Gene Therapy

The Genome Project is looking like it will change the entire future of the medical and pharmaceutical fields. Does Judaism have anything to say about this? Are there dangers to watch out for? Are there ethical issues involved?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The potential of gene therapy is truly awesome. Many diseases like cancer, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's could be curbed or eliminated. And as gene therapy moves from the realm of theoretical to practical, it will undoubtedly raise many questions in Jewish law.

From a Jewish perspective, the underlying principle is that doctors are allowed to heal with anything accepted by conventional medicine. The Torah commands us to "fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28). This means that we should use whatever methods at our disposal to heal and repair the world.

The Tiferet Yisrael wrote in the 19th century: "Anything that we have no reason to forbid, is permissible without reason. The Torah did not mention all of the permitted things, only the forbidden" (commentary to Mishnah Yadayim 4:3). In the case of a threat to human life, it is even permitted to violate the Torah to save the person, as long as it does not involve idolatry, murder or sexual immorality (Talmud – Pesachim 25a).

With gene therapy, there are other issues to consider. Our bodies are composed of about 100 trillion cells, and each one of these cells contains the complete genetic code of 3.5 billion letters. That's a lot of possibilities. Is gene therapy tampering with something bigger than our ability to perceive?

Perhaps. Prof. Adam Friedman, a genetic expert at Hebrew University – Hadassah Medical School, says there is evidence that some disease genes help us ward off other illnesses. For example, people in Africa who often have the sickle cell anemia gene are more resistant to Malaria. The matrix is quite complex, and genetic diversity may in fact be a strength for humanity.

Then there is always the question of potential abuse. As Rabbi Moshe David Tendler, Professor of Medical Ethics and Biology and Talmudic Law, from Yeshiva University, says: "Are we good enough to handle this good technology? Of course we are, if we set limits on it. And when can we train a generation of children not to murder or steal, we can prepare them not to use this technology to the detriment of mankind."

By the way, gene therapy has raised some interesting questions in the laws of kosher food. The Talmud (Bechorot 5) discusses a case where an animal that appears like a cow (a kosher species) is born to a camel (a non-kosher species). Is this new animal kosher or not? The Talmud concludes: Anything that comes out of a non-kosher animal is considered not kosher. Applying this principle to genetic engineering, the question is whether recombinant DNA from something non-Kosher is also considered as "coming out from." This issue is currently being researched by the great rabbis.

Where will this all lead? Only time will tell. In the meantime, the most important thing is to proceed with eyes wide open. As King Solomon said: "Someone without knowledge is surely not good. Yet he who moves hurriedly, blunders" (Proverbs 19:2).

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