Genetics and Judaism

Abstract

Jewish law (Halacha) rarely gives definitive answers and it is not the only source of Jewish thought. A Jewish philosophical–theological attitude may be more useful than Halacha when approaching new questions, such as problems in the ethics of genetics, which were not foreseen by the ancient Rabbis. Jewish mysticism (Kabala) is no less essential. An approach based on these three sources – Halacha, philosophical–theological thought and Kabala – in the context of specific debates, such as those over genetically modified organisms (GMOs), gene therapy, synthetic biology and genetic screening, can be valuable both in themselves and as illustrations of applications of a method. Maimonides' medical writings, although not ‘religious’ in the usual sense, are consistent with his more religious writings. So they are also relevant to a Jewish approach to genetics.

Key Concepts

  • Judaism includes Jewish law (Halacha), Jewish mysticism (Kabala) and a theologico‐philosophical tradition.
  • Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), rabbi, philosopher and physician, is central to Halacha and to the Jewish theologico‐philosophical tradition.
  • Judaism is open to different and competing interpretations on the part of people who are hopefully learned in the sources.
  • Judaism is open to technology and may make use of it in Halachic decision making. But limits must be placed on the use of technology to interfere with basic processes of nature.
  • Even when biotechnology promises a high likelihood of saving human health or life, there may be limits to the extent to which we may violate human dignity.
  • Kabala presents a basis for serious questions about the mixing of species.
  • Maimonides' opinion that nature was not created for our benefit should be considered with respect to extreme interference with the basic structure of nature.
  • Halachic recommendations to go to extremes to avoid harming others preceded the Precautionary Principle and raise questions about experimentation in synthetic biology when safety has not yet been proven and when benefits to human health are still theoretical.

Keywords: genetically modified organisms; genetics; Judaism; Kabala; Maimonides; religion; synthetic biology; Talmud

Figure 1. Nature in Israel: wildflowers among Negev desert rocks.
Figure 2. Nature in Israel: flash flood in the Judean Desert.
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Further Reading

American Center of Khazar Studies (2007) Jewish Genetics: Abstracts and Summaries. http://www.khazaria.com/genetics/abstracts.html.

Jakobovits I (1975) Jewish Medical Ethics: A Comparative and Historical Study of the Jewish Religious Attitude to Medicine and Its Practice. New York: Bloch.

Leavitt FJ (1998–1999) The concept of nature in Maimonides' philosophy of medicine: Jewish or Greek? Korot: The Israeli Journal of the History of Medicine and Science 13: 102–121.

Rosner F (2007) Judaism, Genetic Screening and Genetic Therapy. Jewish Virtual Library, American‐Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/genetic.html.

Steinberg A (2006) In: Rosner F, (ed) (trans.). Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics. Jerusalem/New York: Feldheim Publishers.

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Leavitt, Frank J(Jan 2015) Genetics and Judaism. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020654.pub2]