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.

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

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