Ask The Rabbis | Should We Edit Our Children’s Genes?
Maybe not edit. Maybe just proofread and add a comma or a few comments in the margin. If circumstances require, perhaps add an exclamation mark, or in a dire situation, all caps and in bold. Run-on sentences can muddle our intent, although you might get away with a semicolon. Editing was built into our creation. Even Leah edited her male fetus and turned him into a female (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 60a). And although God made men with foreskins, we were instructed to edit them. The Word of God itself has been through more editorial changes since the beginning of time than the number of base pairs in a human genome. “For the Torah is like wheat from which to derive flour; flax from which to derive cloth” (Midrash Tana D’Bei Eliyahu Zuta, Ch. 2). But remember: Not everyone is an expert enough grammarian to implement such alterations. And the author gets the last word, so if you mess up, the deal is off.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
The opportunities presented by gene editing are tantalizing. Who doesn’t want to make cancer or Tay-Sachs a thing of the past? But this new technology is not an unalloyed good. It also presents the possibility that parents will edit out so-called abnormalities like Down syndrome, deafness or autism. What is this if not a big comeback for eugenics? That stain on human history—championed by progressives and fascists alike—was a nadir of pseudo-scientific social engineering whose proponents sought to breed out those deemed unfit to live or reproduce. Nazi Germany honed its murder machine on a eugenics massacre. But it was popular here, too. In the 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld eugenics laws, resulting in more than 70,000 forced sterilizations.
We ought not to revive this disastrous scheme from the past. We have no right to such human experimentation and no idea whether by erasing one characteristic we might destroy others. Historians have identified dozens of towering figures who may have lived with autism. A return to eugenics, now conducted in the sterility of a laboratory, might just deprive us of a future Michelangelo, Mozart, Yeats or Einstein.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
Farmington Hills, MI
This question raises so many issues society is dealing with right now—identity, environment, intelligence, the power we have as parents. To have so much unexpected power over the kind of child we’ll have, what would that do to our neshamas? Gene editing to prevent or treat genetic disease is very much part of the Jewish mandate. You could consider a genetic anomaly a rodef, pursuing your child, so you’d have the obligation to remove it. But of course, it gets much more complicated. Would hearing parents want to edit the genes of their deaf children? Might deaf parents want the reverse, editing the genes of a child to be more like them? It goes to identity on a profound level, what it means to be a child of particular parents, and what it means to be the parent of future generations of that child, affecting a whole world of unknowns. My advice would be for people to take this up at their Shabbat dinner table; it’s a compelling question worthy of people’s thoughts and explorations.
Rabbi Gilah Langner
Congregation Kol Ami
Jewish bioethics has always held that we should take advantage of the very best of medical science. However, it has also withheld judgment when the consequences of a medical innovation are not yet clear. In the case of gene editing, the current techniques are much more like a sledgehammer than like a scalpel in a highly trained surgeon’s hand. You never make only the change you intended—genes are so interactive in such complex ways that we are still very far from being able to determine the overall effect of any attempted change on a person over his or her lifetime, or on future generations.
So we are far from a sound decision allowing gene editing. There is far too much risk and far too little clarity. Decades from now, the techniques and the knowledge of consequences may have improved substantially, so the position of Jewish bioethics could change. But for now, it is clear that gene editing is not an acceptable practice from the perspective of Jewish bioethics.
Rabbi David Teutsch
Center for Jewish Ethics
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
It’s not a simple yes/no question. Technology always outpaces ethics, and the religious and legal frameworks and codes we live by, almost by definition, can’t keep up; religion and law, by nature, are conservative, with committees, debates, questions, challenges, amendments and restrictions. Technologies such as gene editing, in contrast, lead us to new possibilities and unexpected discoveries. And whatever we do, there are always unintended consequences, so we may not know if we made the “right” decision for years or decades down the road.
This tension will always be present, and CRISPR technology is making it easier and cheaper for anyone to potentially gain God-like power. As a Reform rabbi, I deeply value choice and also want to ensure justice and equity. So the most important question is not “Should we edit our children’s genes?” but rather, “Who will be at the table deciding whether and how we move forward?” Our job is to ensure equitable access to this new technology, assess risks and rewards and explore complex questions of parental consent. And as we begin to “play God,” we should always focus not just on what we can do, but rather on precisely how this power can help us partner with God to make our world more whole.
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman
Sinai and Synapses
CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership
New York, NY
Less than 100 years after the demise of the Nazi regime, we Jews have reason to be skittish about genetic research and intervention. The Nazi aspiration to create a superior Aryan race has scarred us and should cause us to question genetic design. But because Judaism considers healing to be an obligation, we must explore the ways genetic interventions can and should be used. Just as medical treatment can be inappropriate or harmful at times, so too can genetic intervention. At first, you might say any research to eradicate disease is sacred work. But what do we mean by disease? Eliminating lethal or devastating diseases is a good thing, but should we eliminate deafness or blindness?
Likewise, all “enhancements” are not the same. Efforts to make our children taller or stronger athletes are easy to critique. But what if we could make them smarter, harder-working or more empathetic? Or give them a photographic memory or an aptitude for languages? When are we acting as God’s partners, and when are we pushing our agendas on God’s creation? I highly recommend the book Jews and Genes: The Genetic Future in Contemporary Jewish Thought, co-edited by Rabbi Elliot Dorff and Laurie Zoloth, which illuminates the great Jewish wisdom available as we navigate the scientific complexities of the 21st century.
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz
Temple Beth El
Do humans have the right to change a “divine decree,” that is, the order of nature? The past assumption was that being born with disabilities reflected God’s assignment of an individual fate and must be accepted. By the same logic, the Catholic Church and very traditional rabbis opposed use of artificial birth control (and all abortions) as intervention in the God-given natural order of conception and birth.
The classic view of Modern Orthodox Judaism is that humans are “partners in the work of creation,” instructed by God to perfect the world. According to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, this includes using science and medicine to enhance life, overcome handicaps and cure sicknesses. By this standard, editing genes to improve health is a mitzvah.
The issue is limits. We know that humans can act arrogantly and disturb the balance of nature: In India and China, the ability to identify chromosomes in the embryo led to many more abortions of female fetuses, causing demographic imbalance and social disruption. Halacha prohibited cross-breeding of species, apparently because, by changing species, humans are acting as if they are God and overruling the natural order rather than respecting the fundamental structures of nature. Gene editing should not be used to create blond, blue-eyed “designer babies,” of course. But once you permit the process, can you set limits and prevent abuse?
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
We have a responsibility to better our children’s lives any way we can. We educate them, send them to sports, music, art classes, all to enhance them, so is it really so different to do it through technology? We should ask, first, do we really know what we’re doing? Although we’re fairly good at using CRISPR, the gene editing tool, in the lab, in humans we’re unsure. A researcher in China said he had stopped the transmission of HIV in two babies. Apparently they’re alive, and don’t have HIV, so it worked, but we don’t know what else it may have caused. And we have safer ways to block HIV transmission, so doing this now doesn’t make much sense. But preventing HIV is a noble endeavor, and if it could have been safely done—and assuming we overcome the risks at some point—there’d be no halachic problem.
The Torah says we’re given permission to heal. The Gemara asks, why would you need permission for something as positive as healing? One answer that’s offered is that God made you sick, so at some level you’re interfering with a natural process, and for that you need permission, even for a good thing. So where does healing end and enhancement begin? You won’t find a hard line in halacha. But at some point you have to start wondering, overall, is this the ratzon ha-Torah, the will of God? Is this what God wants us to do with the technological expertise he’s given us? It’s like renting a hotel room. You can do what you like with it, but once you start moving the furniture around, you have to wonder, is that really the point of the arrangement? At some point you cross a line.
Rabbi David Shabtai, MD
Boca Raton Synagogue
Boca Raton, FL
Who doesn’t want to have only perfectly healthy babies, with impeccable features and high intelligence? While the science of gene editing is rife with moral and halachic concerns, it does inform us regarding other choices we make as parents in determining how our children will turn out.
Like genetic editing, the earliest decisions about our children’s education must occur before they even come into this world. Choosing to provide quality Jewish education at home and in school is all-encompassing; it affects every area of the child’s life. The implications of our choices as parents may not be apparent until much later in the child’s life. As with genes, the smallest details of our choices matter. We should have a clear picture of the type of family home we want, and never compromise, even if certain details early on seem insignificant. The resolve to raise Jewish children in the traditions of our ancestors is the greatest gift we can bequeath them. Instead of focusing on changing nature through genetic editing, let us nurture the children given to us by G-d to turn out as perfectly as possible.
Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov
Chabad of Northwest Indiana
As an avid sci-fi reader in my youth, I encountered dozens of potential scenarios stemming from this question. Yesterday’s fiction is quickly turning into today’s science and tomorrow’s reality, but even though we move in leaps and bounds, we should never ignore the many red flags raised by history—from the ancient Greek practice of abandoning imperfect babies, through Nazism, to monocultural crops such as bananas, now an endangered species. The question can easily turn from “editing our children’s genes,” a choice made voluntarily by parents, to “editing all children’s genes” under state-mandated regulations.
Can we accurately predict the consequences of genetic engineering on the complex organism that is the human being? Are we entitled to choose our child’s gender, height, complexion and intelligence? And even if we can determine with precision all details about the fetus, and even if all children so manipulated will be perfectly healthy, we run the risk of physical and cultural monoculturalism. I take my cue from the story of the Tower of Babel. The builders of the tower wanted to create an Orwellian, homogenous society, and God interfered by introducing the diversity of languages. I conclude that genetic engineering or editing should focus on eliminating diseases and should not wander into the dangerous realm of creating an ubermensch.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia