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Genetic Engineering Kosher, Says Jewish Medical Ethicist

November 20, 2000
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If a carp is genetically engineered so that it has no scales, is it still kosher?

After all, fins and scales are what make a fish kosher in the first place.

The question might not have as wide an application as whether a tree that falls to a forest floor without anybody hearing it makes any noise, but the theoretical issue is making some waves.

Abraham Steinberg, a leading Jewish medical ethicist, says the scale-less carp would still be kosher.

Steinberg argues that altering a carp’s genes so that it does not have scales does not change anything fundamental about the fish.

Since we know carp is kosher, he said, it doesn’t matter whether it actually has scales.

The carp example was part of Steinberg’s larger point that Judaism does not forbid genetic engineering, an argument he made at the first Chief Rabbi Jakobowits Memorial on Medical Ethics on Nov. 15.

In a wide-ranging lecture that also covered abortion, medical confidentiality, eugenics, genetic screening and genetic determinism versus free will, Steinberg emphasized that science and technology per se are morally neutral.

“The morally determining factor is their use,” he said.

The Jewish approach, he said, is extreme caution in accepting innovations and changes.

But if there is no reason to forbid something, it is permitted, he said, pointing out that the Torah emphasizes prohibitions.

Genetic engineering that does not violate Jewish law, he concluded, is permitted to improve products for profit and for medical purposes.

Steinberg, who won the 1999 Israel Prize for medical ethics, is a pediatric neurologist at the Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem and the author of the Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Law.

Genetic engineering is neither “playing God” nor “interfering with nature” in an unacceptable way, he said.

It is not “playing God,” Steinberg said, because it does not entail creating something from nothing.

“The genetic revolution is technical, not fundamental. It is revealing existing material, not creating new material,” he said.

In fact, he said, “Studying genetics is not only not a way of playing God, but a way of strengthening belief in God.”

He argued that genetics are clear evidence of a plan in nature, and where there is a plan, he said, there must be a planner.

And while he conceded that manipulating genes was “interfering with nature,” he said that in Judaism, doing so was not only permissible but also sometimes required.

Healing, Steinberg said, is interfering with nature, and is clearly permitted by Jewish law.

He quoted the midrash, based on the creation story in Genesis, that God left the world incomplete for man to complete.

There is a “duty to continue what God has started,” Steinberg said, which includes battling Jewish genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs via gene therapy.

But, he said, there are restrictions on allowable genetic engineering.

“The actual act must not involve any inherent halachic prohibition, such as mixing species, and must lead to no unavoidable or irreversible result which is halachically prohibited,” he said, referring to Jewish law.

Hence, artificial insemination of a woman by a donor other than her husband is not allowed because the child would be a mamzer, the product of adultery, Steinberg said.

A third qualification is that the benefit of the act should outweigh the detriment, he said.

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