November 20, 2019

Parsing the Jewish genome

Jewish law holds that Jewish identity is traced through the maternal bloodline, but history cautions us against the dangers of linking blood and religion. From the Spanish Inquisition to the Third Reich, the scrutiny of one’s ancestry has been a matter of life and death for Jews and their descendants. To put it another way, what is written in the Jewish genome cannot be erased.

Elliot N. Dorff and Laurie Zoloth, the editors of “Jews and Genes: The Genetic Future in Contemporary Jewish Thought” (Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Press), are mindful of these dangers, but they insist that genetic science holds special meaning and promise for the Jewish people, a theme that is explored in fascinating and often surprising detail by rabbis, physicians, religious scholars, folklorists and bioethicists in the essays that are collected here.

Dorff is one of our own, a professor and rector at American Jewish University, a visiting professor at UCLA Law School, and a renowned expert on Jewish law and ethics. Zoloth is a professor of bioethics and humanities at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, past president of the American Academy of Religion, and a former president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. 

“Because genetic interventions hold out the promise of being the most effective line of curing diseases since the advent of antibiotics, it is no wonder that representatives of all Jewish denominations have enthusiastically endorsed embryonic stem cell research, genetic testing for diseases, and, if possible, the development of genetic cures,” Dorff and Zoloth write. “This is simply the new form of the Jewish mandate to heal.”

Healing, of course, is not the only use that can be made of genetics, and some Jews persist in looking to their genetic legacy to validate their Jewishness. Rebecca Alpert, a rabbi and professor of religion at Temple University, explains the role (as well as the limitations) of genetic research in determining what it means to be born Jewish. 

“[N]ew discoveries in genetics do not in any way suggest a single ‘Jewish gene,’ ” she explains. “But they do open up new insights about the biological dimension of our identity.” By way of example, she points out that Jews who are regarded as descendants of the priestly caste of ancient Israel, the Kohenim, “have passed on that heritage genetically for several thousand years.”

The starting point of genetic research is a stem cell that is harvested from a petri dish containing a human embryo. So we are quickly confronted with the moral question of whether the petri dish contains only “a clump of cells” or a human life whose destruction is equivalent to murder. The Jewish answer, according to Dorff and Zoloth, is that an embryo is “simply liquid” for the first 40 days of its existence and a body part of its mother for the rest of pregnancy; only at birth does the fetus “attain all the attendant protections of full persons.” This reasoning, which is embraced by both observant Jews and Muslims and by some Protestants, has “led rabbis across the denominational spectrum strongly to endorse embryonic stem cell research.”

The book leads us down some strange byways. While contemplating the claims that the native population of New Mexico includes the “crypto-Jewish” descendants of Spanish Jews who fled to the New World after the expulsion of 1492, Judith S. Neulander, co-director of the Jewish Studies Program at Case Western University, points out the dangers of categorizing someone as “Jewish by Disease” merely because they carry a genetic disorder that has come to be associated with the Jewish population. “[E]ven when Jews and non-Jews share mutations found in significantly higher numbers among Jews, the non-Jewish population is so gigantic compared to the tiny Jewish minority that the vast majority of affected people will always be non-Jews,” Neulander concludes. 

Significantly, some of the richest and most provocative essays in the collection have nothing to do with science. For example, Yosef Leibowitz, a rabbi who founded and directs the Yad Ya’akov Foundation for Jewish Education in Israel, for example, deconstructs the text of Genesis to extract the distinctions between “the nature of the human soul and the image of God within it.” Leibowitz argues that the power bestowed upon humankind by the Creator is always checked by moral boundaries, and the constant tension that exists between power and morality “lie[s] at the core of our humanity.” Contrary to many of his fellow contributors, Leibowitz concludes with an unsettling question: “If God’s ‘image’ is within us so long as our physical bodies are here to embrace it, are we to nurture and protect it from the moment of the first living cell until the last?”

Even more intriguing is Zoloth’s essay titled “Reasonable Magic,” which proposes that talmudic debate over magic can be instructive in the contemporary ethical debate over genetic research. “The real evil is not in knowing nature, or even in the manipulation of nature by this magic, but in worship of the thing,” she explains of a passage in the Mishnah that focuses on, of all things, the gathering of zucchinis. She concludes that Jewish law is tolerant of what she calls “permitted magic, reasonable magic,” including the example of Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Oshaia, “who, every Sabbath eve, studied the doctrine of Creation, by means of which they created a half-grown calf and ate it.” 

She, too, concludes with a question: “What is sorcery? What is research? What magic is permitted to us?”