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Judaism and the Human Genome Project

Judaism and the Human Genome Project

Now that we have the "genetic operating manual" for homo sapiens, where will it take us?


"Today," President Clinton declared at a recent White House ceremony, "we are learning the language in which God created life."

No, he didn't mean Hebrew, although that would have been a nice touch. Clinton was referring to the human genome, the multi-billion-letter "operating manual" for homo sapiens that scientists have finally deciphered -- surely the most eagerly awaited literary release this side of Harry Potter.

This cracking of the genetic code promises to revolutionize medicine, but it also raises a host of moral and ethical questions that Judaism speaks to. The genome, for example, will no doubt help us better understand human behavior -- and misbehavior -- by identifying its genetic components. Consider where that might take us. Fast-forward to the year 2015: Is it farfetched to imagine, say, enterprising defense attorneys concocting "genetic defenses" for their clients?

Judaism's position runs counter to the societal tendency to diminish personal accountability.

Judaism wouldn't buy it. Our tradition maintains that biology is not destiny, and therefore holds people accountable for their actions -- whether or not they have whatever syndrome is momentarily fashionable. There are legitimate mitigating factors, of course, such as mental incompetence, but Judaism otherwise consistently affirms the ability of people to exercise their free will and make moral choices. In fact, in general the Talmud says a person is always liable for his actions, whether awake or asleep.

Unfortunately, Judaism's position runs counter to a growing societal tendency to diminish personal accountability, often using medical or psychological "explanations" to excuse evil deeds. Does the term "Twinkie defense" ring a bell? That argument was used in a celebrated 1978 case by an attorney who maintained that his client was driven to commit murder by his addiction to junk food.

Time will tell whether the human genome is abused in this and other ways. The possibilities are endless. Will it be used, for example, to invade individual privacy through the unauthorized release of sensitive genetic information? Moreover, will man use it to play God through selective breeding or the engineering of desirable traits?

As for privacy, Judaism certainly values it -- to the extent that it opposes even subtle forms of snooping. The Torah speaks of the evil prophet Bilaam praising the Israelites for dwelling arrangements that prevented unwanted intrusions and other invasions of privacy.

No one is fit to play God, genome-enhanced expertise notwithstanding.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, no one is fit to play God, genome-enhanced expertise notwithstanding. This category, however, does not include a wide range of scientific endeavors, such as legitimate medical intervention and research, which Judaism encourages. The human genome promises to be an invaluable tool in this area. What Judaism discourages is interfering with God's natural plan for no good reason. This theme is reflected in the Torah, which forbids the mixing of distinct plant and animal species. Disrupting the natural order is not only arrogant; it can be downright dangerous, too. It's common sense. It's also the law -- the law of unintended consequences.

Courtesy of

August 19, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Anonymous, April 3, 2005 12:00 AM

I am only 15 but i believe God should be the only one to play the role of manipulating the charateristics of the person. There are probably some advantages but what happens when the child grows up, I think it should also be there choice whether THEY wanted to be genetically modified or not. Also they will have alot of pressure to live up their parents expectations as they will be "perfect"

(10) Shane, March 29, 2005 12:00 AM

i think the human genome project has alot of advantages but alot of disadvantages. think about one of your family members having HIV and they know they are going to die but cannot do anything to stop it. they suffer through their everday knowing that are dying and wish there is a cure. the human genome project could potentially save the lives of millions of people and stop the heartache and tromour brought to these unfortunate familys. but i do not agree with the cloning of humans. people do not have the right to CREATE!! a human that is down to mother nature. thanks for listening

(9) Spluff, September 24, 2004 12:00 AM


Hi my names Ross and i may only b 16 but i think the whole idea of cloning humans is bad. The genome project will save lives but i think there should be some sort of law that can prevent people experimenting. on peoples genes. We even have to vote to get the rite to copy write our own dna so we cannot be cloned without permission. I think its stupid there should only ever be 1 of 1person. And this means that some countries could start cloning huge armys to take over the world. does any1 see this from my point of view or has the govenment gone crazy to let this happen?

(8) Susie, November 26, 2003 12:00 AM

no scientist is 100% sure of the dangers

i must agree, in some cases human genome can be helpful to save lives and prevent illnesses, but what i am worried about is that even the scientist do not know for a 100% the disadvantages of the human genome. e.g. it could cause new life threatening, uncurable diseases, it could wipe out the human race totally through inheritance. it could cause illnesses when you are older, therefore could be inherited by your children..... there could be thousands of other unknown and worrying matters which could take place.. some of which we would not even notice.

The fact is, once you find something, you try your best to explore and understand it, so obviously the disadvantages would not be too important, for you are on the verge of finding something new.

1 questions, if they do use it in everyday life, who will own it? who will be responsible it's results? could the money being used for this not be used more efficiently on other medical apparatus? like hospital equipments?

i believe that scientist should be more careful and should plan more before they take any steps to messing with God's creation.

Thank you for your time...
And let us all hope for the best....

(7) Mr. X, November 13, 2002 12:00 AM

I get where the writer is coming from, but I still don't get it... Why do you think something so good could be something evil. Sure it may be aginst your religion but think of all the things that would happen, nice things. If you don't whant to think of that think of this...
A child is born, no medical erors, no problems what so ever. Four or Five years later that child dies, that child died do to a genetic disorder called Tay-Sachs. Tay-Sachs is caused by the absence of just one gene in the genome.
One gene that could be duplicated from some other host and implated at burth to stop this disorder...
I cant think of any thing else to say.
Ive said my peice and I have to go...
Mr. X

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