The Genome Project and Jewish Law

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

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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.

 

In the general introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah, Moses Maimonides writes a protracted dissertation on knowledge and wisdom and the existence and purpose of all living and inanimate things in the world. He clearly enunciates the thesis that everything that God put on this earth is to serve mankind. Thus, scientific experiments on laboratory animals during the course of medical research that might find cures for human illnesses are sanctioned in Jewish law as legitimate utilization of animals for the benefit of mankind. However, whenever possible, pain or discomfort should be avoided or minimized in order not to transgress the prohibition in Jewish law against cruelty to animals.

Therapeutic genetic engineering and gene therapy that may result from the knowledge derived from the genome project is not a Torah violation of undermining God’s creation of the world by manipulating nature (Ramban, Leviticus 19:19). On the contrary, it is a confirmation of the creation of the world. The use of scientific knowledge to benefit mankind is biblically mandated (Ramban, Genesis 1:28). The use of such knowledge to heal illness and cure disease is also biblically allowed based on the talmudic interpretation (Baba Kamma 85a) of the phrase and heal he shall heal (Exodus 21:19), or even biblically mandated based on Maimonides’ interpretation (Mishnah Commentary, Nedarim 4:4) of the biblical obligation to restore a lost object (Deuteronomy 22:2) to include the restoration of one’s lost health. The healing of illness includes the use of genetically engineered medications such as insulin and various antibiotics. The cure of disease by gene therapy, if possible, is also sanctioned in Jewish law.

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Dr. Fred Rosner

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.