Text size

In recent years, Rabbi Dr. Yigal Shafran has been forced to cope with an immense workload. Hardly a day passes without a report from this or that group of scientists specializing in biotechnology about yet another breakthrough in the field. As a rabbi with a PhD in socioethics, he must tackle an ever-increasing number of tough questions that pose a challenge for the laws of halakha (Jewish religious law).

In their laboratories, scientists today are developing genetically engineered goats some of whose genes are human, are perfecting the technology of cloning (genetic replication), and are hoping to eventually discover what ailments a child will have while he or she is still in the womb.

All these developments have created a new reality, are changing the way people think and are raising possibilities that, up until a few years ago, no one would ever have imagined existed, especially in the eras when the Talmud and the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) were written. Halakha, which provides detailed instructions on how we should act at every moment of our lives - even to the extent of telling us which shoe, right or left, we should lace up first - now faces serious questions to which there are no unequivocal answers.

Rabbi Dr. Yigal Shafran is unique: Not only is he an expert in halakhic matters, but he is also very familiar with the ethical arguments utilized in humanistic-universal discussions. He heads the Department of Jewish Medical Ethics in the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem; is a senior teaching associate in bioethics in the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa; and is also a lecturer in medical ethics at the Hebrew University - Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem. Although he believes that science is dedicated to improving the lot of humanity, there are certain religious axioms that he will never change (for example, "There is no greater emotional distress than that of a woman who is unable to give birth"). Thus, it is not all that surprising that he supports the blood-chilling possibility of human cloning.

A major challenge to halakha is being presented by genetic research, which was accelerated in the late 1980s with the launching of the project to decipher the human genome. In the context of the stepped-up genetic research, various groups of researchers began to claim that they had found genes that influence not only physical characteristics such as the color of one's eyes, but also personality traits and behavior.

The secular gene

On the same week that the scheduled interview with Shafran was supposed to take place, researchers reported for the umpteenth time the discovery of yet another gene that might be related to personality traits. The "gene of the week" this time was the violence gene. If violence could be attributable to a gene, said Shafran, that could create a giant problem, because Maimonides tells us that all human beings have a certain degree of free choice and that they are therefore responsible for their actions.

Such research work on personality and behavioral genes is on a collision course "with the principle that the individual has free choice. A basic condition of the system of reward and punishment is the element of free choice," Shafran points out. "When the human genome project was launched and we began to hear about ideas that genes determine not only physical tendencies but also spiritual ones, I recall that I wrote a letter to a friend, who is a very, very centrally-placed rabbi. I wrote him that the French are now claiming that they have discovered a gene that is responsible for rebellion against religious concepts and that anti-religious positions can now be attributable to genes.

"In my letter, I asked, `How can this fit in with our approach that we can punish people for turning their back on the Torah and on Judaism's commandments?' Suddenly, people were beginning to argue that those who rebel against religious concepts do so because of some problem in their biopsychological mechanism. He wrote me back: `Look, this simply does not hold water, it makes no sense.' He did not believe that there were such genes.

"Undeniably, these developments create problems in the religious sphere. Answers can be found for these problems; however, it would be wrong to simply dismiss these questions as sheer nonsense. Here is a classic example. We punish two violent individuals and mete out to each of them the same punishment, although it is possible that one of them has a stronger tendency toward violence than the other. Yet we put both individuals in the same boat, hand them down the same punishment, place them in the same category of penalty. Thus, it must be admitted that the new developments in genetic research will force the rabbinical courts to place even greater emphasis on its tendency to avoid adherence to the dry letter of the law but to instead investigate and examine each matter on its own merits."

Some researchers are claiming that a gene is responsible for homosexuality. If that is the case, will you still regard homosexuality as an abomination?

"The Talmud tells us that some people have a tendency toward homosexuality but emphasizes the point that human beings have the capacity for controlling that tendency. This position is diametrically opposed to the modern view that homosexuality is an uncontrollable urge. The homosexual urge is different from the heterosexual drive, which must be satisfied at a specific stage, because it is part of human nature. The homosexual urge can be controlled. According to the religious perspective, every evil impulse can be overcome.

"Free will must be perceived as existing within a framework of limitations because everything is God's will. Free will exists up to a certain point. Let me illustrate with the example of a dog on a chain. The dog can move about, subject to the restrictions of the chain, but when the dog reaches the end of the chain, no further movement in an outward direction is possible. The same holds true for free will. All human beings have freedom of choice - within the limitations imposed by the chain."

But reading the human genome is enticing scientists to move on to the second stage, the stage of genetic engineering. Today, for example, there is a goat into whose genome a spider's genes have been inserted. The question is how many genetic changes can be made in an organism until you have actually changed its essence and transformed it into something altogether different. If a cud-chewing pig were to be created through genetic engineering, would such an animal be kosher?

Although the very idea turned Shafran's stomach, he recruited a counter-argument from the area of emotions and Jewish folklore, rather than from halakha. According to Shafran, the non-kosher nature of the pig is different from that of the camel or the rabbit: "The pig became the symbol of the denial of liberty to the Jews in their own land. The emblem of the Roman legion that captured the Holy Land was a wild boar, and this is how the ethos of the pig's negation developed."

If we were to turn a less problematic animal - say, the camel, for instance - into a hooved creature, would it then be kosher?

"If that were to happen, it is quite possible that such an animal would be kosher."

Clone and multiply

Approximately since the second century C.E., Judaism has adopted the view that a child's ethnic identity is determined by the mother's. Thus, if the mother is Jewish, so is the child. This halakhic principle has held its ground for centuries and has remained relevant even after the emergence in the 1970s of a new technology that substantially changed the options available for bringing children into the world: in vitro fertilization.

In recent years, however, matters have become increasingly complicated. Women whose ova could not be fertilized began to use a donor's ova. Reality became even more complicated when, two years ago, Israeli physicians began to import fertilized ova from women living in Romania.

Who is the mother? The woman who gave birth to the child? Or perhaps the woman from whom the ova were taken?

The answer, notes Shafran, "depends on which of four different and irreconciliable halakhic approaches is chosen." According to one of these approaches, the mother is the one from whom the ovum was taken. The result: The infant to be born will not be Jewish. Shafran points out that senior rabbinical authorities such as Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and the late Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach once issued a rabbinic ruling according to which, in a case where the ova were provided by a donor, the child belongs to the donor-mother.

However, according to Shafran, the second approach is the more widely accepted. According to this approach, the child belongs to the mother who delivered it and is therefore Jewish. According to the third approach, the child has two mothers and each of them has status with regard to certain laws. According to the fourth approach, the child has no mother, because each of them has offset the function of the other.

"In line with this approach," says Shafran, "there is no problem involved in taking an ovum from a non-Jewish woman. However, we do not like the idea of a child who has no mother." He himself is totally opposed to the importation of ova from Romania - on humanitarian grounds. This is exploitation of women in distress, he argues: "The essential fact here is that the ova are being imported from Romania." (That is, from a country that is in economic distress, and not from, say, a Western European country.)

The disagreement over donation of ova is a concrete example of the difficulties halakha faces in trying to keep abreast of the pace of changes being generated by the research of scientists and physicians. In the final analysis, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman interested in receiving an ovum donation will consult her rabbi and will act in accordance with his ruling in her case. However, strictly religious people are accustomed to receiving unequivocal answers on every detail in daily life. Thus, questions concerning ovum donation and related matters could create a serious dilemma in a religious community.

Bringing children into the world is so important from the halakhic perspective (infertility creates "supreme emotional distress in a woman's life," Shafran emphasizes) that, in his opinion, cloning is a completely legitimate method of bringing a child into the world. So far, cloning has been carried out only on animals. In the cloning process, a cell is taken from the animal to be cloned and the cell's nucleus - which contains nearly all the necessary genetic information - is inserted into an ovum whose nucleus has been removed. Generally speaking, a small electric charge is applied to the ovum in order to "glue together" the ovum and the nucleus. The ovum begins to multiply as if it had been fertilized by semen. The offspring resulting from this process will be a genetic carbon-copy of the animal that donated the cell.

The first mammal to be cloned in this manner was a sheep - Dolly. In Dolly's case, the goal of the cloning process was to replicate farm animals with selected characteristics oriented toward agricultural needs. The same is true for all the other animals that were cloned after Dolly, including goats, cows and pigs. They were cloned to create an entire series of animals with a unique genetic message (goats were cloned and genetically engineered for the purpose of producing milk containing medications, while pigs were cloned so that their organs would be suitable for human transplants).

However, approaches like that of Shafran push the cloning process into an entirely different direction. Instead of regarding the process as a means of replication, he sees it as a means of reproduction. The transformation of the cloning process into a method for reproduction creates many problems. For example, cloned children will grow up in the shadow of their "original" in whose "biological image" they were created and in the shadow of the inevitable expectations that their surroundings will burden them with. Furthermore, there will be great confusion within the family: The father will also be a "twin brother" and the grandfather will, in fact, be the "father."

Many countries are today trying to pass laws that would absolutely forbid human cloning. Yet Shafran's position in effect is not at all opposed to the law currently existing in Israel. The Israeli law has imposed a five-year moratorium on cloning; the moratorium is scheduled to end in 2004.

"We must have faith in science and we must know that science and scientists want to benefit humanity. In my opinion, cloning is part of science's desire to benefit the human race. Granted, cloning is not the best solution. The halakhic perspective is that God wanted children to be born to parents who love one another. This is what we read in Sefer Hahinukh, a halakhic text that was written 800 years ago. However, that kind of arrangement is not a solution for people who are `stuck.' What happens if ordinary methods just do not work for them? In such cases, we can make use of genetic replication. If genetic replication emerges at some stage in the future as a means of helping people for whom no other alternative can work, I would welcome that development."

But not now, because, at present, there are many dangers, correct?

"As I see things today, cloning involves so many problems that I would not want to be the one to stand up and advocate it. But I do want to be the one to stand up and call upon science to try to reach the stage where genetic cloning will be "on the shelf" for couples for whom every other alternative has failed. Cloning is more a problem of human pride - and we must curb that tendency because we do not want people to think that they are God - and less of a concrete problem that clashes with the laws of the Torah. There is no aspect of cloning that is incongruent with any explicit halakhic rule."