Understanding Biotechnology, Jewishly

Understanding Biotechnology, Jewishly

As part of his work with Scientists in Synagogues, Rabbi Dean Shapiro of Temple Emanuel of Tempe discussed the topic of creating chimeras with his 10th grade confirmation class. What does long-standing Jewish wisdom have to say about this very recent concept?

Some of the Confirmation Class knew that a chimera is a mythological animal that’s part lion, part goat, and part serpent. None knew that scientists are currently creating real chimeras – actual creatures, primarily pig, with human DNA spliced in. Their intention is to build hosts for the development of human organs, because 22 Americans die each day for lack of donor organs, according to National Geographic. What other doors will this technology unlock?

Most students in the class found the idea unsettling, even upsetting – as I expected. “There’s just something wrong with it. Who knows what might happen?” As we considered it further, we acknowledged that there would be some benefit, too. What if we were the parents of a child who needs a kidney? Wouldn’t we want the technology then?

The answers to profound questions such as these, dealing with the expanding capacity for biotechnology, will shape humanity – and life on earth – for the next several generations, if not more. Decisions cannot be left to the scientists, lawmakers and funders. Ethics must play a role in these issues – and Jewish ethics has a lot to say. As Professor Hava Tirosh-Samuelson noted in her recent lecture at Temple Emanuel that we, as active Jews have an obligation to understand the stakes and to bring our Judaism to bear on the questions.

The Confirmation students divided into working groups and were given a set of Jewish value statements. I asked them which of these statements could be used in support of the idea of a chimera, which opposed it, and which had nothing to say on the topic. It’s a first step in Jewish ethical decision making: understanding that our tradition possesses great wisdom, but that we cannot expect it to speak directly to today’s cutting-edge questions. Nor is each statement weighted equally. Instead, we must sift through them to determine which pieces are relevant and which are not, and consider how much importance to give each idea.

Here are a few of the statements the students considered. Which do you find most relevant to your thinking about the scientific chimera?

  • Pikuach Nefesh – the saving of a life – takes precedence over all other mitzvot.
  • “You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material.” (Leviticus 19:19)
  •  Keeping the body fit and healthy is part of serving God, for it is impossible to do or understand anything of the Creator’s will if one is ill. Therefore, a person should avoid whatever undermines bodily health. (Maimonides)
  • Tzaar baalei hayim: One is prohibited cause the suffering of animals and required to alleviate it.The Torah gave permission to the physician to heal; moreover, this is a religious precept and is included in the category of saving life, and if the physician withholds his services, it is considered as shedding blood. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 336:1)

Science and technology are transforming society and our very lives. We cannot be mere passengers in the process, but rather the active bearers of an important perspective with much to offer. Our tradition – the Jewish tradition – is rich with wisdom and meaning. Aleynu – it is up to us – to bring that tradition to bear on the important questions of the day.

(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 is from Temple Emanuel of Tempe. Rabbi Shapiro would like to thank Temple Emanuel member David Guston, professor and founding director of the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at ASU, for helping him craft this lesson, and Sinai and Synapses for funding his synagogue’s contemplation of science).


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