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).Read Transcript
Rabbi Adam Cutler: Welcome to Beth Tzedec. It is wonderful seeing all of you here this evening in our still fairly brand new mezzanine hall. I hope you enjoy and take a moment to look up at the ceiling – the best feature of the room. Welcome, as well, to day three of “A-Life: Worth Living?” part of the Genesis Project – science meets Jewish thought. And this project is presented jointly by Temple Emmanuel as well as Beth Tzedec congregation, is made possible in part by Joseph and Elaine Steiner in memory of their son Jonathan. It is sponsored by Sinai and Synapses in New York and the American Association for the Advancement of Science Program of Dialogue on Science Ethics and Religion in Washington D.C., as well as support from CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
“Vayomer Elohim yikavu ha’mayim mitachat haShamayim el makom echad v’tera’eh hayabasha, va’yhi chein
Vayikra ‘Elohim la’yabbashah ‘eretz, ulemikveih hamayim kara yammim; vaiyar ‘Elohim ki-tov
Vaiyomer ‘Elohim, tadshei ha’aretz deshe, ‘eisev mazria’ zera’, ‘eitz peri ‘oseh peri lemino, ‘asher zar’a-vo ‘al-ha’aretz; vayhi-chein
Va’totzei ha’aretz deshe ‘eisev mazria’ zera’ lemineihu, ve’eitz ‘oseh-peri ‘asher zar’a-vo lemineihu; vaiyar ‘elohim ki-tov:
Vayhi-‘erev vayhi-voker yom shelishi.” (Beresheit 1.9-13)
“God said Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area that the dry land may appear. And it was so.
God called the dry land Earth and the gathering the waters he called Seas. And God saw that this was good.
And God said Let the earth spread vegetation, seed bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it. And it was so.
The earth brought forth vegetation, seed bearing plants of every kind and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that this was good.
And there was evening, and there was morning. A third day.”
And today is our third day of this program, again, “A-Life – Artificial Life: Worth Living?” That’s a question mark afterwards. I’d like to welcome the two coordinators of this project, Beth Tzedec member Judy Libman, give it a wave – thank you. And you can clap. And Dr. Pekka Sinervo, professor of physics who had actually been my professor of physics at U Of T, and president of Temple Emanu-el. Professor Sinervo will be our moderator later on for our panel after Dr. Schoichet, who we will introduce in a moment, concludes her presentation.
On our panel, we have Rabbi Debra Landsberg. Rabbi Landsberg has served at Temple Emanu-el since 2001. Prior to that, she served at The Temple in Atlanta, GA. Rabbi Landsberg is currently president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, vice chair of the Canadian rabbinic caucus, and a senior rabbinic fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. She has served on the Canadian Association of Muslims and Jews and the Coalition of Canadian Rabbis for Same Sex Marriage. She is married and the mother of 11-year-old triplets. “Oooh,” I heard the ooh there. Listen to the bio of the next two, then you’ll really be oohing – no offense, Rabbi Landsberg.
Dr. Molly Schoichet holds the Tier 1 Canada research chair in tissue engineering and is professor of Chemical Engineering and Applied Chemistry, chemistry and biomaterials, and biomedical engineering at University of Toronto. She was not my professor. She’s an expert in the study of polymers for drug delivery and regeneration, and currently leads a laboratory of 25 researchers. Dr. Schoichet is a recipient of many prestigious distinctions and is the only person to be a fellow of Canada’s three National Academies: the Canadian Association of Sciences of the Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Academy of Engineering, and Canadian Academy of Health Sciences.
And finally, Professor David Novak, who is no stranger here at Beth Tzedec. A Chicago native, Dr. Novak, Rabbi Dr. Novak, attended the University of Chicago and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he received his rabbinic diploma. He received his PhD in philosophy from Georgetown University. Since 1997, Dr Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish studies as Professor of Religion and Philosophy in the University of Toronto. He is a member of University College and the Joint Centre for Bioethics. He has been on the faculties of many universities, including University of Virginia, the Jewish Theological seminary, and Baruch College of the City University of New York. He’s been a consultant to the governments of United States, Israel and Poland, and to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He is the author of 16 books. Though he was not my professor at the U of T, I’ve had the privilege of learning many times from and with Dr Novak, and it’s always a wonderful experience.
Dr. Schoichet, the floor is yours. We look forward to your presentation, followed by our moderated panel conversation, after which we’re going to open up for some Q & A. Cards will be distributed throughout the evening. Each of you have a chance to write down your questions and perhaps some brief comments for exploration a little later on. Enjoy the evening.
Molly Schoichet: 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. So what I thought I would do is tell you a little bit about what I think is artificial. 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.
So, this is what I think of as artificial. […], because, as you can see, these are materials. And they’re artificial materials, and you know, whether it’s a finger joint, a breast implant, a heart valve, a hip joint, an artificial heart or an intra-ocular lens, these are all synthetic materials. I like to think about the hip joint. It doesn’t mean that they don’t do incredible things, but I do think of them as artificial. And if you look here, what we have is a titanium rod that gets implanted into the leg, and a polyethylene cap, and that’s kind of the ball and socket joint that we all have in our hip. And it does a fantastic job of giving people back mobility when they lose mobility. And I think of these things as artificial.
There’s been some fantastic new developments in, I would say, artificial materials – […] So, this is a prosthetic arm, and this was just published recently, actually, and we’ve all heard of prosthetics. And actually we’ve seen, in the Paralympics, many Paralympians using prosthetics to do fantastic things. This is a really cool development in prosthetics, because this now is hooked up into the sensory system, into the nervous system, and so this prosthetic arm can detect signals from nerves in the spinal cord, so you can now – if you can think about it, and think about moving your arm, you can think about controlling your prosthetic arm. And there’s prosthetic arms, then, that can send signals back to the nervous system, to the central nervous system, the brain and the spinal cord, so that you can understand – you know in terms of how much, for example, a hand, how hard you grip something.
So a lot of things that we take for granted are being designed into these prosthetics, which I think is fascinating. And there’s been – as fascinating as this is, and it’s really this integration of machinery with the body to overcome lost function. But I still think of it as artificial because what it doesn’t allow you to do is regrow a whole new arm, and everything that’s in that – so the bone, the muscles, the nerve. And what we’re trying to do in our research is a little bit of that, although not a nerve.
So what I work in is this field of regenerative medicine. And in regenerative medicine, we think about cell transplantation and typically stem cell transplantation, and we also think about stem cell stimulation. So let me just tell you a little bit about those two areas. So the first thing around stem cell transplantation – and this leads to an ethical issue – is, which cells are you going to transplant? Now, a stem cell is defined as a cell that can become itself, but can also become other different cells in the body. And the most powerful cells that we have to do that are derived from the embryo. And so for human disease, that would be derived from the human embryo. So this brings up a lot of ethical issues: are we really going to grow human embryos to get stem cells to transplant into people?
Now, a lot of the ethical dilemma with this was put to rest to a certain extent, because scientists found that you could take skin cells – so, fully mature cells – and almost push them backwards so that they became stem cells. And then those cells could become different cell types in the body. So now you don’t have to think about the ethical issues around embryos because there’s other cells that you can get from yourself that we could become – we could turn into stem cells. But that is – that has been a really interesting area of, I’d say, ethical debate.
And the other thing is stem cell stimulation. So stem cell stimulation, I don’t think is – has as many of these ethical issues, because what we’re trying to do then is simply harness the power that’s already in us. So in our research, for example, in the brain, after someone has a stroke, they have stem cells in their brain that are stimulated, but not sufficiently to overcome the devastation associated with stroke. And so what we’re trying to do is think about how can we stimulate those stem cells to overcome that devastation – to promote tissue repair and functional recovery.
And our research, then, is focused in the central nervous system, so the brain and spinal cord, and we’re working in really devastating injuries, for which there’s very little for the patients. And that’s in spinal cord injury. There’s really only one drug that’s been approved, and it’s highly debated whether it does anything. In stroke, there’s also one drug, tissue plasminogen activator, which has been approved in about a thousand failed clinical trials. And that does do something, but you need to administer it really quickly.
And then the third area is blindness. We have drugs that slow down the progression of the disease in blindness, but no way to stop that progression and no way to reverse it.
So as you can tell, we’re tackling really big problems. Really big problems that that no one’s been able to overcome. And I think in the context of disease, we can all maybe think about putting those ethical issues aside and think about helping people. But as you’ll see near the end, there’s other areas which aren’t as clear-cut.
So this is just a brief summary of what I just said. We’re looking at cell transplantation to the brain, to the spinal cord, and to the retina, and we’re also looking at ways just to stimulate those stem cells that are resident in our brain. So this is just a cross-section of a brain – resident in and resident in our spinal cords.
So I was going to just show you – hopefully this video worked – I didn’t check it. No, I don’t think it’s going to work, that’s too bad. But, one of the things we found in our work in spinal cord injury is that if we transplanted stem cells, we were able to improve the locomotor function in rats. And this demonstrated some promise, and so maybe during the Q & A, if you really want to see these movies, I’ll get them to work again and show you. But right now I’m just saving time, right, so it’s good. OK.
So let me tell you a little bit about our work in stroke. What we know about stroke is – most strokes are due to ischemia, so, lack of oxygen in the brain. Sometimes they’re due to bleeding inside the brain, which would be hemorrhage. And what we know is basically due to that loss of oxygen and nutrients in the brain, we get cell death, tissue damage, and behavioral deficit. And it really is, you know, there are so many different types of stroke, depending on the severity and where it is. But it is quite devastating, and there’s very little that we can do other than, mostly, rehabilitation.
So one of the things we were really interested in doing was seeing if we could stimulate the stem cells in the brain. And one of our collaborators, Cindi Morshead, had shown that she could stimulate the stem cells by delivering two proteins directly into the brain. And she delivered them into the ventricles of the brain, and it’s because lining the ventricles are the stem cells. And she wanted to stimulate those stem cells to promote tissue and functional repair. And she demonstrated that in a rat model. So even though I’m showing you this in the context of a human brain, we’ve only worked in animal models of disease.
We thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could design, like, a drug infused Band-Aid, or a patch, so that you didn’t have to stick a tube through someone’s brain in order to stimulate those cells. Maybe if we delivered those same drugs from this little blue patch right here, we could also stimulate the stem cells in the brain and promote tissue and functional repair. And so I’m not going to show you the data, because I didn’t want to get mired in all of that, but we have been able to see some tissue and functional repair by the delivery of a couple of different molecules, a combination of molecules, and so we’re very excited about these data, all in a rat model of stroke.
But what I did think I could show you – oh gosh, I hope this movie works – you know all these movies worked a couple minutes ago. OK, no, it’s not working either. But that was just going to show you some really cool materials, because I know that I was introduced as a chemical engineer and a biomedical engineer, and I know you’re all saying “so where’s the engineering, right?” because you wanted to see some cool engineering, and and that was in this material.
So I can’t show you that, but I can show you chemical structures. Which everybody always loves, right. (laughter) So this is hyaluronan, or hyaluronic acid. Has anybody heard of that? Yeah, right, it’s like, in everything, so it’s in creams now, it’s injected to get rid of wrinkles, it’s been injected into knees to help with osteoarthritis. And we’ve found that we could mix hyaluronic acid with another molecule called methylcellulose, and you may not have heard of methylcellulose, but it’s also used in many clinical products and it’s also a coating for tablets. So we just found some really interesting material properties by mixing these two together. That – I know I’m just leaving you with so much suspense in terms of what this actually looks like, but I can’t show it to you.
I can tell you the third story that relates to blindness. And our research is really focused on people who lose vision with a couple different diseases. And one is age-related macular degeneration, where basically what happens is you lose your central vision. The other is more of a genetic disorder, retinitis pigmentosa, where you lose your peripheral vision. And the other is diabetic retinopathy, where you end up with a dappled vision. And we do – the good news is, with blindness, is we do have drugs, pharmacologics, that will slow down the progression of the disease, but we have nothing that’s going to reverse that.
And so, it turns out that the cells that are lost when someone loses vision are at the back of the eye. So here’s your eye. Light comes into the eye, hits the back of the eye, the back of the eye is called the retina. And we have these cells here at the back of the eye, these rod and cone-like cells, called the photoreceptors. So photo (light) receptors receive light, so these cells at the back of the eye receive light and transmit that light signal into an electrical signal that allows us to see. So it turns out that the cells that die in, for example, age-related macular degeneration, or retinitis pigmentosa, are the photoreceptors, and these other cells, these grey cuboidal cells, the retinal pigment, epithelial cells.
And so, because we’re interested in restoring vision, we’ve developed strategies to transplant those cells right into the back of the eye. And it’s a collaboration with Derek van der Kooy’s lab, who discovered the retinal stem cells in the human eye and in the mouse eye. The adult human eye. And so if you look, maybe at your neighbor, and you look at their eye, or you remember what your eye looks like, and you have that black circle that goes around your iris. If on the very periphery of that, the outer periphery of that is the ciliary body, and it’s right in the ciliary body where we find the retinal stem cells.
So I said that stem cells are cells that are – can be differentiated; they can become different cell types. And the retinal stem cells can become all the different cell types of the retina. And these were transformed into these photoreceptor cells and transplanted into a mouse eye. And this work was actually all done by this M.D. Ph D. Student who’s now in his residency, Brian Ballios. And we published this work just about a year and a half ago, and it got a lot of media attention. And so, this is Brian looking down a microscope at these retinal stem cells, and this is a mouse looking back up at him. And, you know, I like to tell people that it it’s not Photoshopped. And it took them, you know, I think, several hours to get the shot. But it took Brian several years to do the research. So as long as this – even though the shot took a long time, the research took a lot longer.
So one of the challenges we have with cell transplantation is that most of the cells die. So most people don’t tell you that, right. There’s a lot of excitement in cell transplantation, and I would say there’s a lot of medical tourism. And it used to be that medical tourism would be in, you know, South America or Asia, but we actually have medical tourism, I would say, all across Canada and the United States as well. And what I mean by medical tourism, another great ethical issue, is people saying they’re going to transplant stem cells and they’re going to help you with disease X. But there’s no actual clinical study that proves that that will actually happen. And it costs a lot of money. And so people try it because there’s nothing else. But it’s a real big problem, I would say, for the field.
But the challenge we have with cell transplantation is then, how do you get those cells to survive? And because we are trying to restore vision, we need the cells to survive, and we need them to integrate into the neural circuitry. OK, so I like to use the analogy of – you’ve got a big cable of wires, and you’ve now cut it in half. Can everybody visualize that? They’ve got two ends where you’re not going to have any electrical conductivity. So now let’s say you just throw in a bunch of wires. Nothing’s going to happen, right. In order to restore electrical conductivity, you’d have to solder each one into place. So the same is true biologically. If we just throw in a bunch of cells they’re going to die. OK. So we need them to survive, and then we need them to integrate, we need them to become part of that host neural circuitry. And in fact, they need to survive long enough to integrate, and they have to, in fact, integrate in order to survive.
So this hydro-gel that I introduced to you, it turns out it promotes cell survival and cell integration into the retina. And I was just going to show you hopefully one piece of data, which is this one, where our cells are all labelled in green, so it’s a green fluorescent protein. We inject them into what’s called the subretinal space. So turns out we don’t have a subretinal space, but right between the RPE and photoreceptor layer, we inject the cells, and we inject them there because that’s where they need to be. But we needed our cells in order to integrate, to migrate from that subretinal space into what’s called the outer nuclear layer, and that’s shown in blue. And so when we got these data, we were really excited, because it showed that the cells were surviving, that’s why they’re green, and it showed they were integrating. Now I have to tell you, in the past six months, the field has realized that some of the green we see here might be due to protein transfer, because the green is a protein. And so it might not all be cell integration, it might just be protein transfer.
So we don’t understand everything about this system yet. But what we were excited to see, in fact, was that we did get some vision repair. So what you see here is, imagine like we are in a dark room, and now – it’s nice to imagine in the middle of winter – that we’re going out to a bright, sunny, warm beach. OK, so you come from a hot, a dark room, and you’re going to the bright sunny beach. So what would happen to your pupil? It would constrict, right. So it goes from being very big to very small. And that’s what we did. This is a mouse model of blindness. And we shine a very bright light on the eyes, and the blue line is our control, that’s the left eye, and the right eye is the eye that has the cells transplanted into it. And what you can see, and this is the dilated area, so you can see at 100% dilation, the left eye is not responding to that bright light at all, whereas the right eye is responding. And it goes down to about 85% dilation. So that’s pretty cool, because it shows some functional repair. But I do also want to let you know that in a wild-type mouse, so a normal mouse, the dilation area would go down to about 20%. OK, so obviously it’s not going to go to zero, because you still have to see.
So it demonstrates, then, that we’ve achieved some repair, but there also demonstrates that there’s further research for us to do. OK, so I think what’s exciting, then, is to think about every tissue and organ in our body, and to realize that people are doing research all over the world in these areas.
It’s great for me to be at the University of Toronto, because it’s really a hub of stem cell biology and fantastic medical research, so I have great collaborators. But I wanted to tell you a little bit about research that is not my own research, but related, and this relates to what’s called chimeras. So, if you’ve heard of a chimera, yes? So I looked it up and it’s a fire-breathing female monster. OK, so I’m not happy that it was a female monster. But look how special our female monster is. It’s got a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail. OK, so it’s something that’s hoped or wished for, but in fact is illusory or impossible to achieve – until now.
So what was just published in January of this year in a journal called Cell – and this is the lead author from the Salk Institute in California – but this research has been going on for at least 40 years. Not just by by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte but by people all over the world. But here we have a rat, and what they did is they took stem cells from the rat, pluripotent stem cells, and injected them into the blastocyst – so this is the early embryo of the mouse – and put that in a mouse, and they developed a chimera. So that is a mouse that has part of its organs from the rat. And they knew that because they used different – they could identify rat cells distinctly from mouse cells.
They tried doing the same thing in a pig. So they’ve got these pluripotent stem cells from the rat, they inject those into the blastocysts of a pig. So this is the early embryo – it didn’t work. So those two species are too far apart. They tried with human into rat or mouse, it didn’t work. But they tried with human into pig and cattle – so human pluripotent stem cells injected into the blastocyst of the pig –, and there was some evidence of chimerism. OK, not very much, not nearly as much as they had here. But this suggests that it could be possible to grow human organs in animals.
And so I’m just setting you up with so many great ethical issues. Janet Rossant is an investigator here at the University of Toronto, she now leads the Gairdner Canada, and she spoke on CBC Ideas just last week or the week before, I think was January 30th, so if you’re interested in learning more about this – it was a public lecture, it’s on the radio – if you just Google Janet Rossant CBC Ideas, it’ll come up and you can listen to the podcast. It’s not that long and it’s fascinating. And she also highlights some of the issues.
I wanted to tell you about another technology that’s really come to the fore in the past year, and 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, even, 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. And this is currently illegal in Canada. So, as I said, it’s not controversial to edit somatic cells, so these are the non-reproducing cells, but it has – it is controversial with the dividing cells.
OK, so I was going to show you a movie, and I think this was the one video I made sure worked. Research2Reality is a social media campaign that I co-founded with a feature film producer, Mike McMillian, and we’ve produced a series – like, over actually 120 videos. This is just one, and I want to show you because it relates to heart disease. So not my research either, but –
“It’s vital to your existence. It’s the core of how your body functions. It drives you. The heart beats in each part of us. Canadian university researchers are making a difference. They’re exploring ways to grow heart cells in labs for transplantation and drug screening. They are investigating whether genetics holds the answer to Sudden Death Syndrome. They are transplanting hearts in other newborns to keep them alive. Canadian university researchers are keeping our hearts healthy. Come meet them.”
OK, so I’m almost done. I just wanted to highlight the importance of the community in our working together [in] the area of regenerative medicine. And there’s obviously laws, and the government provides a lot of funding, the clinicians, hospitals, patients, business, scientists, everybody comes together, the population in lots of different sectors comes together. I want to acknowledge the support I’ve had of my family and also my lab – so my mom Dorothy, I don’t have to just show a picture, because she’s right here – you can wave, wave! (laughs)– and my father, who unfortunately passed away a number of years ago. My brother Richard and Brian, my husband Kevin, and our two sons, who are now teenagers. And then mentors at U of T, Michael Sefton and Mitch Winnick.
And then these are just former graduate students and post-doctoral fellows with whom I’ve had the privilege to work. And this is the lab today. And so all of these students are doing fantastic work. These are actually all of our collaborators, so we work in a number of different areas, and, you know, I had the opportunity to tell you little bit about our research and regenerative medicine, so ta-da, thank you.
Pekka Sinervo: So, thank you, Molly. And this is actually setting the stage. So we’re going to set the stage a bit more by having Molly and Professor Novak, Rabbi Landsberg, come up and begin a conversation about what this all means. You know, we talked about this as being about artificial life. You guys can come on up.
[…] Science Fiction. But we’ll actually tell you what really is going on, how far we have gone in terms of that. Professor Novak, Rabbi Landsberg, 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? So who would like to actually take the first – Rabbi?
David Novak: First names.
Pekka Sinervo: I’ll call him Professor. OK, David. Deborah.
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 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?
Pekka Sinervo: And so, David, you know the the ethical issues that we actually start having to deal with, how do you actually sort of think about them?
David Novak: Well, 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 the ark 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? If this is being done to help disease – I mean, so that macular degeneration will be slowed down, or that certain genetic disorders, maybe we can have something where we can eliminate Tay-Sachs, which would [please] a lot of Jews. Then I can say it is justified.
It is justified if – and you mentioned stem cell. I was one of the few Jewish ethicists who objected to the use of embryos for stem cell research. Now it’s become a moot point because placentas and other things, because the fetus, even before 40 days, has, at least, the right to life, and I can prove that out of the Jewish tradition. But it’s become a moot point. But then the question becomes: is the motivation to rectify an existing condition – which would be, simply, are we allowed to treat disease? Yes, of course. We have an obligation to do it […]. OK. But is the motivation basically to be creative? Is the motivation to basically create a superspecies or whatever? That, I think, is something that one is not going to be able to get a strictly Halachic answer [for] because there are no precedents for it.
But I think that the notion, for example, the prohibition of creating a new species, issur k’layim, seems to be, if you understand some of the sources that deal with it, is the fact of attempting to basically play God, that to create something new, not because it’s needed, but because it is a sense of our human power. And in that sense, I think that I have a ethical, not necessarily or a Halachic problem, but a more generally ethical problem with that. But as long as we’re not destroying existing human life – then we have to decide how we decide the criteria for that. That’s interesting in and of itself, because the people who were arguing that the fetus, the embryo, before 40 days, did not have human status, were based upon biology from about the second century BCE, which has clearly been refuted.
So people who are arguing very scientifically, we’re plugging into science that was used by the Talmud that clearly is wrong. And Maimonides says that when it comes to science we should follow the current science. So in that way this is creative, but just a final point. It happens to be now at U. Of T. I’m teaching a course, they turned into a first year course, which is kind of interesting, called “The Taking of Human Life in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions.” 120 students enrolled in the course. There, one of the things I have to emphasize, we’re talking about abortion, we’re talking about euthanasia, and we’re talking about war later on – But especially abortion, euthanasia in a sense – Science does not give us moral norms.
Science does not give us moral norms. Science – 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. My son-in-law, who is a very distinguished neurosurgeon, and also a pretty good Talmudist as well, has been very critical – and he’s an Orthodox Jew. He’s very critical of people on the right who are dealing with such things as life-and- death issues that basically, he said, they just don’t know the science. And he considers it irresponsible that they are basically applying law in areas where they haven’t properly diagnosed the situation. Anyway, I’ve talked too long.
Pekka Sinervo: No, you haven’t talked too long. If you want to pass it over – but you’re actually making the point that, in fact, there are some parallels between creation and destruction. There are, and is there anything that gives us any guidance on the current debates that are taking place around medically assisted death or dying? Does that actually help inform the question about when does it become not OK to be the creator?
Debra Landsberg: Can I simply say no? The questions around medically assisted dying really fall within the category of what are the parameters that we have, in short, in our lives. We have restrictions on what we are allowed to do, as we are alive. And the restrictions around ending life early, what that says about the nature of human life, what that says about our relationship with God, those are the questions, and very often the questions are, you know, we hit them at the beginning and at the end, we know that. It seems a separate – again, I’m, I guess, bringing in that, where science fiction and Aggadah are somehow becoming medical reality or science reality. The separate question of life that is created now. Is it human life? Because if it’s human life, then the parameters around medical assistance in dying, and Halacha around that, and Jewish understanding around that, would come into play, but if it’s not fitting within that category, then it’s a very separate kind of endeavor. There are lots of forms of life that aren’t human life, and so different aspects of Jewish law and thinking come into play, depending on how we understand what it is that’s being created here.
Pekka Sinervo: So an example of what’s actually being created – human organs. The chimera example, not real at the moment, but maybe it’s around the corner. What do we do, then – that’s OK?
Debra Landsberg: Eeeeeh… I probably need the scientists to explain it a little further, and then the philosopher to get it right, but creating organs – there’s the purpose of saving and improving life – pikuach nefesh, saving of a life – it expands beyond the simple “Someone is at the edge of death, what can you do to save their life?”. To heal blindness is saving a life. To cure from illness that debilitates fits within that category of much that one is allowed to do, and Jewishly commanded to do, in order to improve and heal and cure, so that if we’re looking at organs, it’s not a question of “Is this a human life or not?” this is “what is it we manipulate in the physical world in order to fulfill the obligation to care for a life, for human life, as it were?”.
Pekka Sinervo: So one of the– Molly, would you want to say something about that?
Molly Shoichet: Well, I think it’s – there’s just so much more science that I didn’t present. So it’s obviously much more complicated. You know, we had Dolly, the sheep that was [cloned], and when that happened, I think, in 1996, everybody wondered about cloning humans. There’s a lot that we cannot do in Canada, so we can’t do any of the gene editing in Canada, we can’t do any of the chimerism – the human chimerism work in Canada.
So there’s a lot that’s currently illegal in Canada. And so, I’m not sure that’s necessarily an ethical debate, but it’s – you can think about, not just how we’re stopping Canadians from doing that research, but maybe stopping Canadians from receiving the beneficiary of those tissues and organs. And you know, I probably presented this in the context of injury and disease, where my understanding is is that we could all see the benefit in that. But there are so many interesting things, you know. What happens if the pig’s brain is human? You know, so that’s interesting. It’s not possible right now, but it does just lead you to think about, well, what defines a human, even, right? So there’s lots of really interesting discussion.
Pekka Sinervo: Well, is there any – from a Halachic point of view, David, you said someone who comes in and sounds like a human, acts like a human, talks like a human, or, sorry – sounds like a Jew, acts like a Jew, behaves like a Jew, has to be accepted as a Jew until…?
David Novak: Until there becomes a question of their yichus, of their pedigree, where they come from. That’s when one has to ask questions. Before I became – in the first half of my career life, I was a pulpit rabbi. Also a rabbi, a chaplain in a federal mental hospital in Washington. But I was, you know, in the trenches, so to speak. And, you know, there were these type of questions, and when somebody, let’s say, joined the congregation, wanted to be part of the congregation, we didn’t ask questions. And usually, let’s say, if they were a convert they usually were more than happy to show you the certificate that they were given, because they wanted to be above and beyond.
However, when they came, for example, with their child, or they themselves were the child to be married, or whatever, then we had to ask questions that we didn’t have to ask whether they could be, you know, counted in the minyan or not. So I mean, there are these types of answers, and the question of yichus, the question of pedigree, the question of who your father and who your mother were, is something that is part of nature, and is something that’s taken very very seriously by, you know, the Jewish tradition. So it’s not a question of yes or no, it’s a question of “under what circumstances do we have to have a further definition of who can function as a human being?” And there are cases where people can function in one area, and they cannot function in another. But as I say, I think that the more important question is, you know, what is the motivation there?
And there’s another factor that hasn’t been mentioned here and I can speak from personal experience here in Canada. And that is the political factor. We have the ethical factor, the political factor. You kind of alluded to it a bit. In 2006, I was appointed by then-Prime Minister Harper to a board called “Assisted Human Reproduction Canada,” AHRC. This was designed to deal with the human reproduction act that [had been] passed by parliament, the bylaws had not been passed, and we were to advise – we had a very distinguished group of people, we had a scientific advisory board over and above that. And we were really making great progress, because we really need some standards, you know, here. We have some in Canada, but they’re not coordinated well, et cetera, et cetera.
Well, you know what? Our neighboring province of Quebec challenged the fact that there could be federal jurisdiction in this area. It went to the Supreme Court of Canada, that sat on it for 18 months, one of the longest cases they ever sat on, and they basically killed our panel. And they killed our panel because of political considerations, which means that it should go to the provinces. Which means if you can’t, you know, get IVF here in Toronto, so get on a plane to Winnipeg or Halifax, or whatever. In other words it’s total – [what] we call hefkerut, it’s total anarchy, it’s total bedlam, in terms of – this is where politics basically interfered not only with science but politics – bad politics – interfered with the proper ethical deliberation on what we’re supposed to be doing with them. And I think that’s a factor that we have to very much take into consideration.
Pekka Sinervo: OK, now, Molly, you said that much of what is really a little bit out there is actually illegal in Canada, but not illegal elsewhere necessarily. And so, I’m not sure if everyone in the room here is familiar with who makes those laws, who defines it to be legal or not, but –
Molly Shoichet: So, in 2002 the Canadian government struck up a scientific advisory committee through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and they put forward guidelines to the Canadian government, or suggested, and then the Canadian governments – so I’m not sure who in the government made that, probably Health Canada, somewhere there, and that’s where the laws were enacted. And there is – so we are allowed to work with human embryonic stem cells in Canada, but it has to go through what’s called the Stem Cell Oversight Committee, and that still exists today. But there are actually – and I do have it here, but you know, it’s very clear – mostly clear in terms of what you can do and what you cannot do with embryonic stem cells and research, and then also just with gene editing. So there are laws.
But I would say, you know, also in the United States, there’s very clear laws nationally in the United States about what you can do with embryonic stem cells or pluripotent stem cells, but then all the states have their own laws. And so if you’re not [leaving] the United States, as long as you’re not using federal grant funds, you can use state grant funds – so, still publicly funded research. And so, you know, it’s created a lot of, I’d say, confusion, but people will be very clear in terms of where they’re using funds, so that they are following the law. So it’s not just in Canada, where it’s been a little bit confusing.
Pekka Sinervo: Well, this may not be an easy question to answer, but do you feel, as a scientist, that the system is working, in that does it allow you to actually answer the questions that you think are most important, or that they are actually placing unreasonable constraints?
Molly Shoichet: Well, I think, so again, the CRISPR CAS-9 and the chimerism, that’s not my own research. But if I can try and speak a little bit for the community, I would just say that because we’re not allowed to do any of that research in Canada, we cannot, then, be at the forefront of that research. So that, you know, the research is all about creating knowledge, but then it’s what you can – when you have that knowledge, it’s what you can do with that knowledge. And that can ultimately impact the patient population. So it probably is worthwhile for the government, for the scientists, to get together again, because those laws are 15 years old now, and the science has just, I would say, surpassed where the laws were designed 15 years ago. And so it’s probably worthwhile re-examining those and seeing what the consequences are of just saying no to everything.
Pekka Sinervo: Well, Rabbi, do these issues actually come across your desk in the synagogue?
Debra Landsberg: No – I would say in the synagogue, the questions that come across my desk are probably ones that aren’t on the cutting edge. It’s actually the way in which science or medicine and Jewish law have already interacted and come to a settled place. I have congregants who still want to know if organ donation is allowed. And where we are, there’s a lot of clarity. Organ donation is not new. There’s not necessarily agreement across the Jewish spectrum, but where we are now, there is clarity, but it’s also something immediate in people’s lives. The questions about assisted reproductive technology – it’s there and available.
Even in doing a simple search, a Halachic search, on issues around this, around cloning, around artificial life. Until there’s choleh l’faneinu, until there’s someone sick in front of us and it’s immediate, until the science is at hand, it’s all still theoretical. And the Halachic questions, usually I’d say, are not resolved in advance of the science. Human cloning – most of what I mugged up on for tonight, should deal with, well, if someone actually can clone themselves, will they have fulfilled the obligation to be fruitful and multiply? Because if so, then there’s a whole lot of leeway as to what one is allowed to do. But if it isn’t fulfilling another mitzvah, then one’s doing it for other purposes, then what are the parameters around allowing that, if it doesn’t have that Jewish impulse, or Halachic impulse, behind it?
So in my – there are some wonderful articles about whether robots can be human, Halachically, as it were. I mean, they’re fun, at this point, but for so much of the questions, you’re not going to get a definitive answer and, you know, generally, I’m not getting the congregants asking me the fun questions yet.
Pekka Sinervo: One of the topics that this actually can go down, and has been very much in the news in the last number of months, has been machine learning and artificial intelligence – the possibility of actually creating something that actually has consciousness that is, in fact, just artificial. There was, earlier, the discussion of – old discussion – about what used to be called the Turing test, if you can actually – if you could have a conversation with something, and you cannot be vis-a-vis convinced that they’re not human, then you’ve found something that’s one operative definition of consciousness. And that doesn’t seem that far away, along with all of this tissue engineering. So no, we’re not talking about a robot any longer, we’re actually talking in the context. We’re talking about something that may be, you know, the cells and tissue and so on – that may in fact be all artificial. Are we anywhere near? You know, is this just science fiction? Molly? (laughs)
Molly Shoichet: I mean I think it’s science fiction now, I don’t think we’re anywhere near there, but do I think it’s possible? Yes. And probably, you know, I’m not sure that’s possible in my lifetime, but in a lifetime, probably. Yeah, the science is really, you know, I have to tell you, working every day – well, actually I don’t work in the lab, but I work with scientists in the lab, and you know, sometimes you think, “wow, this is taking a really long time,” and it does, it takes a really long time, but the field, because you have thousands, or tens and hundreds of thousands, of people working around the world, it actually is moving quite quickly. And so, I do think it’s possible, it just depends on what’s allowed, right, and then what people are gonna work on.
I don’t know about the – I think, well, I don’t know as much about machine learning. Machine learning is, you know, it’s this idea that a machine can learn. (OK, so that’s a really bad way of defining something). But you know, you have a computer, and it does one thing. And then by doing that one thing, it gets a new input, and it realizes oh, it doesn’t have to do that one thing again. It can learn from that input and now have a different and perhaps a better response. And that’s this idea of machine learning.
And so that’s been used in face recognition, voice recognition, we see it in our cellphones with Siri – you know, you can ask Siri questions and hopefully her answers get better. But there’s lots of – and remember, there was Watson, I.B.M. had Watson, and Watson beat the guy on Jeopardy – like those are, I’d say, simple examples of machine learning, but there’s a lot of that. So I don’t know, but I still think that’s actually really far away, and maybe further away than the biology, as far away as the biology is now.
Pekka Sinervo: Well, so this is actually – maybe it’s getting to be one of the final questions, and I’m going to actually direct it to David. Stephen Hawking, a couple of years ago, said that – the quote is “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” So, in the same way that the development of the atomic bomb could also tell the end of the human race, is this a similar sort of thing?
David Novak: No. Frankly, I suppose I should examine what he said, because on the surface, I don’t see any evidence for it, even in terms of artificial intelligence. The very first input – it seems to me that at some point some human being programmed this whatever to answer these type of questions and whatever.
But let me tell a joke. And the joke, I think, is very illustrative of a general Jewish approach. Those of us who are engaged in Jewish research know of the program, computer program, at Bar Ilan University in Israel. It’s amazing, they can track down all kinds of responses and whatever. It’s a marvelous, marvelous tool. It was Google before there was Google.
OK. Now, they tell the following story, and this illustrates my point. The computer is to be dedicated at Bar Ilan. And there’s a ceremony, people are there and whatever, it’s to be dedicated, this is kind of artificial intelligence, and they’re going to choose the leading rabbinical scholar to pose a question to the computer. So Rabbi so-and-so, you know, very very learned, [asks] a complicated type of question, and, you know, they type it into the computer. Nothing. Blank. “Check the electricity and whatever!” “Call the guy in Jerusalem who sold this to us, it’s faulty!”. The guy, he’s there anyway, he comes immediately. “I can’t understand it – I mean all the circuits are in place – I can’t understand why this machine is not working!”.
Finally, a first year student says, like in David challenging Goliath, you know, “let me ask the question.” “You? They didn’t answer Rabbi So-and-so and you’re going to ask a question? Well all right, OK, we have nothing to lose.”
He asks a question. His answer to the question is “why did you not answer Rabbi so and so’s question?” All of the sudden the lights go off, bobobom, and out comes the answer. There is a principle in the Talmud called “hamoreh halakhah lifnei rabba chayei mita” – “he who answers a Halachic question in the presence of his teacher deserves to die.” You know, it’s a terrible thing. In other words, the computer knew enough Halacha to know that they were not to answer if Rabbi So-and-so should answer the question.
So in other words, questions are reduced ultimately, if not immediately, resolved by human beings offering judgment and granted. Now, granted, we can get all these calculations and whatever and get the sources together, but the judgment is done by human beings, and as far as I’ve heard, artificial intelligence, yes, but some way, the input, at some beginning point, there has to be human input, and I would suggest, in a general ethical sort of way, is that anything – whether it’s the atomic bomb or artificial intelligence – that we’ve lost control over means that, basically, the product is taking over the maker. And that’s the definition of idolatry. The idolater is somebody who makes something, and then the product basically dictates to the maker, when it should be the other way around.
Pekka Sinervo: OK. Now we wanted to give 10 or 15 minutes for any questions from the audience. And we were thinking about sending out cards and people could write the question down, but we’re a small enough group that why don’t we try to just raise your hand and ask your question. I think we’ll pass the microphone so that everyone can hear the question.
[Question: Halachic artifical intelligence presents a binary between humans and the artificial. But how might we/Judaism adapt to it?]
Molly Shoichet: I can’t answer that. (laughs)
Debra Landsberg: You’ll get a better answer once David actually reflects on it, I have no doubt. It seems to me that we’ve encountered that evolution and changes that have happened, and Halacha and Jewish understanding, I would say, reflect that. It depends on how one understands – the Halachic process, I think, would determine how one answers your question. So from where I sit, I would say that I would imagine we would see Halachic deciders coming in with decisions when there is a shared understanding of humanity, of whatever the changes have, how it has been integrated in.
So I say so much of what, in reading around, the questions are so often posed as science-y fiction, fiction-y science. You know, if we really discover that the Golem creature that Rava created wasn’t a man at all, why? Because he didn’t have the power of speech, the understanding. Not like a deaf-mute, who has a faulty mouth (is what the Rabbis say), but who has still the understanding. “If we discover that dolphins have that intellectual understanding, will we one day describe dolphins Halachically as human?” Is one of the questions out there. Now, to me, I look at that and think, “I don’t really think so,” but I imagine that as we go along the science process and re-understand humanity, I will be surprised by the Halachic decisions that come out.
Pekka Sinervo: David?
David Novak: Yeah, I mean, I’m somewhat suspicious of those who kind of predict. In fact, there are some people now are calling themselves trans-human, you know, where they’re going to fast forward evolution. And I’m suspicious of it, especially as a Jew. I think that we Jews, based upon our fairly recent experience, should be very suspicious of creations of super-races, because what happens is that those who consider themselves to be beyond therefore demote everybody else in terms of their argument. So I think that we should be very very – a lot of that was the use of pseudoscience, social Darwinism, all of that sort of thing. And this is very much, you know, the case, so so therefore in terms of that. But very clearly, I mean, even if dolphins could communicate with us, because certain people believe they already do, the fact is that a human being is somebody who comes from other human beings, or even cloned, even from one other human being. People say that that is human as well – there might be other certain other problems there. So therefore, this is a different species. And since, according to Halacha, we’re not allowed to eat dolphins, and we’re not allowed to kill anything just for fun, then, I think that the question would be that, you know, we should help dolphins, preserve the species or whatever, but we can’t marry them, and there’s no problem of our eating them.
So, you know, that is it. But I just think that we – these are all interesting questions, and I’m sure that a lot of science begins with one’s imagination, and that’s wonderful. But I just think that we have more important problems, like helping people who have macular degeneration. Now that’s something that we can actually do something about in some way or other, so it’s a question of, also, the allocation of our resources. How much should we be allocating for this, when actually we should be more concerned about feeding people who are hungry? And that’s an ethical question too, it’s a question of what we call distributive justice. How much are you going is it in our interests to promote this sort of thing?
So these are the type of questions that we – I just want to make one point about Halacha though. Halacha and Jewish ethics are not totally synonymous. That is, Halacha is a necessary condition, that one cannot say that a Jew ought to do something or ought not to do something if it contradicts Halacha. But there are things that clearly are Halachically permissible, usually because there’s no precedent to to prohibit them, which still, for ethical reasons, ought not to be done. And there are things that are not Halachically mandated that ought to be done. So Halacha is, and I would consider it to be an overall Jewish moral ethical position, is we call a sine qua non. It’s something that you cannot trump. (That’s a verb, by the way – that’s the only laugh I’m getting in class these days. You can’t tell jokes anymore in class).
Halacha clearly is the bottom line, but there is more to Jewish ethics that governs our relations with other people than just Halacha. There’s a wonderful statement of the Ramban Nachmanides, who died in 1270: “why does the Torah command us Kadoshim to you? You should be holy, you should sanctify your life. Don’t ALL the commandments do that?”
And he said because a person can be Naval Birshut Ha’Torah. A person can find all kinds of Halachic precedents and do things that are grossly immoral from a more general Jewish, and even general, perspective.
Pekka Sinervo: You had a question?
Guest: Seeing as Dolly the sheep was created through cloning and not through natural reproduction, and talking about feeding the hungry, if she had been taken to a shachat, would she have been kosher to eat?
Debra Landsberg: Well, this shachat, yes. (Laughter)
Someone in the audience: Dolly gestated inside another sheep, is that correct?
Debra Landsberg: Right. So, general Halachic principle – whatever you’re born of, that you are. If you’re born of a sheep, you are a sheep. So therefore, looking at how it first started is not the, I’d say, the Halachic question. It was – she was, Dolly was born of a sheep, so therefore she, as long as she’s slaughtered in all of the proper way like any other sheep, she could be my dinner. (Laughter) My daughter is not here, OK, I can say that.
[Question about marrying a couple of unknown heritage, and thinking about genetics in new ways other than generationally]
David Novak: That becomes a problem, there are categories of people who cannot marry. There’s the question of the Shtuke nasuke, somebody who cannot identify their father, the foundling, someone who cannot identify their father and their mother, there are ways and ways of dealing with that. Because clearly, I mean the one thing is, it’s not the problem of somebody who was – clearly they did have a father and a mother. And there are ways and ways, and very specific sort of ways, of dealing with this.
This actually became a big problem after the Second World War ended, when you had all kinds of Jewish orphans and whatever. And there are ways and ways of dealing with this, so that people are not, as it were, left high and dry. But a question that is something that requires we call casuistry. In other words, you have to look at the case, see which principles apply, and it cannot be really be answered in the abstract. I can only tell you the tradition, the Halachic tradition, is not to leave people in a position where that they can’t lead a normal human life. And as I say, there are, you know, ways and ways of dealing with, but here again, it becomes, you know, a question of, you know, if there is some question of the person’s background, then it has to be dealt with.
I’ll give you an example that I had as a rabbi. Somebody comes and we discover that their mother had been not Jewish, and either had not been converted at all or had been converted in a way that was unacceptable Halachically. Now, there are two ways you can approach that. I’ve heard of horror stories where Rabbi will tell somebody who all their life thought they were Jewish “you’re not Jewish and you’ve got to enroll in a conversion class.” What I did as a rabbi, I said, “Look, you are Jewish, but you missed a technicality. Let’s take care of this technicality as soon as possible so you can get on with your life.”
Of the people that I told that to, 90% of them thanked me. And the one who didn’t thank me had a lot of other problems that were not there. So the Jewish tradition is compassionate, but it’s compassionate in an intelligent sort of way. It’s not just OK, you know, we’re going to do it. Because these are important questions, where people need answers that are not just “how I feel about it”, but that “I have a whole tradition there that has principles but also leaves a good deal to human judgment on how they are to be applied.” And that would be, you know, a case thereof and thereto.
Pekka Sinervo: OK. One last question and – Elli.
Elli: Thank you. First of all, I’ve heard of a case where a woman was to get an artificial heart valve, and she found out that the heart valve was coming from a pig. So she was very concerned, and she called her rabbi, and the rabbi assured her that it was OK. Right, is that Halachically supported?
David Novak: Yeah, I would think so. That is not – I mean, she’s not ingesting it, and she actually could – if it would save her life, she could ingest it. But as I say these are, you know, a number of problems which, you know, do arise, and we can talk about them generally, but inevitably what happens, I’ve known this, when I talk about biomedical ethics, is people raise very specific type of cases. And all I can indicate to them are some kind of general guidelines. But these are the type of cases where you don’t give a prescription until you’ve diagnosed the patient. But in that case, generally, I would think that I would give you the same answer.
Elli: OK. My next point is, of course, one question, oh no, this is a multiple level. OK, very quickly. The new CRISPR technology that, Molly, you referred to in your very interesting report, would enable us to create human – create living things that are not like anything that exists today. Am I correct?
Molly Schoichet: Yes. Yeah, because the CRISPR technology can also be combined with the chimerism technology, so you could do gene editing on the embryo. So I don’t know actually, yeah, presumably, yeah, think so.
David Novak: Can I just add one point to that – the use of the term “create,” there’s a Hebrew verb to create that’s called bara’ or bore. The only subject of that verb is God. None of this is creation, yesh me-ayin, Ex Nihilo, from nothing. It is taking something that’s there and developing it and whatever. And we’re certainly permitted to do that. You know, somebody just asked me in class yesterday, “are we allowed to interfere with nature that God has created?” I said yes, because we, you know, plow the field, we are also interfering to a certain extent with creation. The question becomes, number one, are we doing this for a constructive rather than a destructive purpose, and are we simply doing this to show how smart and clever and creative we are? – and I think that creativity belongs in art rather than science. Artists create, I think, for their own sake. I don’t think that scientists – I can’t see this as a standard, of creating something just for the sake of showing how smart, or our ingenuity. Now we might dispute about that, but anyway.
Pekka Sinervo: Molly, do you want to comment on this issue…?
Molly Schoichet: Well first of all, I just want to say that I think scientists are very creative. We have to approach problems with new ideas, which I think is creativity. That’s very creative.
David: But that’s not creativity. Use your terms precisely.
Molly Shoichet: Well, there’s creation, there’s creativity, which is ascribed to artists. So that’s it. Anyway, so maybe we won’t debate this now.
Pekka Sinervo: Well I must say I strongly agree with Molly’s perspective on the creativity of science. But Rabbi –
Debra Landsberg: I wanted – if you wanted to take a moment to clarify about the word “creativity” or “creation,” I want to just take, I guess, a moment and say, Halachically, by Jewish law and self-understanding, we are not reduced to our genes. And as so much of what’s talked about is “what are we doing if we’re mixing genes or splicing this or that,” that our physical body, down to the gene pool, does not define us in our entirety, and Halachically does not define us. And so – completely? No. Look at who’s identified as a mother in terms of a lot of the artificial reproductive technologies. There’s often a distinction between Halachic parentage and biologic, genetic parentage. And maintaining that awareness, that “who we are” – I would sit here and say, [is] impacted by, completely flows through, but isn’t limited to the material. So I find a lot of this science as exciting with its medical potential. But framing it in that context, I think, is still important, so we don’t start thinking “I will end up as a sheep-man or a sheep-woman if I have a sheep valve in my heart.” There’s a misunderstanding of the self.
Pekka Sinervo: OK, so we’re now sort of out of time, it doesn’t mean that we’re done. Judy Libman is going to say few words to close. Before I ask Judy to come up, I’d just like a round of applause for our three presenters. And of course, we have refreshments at the back, and I would encourage everyone who has question or more to talk about with the presenters or with anyone else in the room, to stick around and hang out, but Judy, to close up.
Judy Libman: Thank you. So this is particularly wonderful, because when Pekka and I started dreaming up what this series of “Seven Days of Creation”, imagined in the realms of different science relating to each of the themes of the days of creation, and looking at how Jewish thought intersected with those ideas in science, we had a wonderful time dreaming up each of these days and each of these ideas. And it’s – there is something very fulfilling and wonderful, to sit here and hear one of these actually happen.
And I think tonight was a wonderful example of that. You know, to have the wonderful science, presented by you, Molly, and to have, Deborah, your rabbinic perspective, and David, your ethical and philosophical and Halachic perspective. This was really the fruition of what we were hoping to bring about. I also think that as part of the discussion, what we really were hearing is that the way the focus shifted into the idea of things that were in the applied science mode also reflects a certain Jewish value towards social justice, and the idea of Tikkun Olam and healing, and so we really went into those areas, where in fact, Pikuach Nefesh, there’s not really a lot of concern that healing or medical technologies towards healing diseases or deficits is really wrong in any sense.
But your last point, David, around the creativity in science, I want to kind of hang a question out there, and we’re not going to have time to talk about it tonight – but the issue for me is also about the pure science, the science for its own sake. And a very recent development in genetics, where at least one group has put together a genome that is entirely artificial, entirely synthetic DNA. In fact those of you who remember your grade 11 biology, and some of you maybe I taught grade 11 biology to, that instead of the four bases of DNA, the synthetic genome that has been created in this lab actually has six bases, two that don’t exist in nature, and that the group that put it together actually put their – they encoded the DNA with their own names, and the names of their wives, and, I believe, a quotation from something, and were able to assemble a genome that could be functional in a cell, which was entirely made in the lab. So the idea that for – not for something in an applied setting, but something that’s really more of a thought experiment brought to life, literally, in the lab, does that create a new kind of challenge? Is that the biological equivalent of a Tower of Babel, in a language that we really shouldn’t go there? And that’s a whole other – if we have another 45 minutes, I would love to kick that one around with you, because I think that would be fascinating.
But in that, guys, we’re going to really explore some other topics. The next one in our series is going to be on April 20th, correct, Thursday April 20th, so it’s after Pesach, and it’s going to be day four of creation, which is the day that of the of the Beresheit tells us that the planets and the stars were put into Heavens, am I right about that? And so, what we’re going to talk about is the discovery of planets in other solar systems, and the possibility that there is life elsewhere in the universe, and if it is discovered, if it is possible that there is life on other planets, that’s a different creation story. And what happens to our understanding of God, and our understanding of Beresheit and our understanding of rate of creation if it turns out that Star Trek was right?
So we really hope that you will join us for that. We are looking forward to it very much. There’s also another thing that I would like to, in addition to thanking our wonderful speakers, I have to thank our wonderful Pekka Sinervo, because you were a wonderful moderator, and you didn’t even have a chair, so you stood the whole time. But I also want to thank Larry Rachlin, who is our, among other things at the schul, our videographer, and he’s been recording all of these sessions, and we’ll put them on our Facebook page.
And Larry has done a documentary called “Jews who Changed How We Look At Everything.” Babies, rocks, and stars, yes, everything. And he is going to be presenting this on Sunday March 19th here at Beth Tzedec at 10 AM. Breakfast will be served and it’s sponsored by the Beth Tzedec men’s club. Are some flyers here that we’d like you to take, and I’m sure that that’s going to be a wonderful presentation. Larry, thank you again for being here and helping us out. So thank you all again very very much, and we hope we’ll see you on April 20th.