Professors David Novak and Molly Shoichet, along with Pekka Sinervo and Rabbi Debra Landsberg, discuss the latest developments in artificial life, genetic engineering through CRISPR CAS-9 technology, and its implications in terms of both Halakhic Jewish tradition and the realm of Aggadot, with its allegories and golems.

This is an excerpt of a video filmed by Larry Rachlin.

Molly Shoichet: Good evening, and thank you all for coming out on this cold wintry night. A-Life – it means artificial life. And I actually don’t think our research is artificial life, but I could imagine how some people might think it is. I’m going to tell you a little bit about our research, and then I’m going to also highlight some really exciting findings that have happened in the past year, and in fact, the past month, in science, that bring up some really fascinating ethical issues, that I will then hand off to Dr. Novak to discuss.

This is called  CRISPR CAS-9 technology, or gene editing. OK, so what does this mean? So this system consists of two molecules. One is CAS-9, which is an enzyme, and one is the guide RNA, which is a pre-designed ribonucleic acid that you can basically insert into genes. OK, so what we can do now, that we could never do before, is we can edit your genes. So if you’ve got a disease, and we can identify it in the embryo, we can edit out that disease. That’s really cool. But another fantastic ethical issue – because where does it stop? Do we make superhumans and edit out everything?

So, the good news is that it’s a great tool for treating a whole range of diseases. Anything with a genetic component – including cancer, hepatitis, or even high cholesterol. Many of the proposed applications involve editing genomes of non-reproductive cells. So these are somatic cells. But there is a lot of interest in editing out germ-line reproductive cells. And that’s where the ethical debate is. So most people are fine with editing out genes that are problematic after you’ve been born, but if you edit them in the germ line, this will be passed on from generation to generation, and that’s where there are some ethical concerns.

Pekka Sinervo: One of the things in the Jewish – the tradition, the folklore, there are artificial things. Things like golems. So how have we actually dealt with those? Debra?

Debra Landsberg: So there is a long tradition of speaking of golems. Though I’d say that in recent times, it’s kind of expanded well beyond their narrow origins. One can go back to Talmud and find three words, “Rava Bara Gavra,” Rava made a man, created a man, in an unnatural, in a supernatural way, as it were. And does this creature – is this creature considered human? The question of looking at life and creativity in ways that sound science fiction-y is old, actually, and we have it within our tradition. So the questions around it on that big picture of artificial life, or life conceived outside of natural reproductive modes, raises or gets to the question of what is – what creates life, what defines humanity? Those are those underlying questions that keep playing out through time, but they tend to be on that question of “the big picture.” If one creates a whole creature, which seems quite distinct from a lot of the work that’s being done now, ooh – can one create parts for therapeutic purposes, as that were?

David Novak: I mean let’s talk about Rava creating an artificial human being. First of all, it is within the realm of Aggadah. It is not in the realm of the law. It is in the realm of speculation, imagination, which is very very important. However, we have a principle “Magen en Aggadot”, we do not derive immediate normative principles of what we should do, what we should not do, from these speculations. These speculations can inform our discussions.

So let me give an example of that. Somebody artificially creates something that looks and acts like a human being. What is the status of that person? Let me give you an analogy. According to the Halacha, even though it’s violated by certain people on the right, unfortunately, is, that if a person is notheg badar y’israel, if a person is acting like a Jew, who comes in your synagogue and opens up and knows it and act like a Jew, you are to accept that person as a Jew, without questions asked. However, if that person also wants to marry somebody from the congregation, then you’ve got to investigate the person’s background. Are you really Jewish? According to Jewish law, are you allowed to marry this person? All of that sort of thing. So just by analogy, if something appears and looks and acts like a human being, we would certainly treat that person – we would certainly say that that person’s life was not to be violated, and whatever.

However, if that person, let’s say, wanted to get married, then we – there would be a question of “is this person the product?”. Because human beings who can marry have a father and a mother – is this person really in that type of a situation? So that becomes the thing. But I think that the real ethical issue is, if we are doing a lot of these things –that Molly [explained] in such a clear [way] for a layperson like myself to understand. Then the question is, what is the motivation? Why is this being done?

Science does not give us moral norms. But there are moral norms that pertain to the external, to the world, to the physical world. And that is where science is important. Science is important so that we know how to apply these norms intelligently, rather than unintelligently.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post comes from the project run by Beth Tzedec Congregation and Temple Emanu-el in Toronto).

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