Some Modern Responsa on
Genetic Engineering

Lord Immanuel Jakobovits

The following is the text of a paper submitted to a colleague who was asked to present the Jewish view to a Commission of the European Parliament as guidance for future legislation. The paper is based on a lecture delivered before some two hundred Orthodox scientists at the Brookline Young Israel in Boston on March 8, 1981.

A statement I made in 1970 on “Test-Tube Babies and Host Mothers” will be found in my book Jewish Medical Ethics (4th ed., 1975, pp. 264-266). This summarized the attitude of Judaism to genetic engineering in general in the following terms:

“Spare-part surgery” and “genetic engineering” may open a wonderful chapter in the history of healing. But without prior agreement on restraints, and the strictest limitations, such mechan- ization of human life may also herald irretrievable disaster resulting from man’s encroachment upon nature’s preserves, from assessing human beings by incubators, and from replacing the matchless dignity of the human personality by test tubes, syringes and the soulless artificiality of computerized numbers.

Man, as the delicately balanced fusion of body, mind and soul, can never be the mere product of laboratory conditions and scientific ingenuity. To fulfill his destiny as a creative creature in the image of his Creator, he must be generated and reared out of the intimate love joining husband and wife together, out of identif- iable parents who care for the development of their offspring, and out of a home which provides affectionate warmth and compassion.

Soon after the birth of the first “test-tube baby” in England (July 1978) through the successful development of in vitro fertil- ization, two authentic rabbinic views were expressed on the morality of such operations. While the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel gave qualified approval, his Ashkenazi colleague viewed the procedure as morally repugnant because it undermined the entire basis of family life and marital relations. To my knowledge, no rabbinic rulings on genetic engineering in its wider implications have so far been given and published. However, from a study of the relevant sources and precedents in rabbinic writings, it would appear to me that the following considerations and conclusions may be tentatively stated:

“Genetic engineering” in the widest sense serves “to correct and improve nature.” By manipulating the genetic building blocks of the very foundations of life itself, man is to be enabled to intervene in natural processes for a variety of purposes, such as to facilitate the manufacture of pharmaceutical products, to overcome genetic defects and even to advance human intelligence and physique through sophisticated methods of “breeding.”

The line between what is morally permissible and morally repugnant, it seems to me, would have to be drawn between “correcting” and “improving” nature, i.e. between therapeutic and eugenic objectives.

To the extent to which genetic manipulation is intended and confined to promote the protection of human health from serious disorders or malfunctions, there would appear to be no objections in Jewish law. This would include notably efforts to eliminate genetic defects causing congenital malformations, whether mental or physical, or the production of insulin for the relief of diabetes.

In such cases, genetic manipulation would, in principle, raise problems no different from any medical intervention which, though it may constitute a “defiance of the will of Providence” by negating the effects of illness, is expressly covered by the Biblical sanction “And you shall surely cause him to be healed” (Ex. 21:19), as authentically interpreted in the Talmud and Jewish Law codes. The Creator has conferred on man the right, indeed the duty, to “inter- fere” with the norms of nature for the preservation of human life and health. Thus man may resort to artificial irrigation and fertil- ization to avert the scourge of famine as he may apply medical or surgical skills to repair or avoid the ravages of disease. There is in principle no difference in kind between such recourse to medicine or surgery and the application of human ingenuity to the preven- tion, cure or treatment of disease through “genetic engineering.”

But no such Divine sanction exists to warrant man’s attempt to improve the designs of Providence by artificially breeding a “superior” species of man. (The breeding of animals or plants to improve human nutrition may be in an entirely different category, since this could be subsumed under the permitted heading of aiding man in the struggle against hunger and disease.) Eugenic con- siderations are perfectly legitimate in the choice of marital partner affecting the normal generation of human life, but they do not justify the manipulation of human life and its constituents in contravention of the natural order as predetermined in the scheme of creation.

A similar distinction between therapeutic and nontherapeutic ends has been made in regard to cosmetic surgery, permitting this when medically indicated, e.g. following an accident or for grave psychological reasons as well as for promoting the prospects of marriage and employment; but prohibiting such “improvement of God’s work” for purely cosmetic reasons unrelated to any dis- abilities (see my Jewish Medical Ethics, p. 284).

These views, though grounded in Jewish teachings, seek to define moral judgements and values which are clearly applicable to society at large transcending the divisions of race or creed.

Source: ASSIA – Jewish Medical Ethics,
Vol. I, No. 1, May 1988, pp. 10-11


* Introduction by Lord Jakobovitz on p. 77 above.