The Genome Project and Jewish Law

Does the genome project take imitatio dei too far--beyond imitating God, to playing God?


The U.S. Human Genome Project was initiated in 1990 by the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health, with the aim of identifying the 30,000 genes in human DNA. Several maps of the human genome have already been completed. This research can be used in developing therapies to treat or cure genetic diseases. Though the author of this article endorses the project, and few thinkers question the potential therapeutic benefits of it, others are more skeptical. People like Richard Greenberg worry that society will overstate the significance of genetics and submit to a belief in genetic determinism in which one cannot be held responsible for ones own actions. Greenberg suggests that this would contradict Judaism’s belief in free will. Others, like Yitzchok Adlerstein, worry about the moral ramifications of moving procreation from the home to the laboratory. The following article is reprinted with permission from Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law, published by KTAV.

genome projectIs the genome project an encroachment on the divine plan for this world by interfering with nature as God created it? Although one rabbi [Moshe Hershler] answers in the affirmative, most rabbis consider the acquisition of knowledge for the sake of finding cures for human illnesses to be divinely sanctioned, if not in fact mandated. God blessed mankind with the phrase: replenish the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). This phrase is interpreted by Nachmanides (Ramban) to mean that God gave man dominion over the world to use animals and insects and all creeping things for the benefit of mankind. To subdue the earth, according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, is to master, appropriate, and transform the earth and its products for human purposes. To have “dominion over the fish and over the birds and over every living thing on earth” (Genesis 1:28) means to use them for the benefit of mankind. The pursuit of scientific knowledge does not constitute prohibited eating from the tree of knowledge (Genesis 2:17). Whatever is good for mankind must be permissible and praiseworthy. However, good is often not pure good but is mixed with some potential danger. The genome project is certainly good in terms of its potential to lead to cure of diseases but the project also raises many concerns.

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Dr. Fred Rosner is Director of the Department of Medicine of the Mount Sinai Services at the Queens Hospital Center and Professor of Medicine at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Internal Medicine and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.

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