwelling in separate lands protected them as an entire group. For you see, if one area was under extreme threat, for example in Western Europe during the Holocaust, other groups of Jews existed throughout the world that was not threatened or otherwise imminently endangered. Of course however, taking the case of the Holocaust, if Hitler was not stopped and if he stayed on his course to world domination, while continuing his path of total destruction of the Jews, this probably would have eradicated the Jews forever. This time in Jewish history was probably the closest to total extinction of the race.

Having had this history of survival, this in fact created a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Jews expected to deal with their very survival on a day—to—day basis. As a result they used every means necessary to survive, remaining diligent and alert to threats to existence, which they also knew was always hanging in the balance. As an example, "…American Jewry has over the years built up an arsenal of ideologies and institutions and has personnel motivated and trained to stand up to the challenge of survival" (Karp 264).

In addition Jews have been conditioned to adapt to new cultures, thoughts and Karp in quoting Robert Gordis, ‘The evolving character of Judaism: Judaism has never been static; it has always adapted itself to new thought and new conditions…’ (Karp 240).

There certainly are many other reasons to explore in attributing this extraordinary feat of surviving the centuries, but not within the confines of this analysis. I would, however, like to add an opinion of my to this. When constantly under threat one recognizes the stakes and when your very existence is being threatened because of your beliefs, you are strengthened in defending your right to have those beliefs and therefore the very threat to survival causes religious inquiry, debate and can strengthen and reinforce your faith.

Practice of the Religion

Coupling this history of survival, with the strength and belief in Judaism’s principles and doctrines, have been used as a steady guide for over 5000 years to navigate the Jewish people through severe storms. Devotion to the correctness of G-d’s word has marshaled their forces and uplifted their spirits and has provided guidance for life’s encounters, no matter how contemporary and unique these issues might be. Even In these modern times, the Talmudic law is used to interpret problems in the same way that it was used thousands of years ago. There is no situation that cannot be addressed and resolved by application of halakah (Broyd 1, Dimont 168-181).

Facing New Challenges

Today, we, in the 21st Century, are teetering on the brink of incredible medical and biotechnical advancements. The threat to Judaism, and in fact, to all existing religions are very real. Currently it looks like there will be only one winner: religion or science and it appears that technology will wear the blue ribbon (Kurzweil 150-151). In the midst of this revolutionary period is the Jewish religion, standing tall and facing these new age challenges, one by one. On this road, there is no turning back, and the Jewish leaders cannot help to know this (B’Or Ha’Torah).
Revision of Thesis

To address individual Jewish sects and their response to these challenges, as well as to cover the scope of the new advances, has turned into a feat that needs to be covered in a much broader format, requiring more extensive work than what can be covered in the confines of this assignment. Therefore, I have modified the original position as expressed in the abstract, to focus on cloning, stem cell research and how this challenges Judaism and its roots, without attention to particular sects.

Jews and Medical Ethics

In an effort to present the flavor of the Jewish mind set with regard to medical ethical questions, you must understand that the established Judaic laws, which existed for thousands of years, are still being consulted for life solutions and have remained a constant source of guidance in all circumstances, even in these modern times, which is illustrated by both of the following excerpts (Dimont 168-181):

The inestimable value of human life is a cardinal principle of Jewish Law.
This principle includes an obligation for maintenance of our own health
and for self-preservation. This obligation, known as pikuah nefesh, also
includes the duty to save the life of one’s fellow human being, should he or she be in mortal danger.
This is the significance of the Command‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’ (Lev 19:16)’ (Prouser 1), and

Although the term Jewish Medical Ethics first came into use in the 1950’s, and the popular interest is a recent phenomenon, their relevance and acceptance has been part of the fabric of the Jewish people since Sinai. Rabbinical rulings dealing with health and medicine, based on the commandments in the Pentateuch and their elaboration in the Talmud and codes of Jewish law, have come down to us over the centuries, and new ones are issued every year. The collection of such rabbinical rulings is known as halakha — right path. Halakha is a dynamic and ongoing process covering all aspects of life. It is not derived by philosophic speculation about contrived situations. This is why most Jewish medical ethicists emphasize the doctor-patient relationship; most of the questions presented for adjudication belong to this category. (Greene)

When addressing issues on organ donation Rabbi Prouser states:

…we are obligated to preserve life. We ought not, as our final act, glorify strictly subjective aversions, aesthetic objections, and personal preference at the expense of human life. As in many areas of human endeavor and religious expression, we serve G-d by appropriately identifying our priorities and acting accordingly. As Rabbi Jerome Epstein has taught us, a Conservative Jew ‘employs learned Jewish values to guide behavior even when it conflicts with personal feeling or inclination’
(Prouser 3).

Prouser goes on to say, that the act of withholding the organs of the deceased, when it’s needed to save a life, is forbidden by Jewish law and that the act of organ donation, to save a life, is considered a good deed and does honor to the deceased party (Prouser 3-4).

From these statements I have concluded that the Jewish position favors saving existing life and in fact it states it’s our obligation to do so. Therefore one would conclude that if the means to save a life is legal, in terms of Judaic law and rabbinical approval, the use of human organs, parts, cloned cells, stem cells is not only permitted but encouraged.

Cloning and the Jewish Response

Aside from tales of horror and terror, such as the possibility of exact duplicates of us being created or younger halves of twins running through the world in abandon, there are very real possibilities for the use of cloning as the salvation of many medical and survival problems today. Scientists are at the tip of the iceberg in discovering the possibilities of curing terrible diseases and prolonging life. As an example, "Israeli researchers said they have succeeded in coaxing human embryonic stem cells into producing the hormone insulin in a key step toward creating a revolutionary treatment for Type 1 Diabetes (Bioethics Online).

Every passage, that I read, written by Jewish scholars or Rabbis, questions of ethics and morality, refer the questions back to the "eyes of the Jewish law" (Broyde 1). According to Jewish law reproductive technology is neither allowed nor prohibited and each case must be analyzed separately (Broyde 1).

Rather than have a pat, predetermined response, to each of these issues, the approach to halakah enables Jewish leaders to have the opportunity to address questions, such as these, with a fresh set of eyes, as each question must be answered separately, while still applying ancient Jewish laws to questions of the 21st Century. In his paper on Cloning, Broyde asserts, "Like all preliminary analysis, it is designed not to advance a rule that represents itself as definitive normative Jewish law; rather it is an attempt to outline some of the issues in the hope that others will focus on the problems and analysis found in this paper and will sharpen or correct that analysis. Such is the way that Jewish law seeks truth" (Broyde 1). The ability to address questions individually, and hopefully, without bias allows flexibility in the response, while maintaining the integrity of the religion. Perhaps, this allows the review of these issues in ever-changing times to keep the religion fresh and responsive to these new challenges. It is interesting to note that Halakah allows the use of stems cell from an early embryo. The church however, "forced the US government to prohibit the use of stem cells from an embryo at the (early) 140-cell stage" (Tendler, Moshe 6).

It’s important to note that "Judaism does not believe that personhood and human rights begin with conception" (United Synagogue Resolution of Abortion). This is in direct contrast with the Catholic Religion. Nevertheless, Judaism does not condone abortion for contraceptive reasons, but "under special circumstances, Judaism chooses and requires abortion as an act that protects the life, well being and health of the mother" (United Synagogue Resolution…),"or when the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion severely defective" (Blumenthal). "While Judaism sees the fetus as valuble and sacred as potential life, the sources indicate that it is not equivalent to a person (Blumenthal). Judaism also gives parents the right to have children and does not deny invitro fertilization, as having children is a blessing (Dorff).

The preceding information is quite relevant to the stem cell issues as stem cells can be obtained from fetuses (Tendler, Moshe 6). It follows that the aborted fetuses and the fertilized cells which go unused for invitro fertilization can be then used to get stem cells, and as long as the fetus is in the early stage (approximately under 40 days old) old, the Jewish position permits its use (United Synagogue — Abortion Controversy 2). In fact Jewish law mandates its use since as stated earlier it is a sin to not help another person survive. If survival means donating stem cells to help someone heal their heart, lungs, kidneys, and so forth, and prolong their life, it must be done as long as it does not fall in the face of existing Judaic law (Prouser 3-4).

On the other hand one cannot make the mistake and think that the law can be twisted and bent to make people happy. It just doesn’t work that way.

Rabbi Shafran makes an interesting point in his deliberation of the complex questions that arise out of contemporary medical issues. He poses questions such as "Is it proper to experiment on fertilized human eggs that remain after infertility treatments?" He recognizes that these questions will keep on coming and as always, Jewish religious scholars will consult the Halakah in these matters. But, he goes on to say that "we simple Jews who are far from expert in halakha stand to gain much from
pondering current medical ethics issues — not only because they are fascinating but because they are a reminder." A reminder of what, you ask? A reminder that G-d has created billions of these miracles of creating life everyday and that the true miracle is the working of our bodies and the debt that we owe to our creator (Shafran 1).

The Torah is a profound teacher, teaching us about ourselves, how we relate to one another, G-d and what we perceive to be realty. As individuals we want to do what we please and are challenged as individuals and by society, it’s our mission to channel this passion to devotion and service to G-d and his commandments (Tendler, Aron).

"Israel Freidlander offers guidance for a creative vision of the future of American Jewry:"

‘There is an old rabbinic saying that after the destruction of the Temple the gift of prophecy passed over to children and fools. True, prophecy without inspiration, which predicts the future as a matter of fact, is childish and foolish, because no human eye can perceive and no human mind can calculate the innumerable and imponderable effects of the concatenation of human events. But prophecy as a matter of hope, the prediction of future not as it will be, but as it ought to be, is indispensable for all who have, or desire to have, a clear conception of their duties towards the coming generations.’ (Karp 26)

Perhaps other religions will look at these scenarios and refuse to admit that our times are such. Naturally this kind of thinking will only create the eventual downfall of those beliefs, but Judaism does, in fact, give answers, very carefully considered answers, with an approach that has been developed throughout the history of Judaism, as I have discussed in this treatment. Scholars pour over Judaic doctrine to examine and re-examine these issues. These answers are not always what people would like to hear. Their beliefs are strong and steadfast in what they believe G-d has in mind for the inhabitants of the world, keeping in mind that these old laws and doctrines, do plan for the end of the world (Ciner 1).

They are able to address these questions in many cases more in concert with scientific breakthroughs than I have anticipated. However, I’ve discovered that their answers are not always what people would like to hear. So I must state that the Judaism too can disappear along with the others religions, in opposition to what I had originally stated. Judaism too can be vulnerable to extinction once followers do not want to hear what the interpretation of G-d’s wishes and should that conflict with modern technology.

It strikes this writer that this Jewish position, of understanding the healing benefit of using stem cells, is in concert with the bio-medical world, and leads one to conclude that a religion so dedicated to rational thinking and the protection of people, is flexible therefore fostering it’s own survival, as the world culture continues to face the challenges set upon it by technology. The questions of how the Jewish religion will handle more radical breakthroughs such as artificial intelligence, brain implants, totaling cloned new beings and other possibilities will further challenge the religion and may in fact cause it’s downfall. However my own personal belief is that the Judaic scholars will be able to weather this storm, although I cannot speak to the future, for certainly what is anticipated will be quite extraordinary and will make science fiction into science reality.

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