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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Playing God: The Theology of Genetic Engineering

by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff (Posted on May 12, 2017)
Topics: Torah, Sefer Vayikra, Kedoshim, Halakha & Modernity, Food & Kashrut, Science & Medical Ethics

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This article is part of Torat Chovevei, a Community Learning Program led by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The statements made and the views expressed, however, are solely the responsibility of the author. The goal of the program is to connect communities to YCT through the medium of Torah learning. All topics discussed weave relevant contemporary issues together with Torah and non-Torah sources in monthly home-based learning groups (chaburot). These groups are guided by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at YCT. For further information about Torat Chovevei, and how your community can get involved, please contact Rabbi Resnikoff at hresnikoff@yctorah.org.

 

How do the Torah and rabbinic sources view the idea of genetic engineering, specifically as it relates to plants? The following sources are meant to prompt a discussion regarding this question.

1. VaYikra 19:19

אֶֽת־חֻקֹּתַי֮ תִּשְׁמֹרוּ֒ בְּהֶמְתְּךָ֙ לֹא־תַרְבִּ֣יעַ כִּלְאַ֔יִם שָׂדְךָ֖ לֹא־תִזְרַ֣ע כִּלְאָ֑יִם וּבֶ֤גֶד כִּלְאַ֙יִם֙ שַֽׁעַטְנֵ֔ז לֹ֥א יַעֲלֶ֖ה עָלֶֽיךָ׃ You shall observe My laws. You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material.

2. Nachmanides, “Commentary on the Torah”, Vayikra 19:19, s.v. “My laws…”

…והטעם בכלאים כי השם ברא המינים בעולם בכל בעלי הנפשות בצמחים ובבעלי נפש התנועה ונתן בהם כח התולדה שיתקיימו המינים בהם לעד כל זמן שירצה הוא יתברך בקיום העולם וצוה בכחם שיוציאו למיניהם ולא ישתנו לעד לעולם שנאמר בכולם “למינהו” (בראשית א)… והמרכיב שני מינין משנה ומכחיש במעשה בראשית כאילו יחשוב שלא השלים הקב”ה בעולמו כל הצורך ויחפוץ הוא לעזור בבריאתו של עולם להוסיף בו בריות והמינים בבעלי חיים לא יולידו מין משאינו מינו וגם הקרובים בטבע שיולדו מהם כגון הפרדים יכרת זרעם כי הם לא יולידו…וגם הצמחים אשר יתרכבו מין בשאינו מינו אין פרים צומח אחרי כן… And the reason for [the prohibition on] hybrids is that God created all living things in the world as species, both plants and living, moving creatures. And he gave each species the power of reproduction so that each species could endure forever so long as God should desire the existence of the world. And God commanded that they use their powers to produce others of their species and that they should not change forever, as it says about all of them “according to their kind”(Bereshit 1)… And someone who who combines two species alters and contradicts the creation of the world. For it is as though they think that the God did not perfect God’s world sufficiently and they wish to aid in the creation of the world: to add creations. And the species of animals will not successfully reproduce with another species and even those who are close in nature and are able to reproduce, like mules, their seed is cut off fo they are not able to reproduce… And also plants that are grafted one species to another cannot reproduce the hybrid plant afterwards.
  1. Does the history of agriculture reflect an overall acceptance or rejection of the Ramaban’s theology here? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
  2. How does this theological claim resonate with you? What are its implications with regard to technologies that are common in our lives today (agriculture and medicine come to mind).
  3. Is there any distinction, in your opinion, between genetic manipulation and more traditional forms of hybridization (interbreeding, cross-pollination etc.) with regard to this theology?

3. Bereshit 1:28

וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱ-לֹקים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱ-לֹקים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

4. Nachmanides, “Commentary on the Torah”, Bereshit 1:28, s.v. “And God blessed them…”

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱ-לֹקים… וכבשוה נתן להם כח וממשלה בארץ לעשות כרצונם בבהמות ובשרצים וכל זוחלי עפר ולבנות ולעקור נטוע ומהרריה לחצוב נחשת וכיוצא בזה וזה יכלול מה שאמר “וּבְכָל הָאָרֶץ” (לעיל פסוק כו) “וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם” – אמר שיהיו רודים גם בדגי הים הנכסים מהם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם שאינם עמהם באדמה גם בכל חיה רעה וסדר אותם כבריאתם הדגים והעוף תחלה והחיה אחר כן וכך אמר הכתוב (תהלים ח ז-ט) תַּמְשִׁילֵהוּ בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יָדֶיךָ כֹּל שַׁתָּה תַחַת רַגְלָיו צֹנֶה וַאֲלָפִים כֻּלָּם וְגַם בַּהֲמוֹת שָׂדָי צִפּוֹר שָׁמַיִם וּדְגֵי הַיָּם וגו’… And God blessed them… “And subdue it:” God gave them the power and rulership over the earth; to do whatever they wanted with the beasts and the swarming animals and all of those that slither on the ground; and to build and to uproot and plant and to quarry copper from its hills and [to do things] similar to this. And this is [all] included in its stating (above, verse 26), “and over all the earth.” “And have dominion over the fish of the sea;” He said that they should have dominion also over the fish of the seas that are concealed from them (by the water) and over the fowl of the sky that are not with humanity upon the ground and [even] also over all [dangerous] animals. And God sequenced them according to their creation: the fish and the fowl first and the animals afterwards; and so [too] does the verse state (Psalms 8:7-9), “You have made them rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under their feet: Sheep and oxen – all of them, and also the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, etc.”… 
  1. What is the Ramban implying here with regard to humanity’s use of technology and the natural world? Is this in contradiction to the Ramban’s attitude above?
  2. How much does this theology play out in our lives in terms of technologies that we come into contact with?

5. Bereishit Rabbah, Parasha 82, Sec. 24

תני האש והכלאים לא נבראו בששת ימי בראשית אבל עלו במחשבה להבראות, כלאים אימתי נבראו, בימי ענה הה”ד הוא ענה אשר מצא את הימים במדבר…מה עשה הביא חמורה וזיווג לה סוס ויצאה ממנה פרדה, אמר לו הקב”ה אני לא בראתי דבר שלהזק ואתה בראת דבר הזק חייך אני בורא לך דבר הזק, מה עשה הביא חכינה וזיוג לחרדון יצא ממנה חורור, מעולם לא נשך אדם חוורור וחיה, שבעטתו פרדה וחיה … Fire and hybrid species [kilayim] were not created in the six days of creation, but they were considered for creation, real hybrids were created in the days of Ana, thus it says, “He is the Ana who found mules [springs] in the desert.”(Bereshit 36:24)….What did he do? He brought a female donkey and mated her with a horse, and she gave birth to a mule. The Holy Blessed One said to him: “ I did not create anything that would cause damage, and you created something that would damage? By your life, I will create you something that damages. What did God do? God brought a hakina (large snake) and mated it to a hardon (large lizard), and from that mating came a havarvar (poisonous snake). Never did a havarva bite a person and the person survived, never did a mule kick a person, and the person survived..  
  1. How does this source treat hybrid animals like mules that go back to the dawn of human history? What is suggested here about traditional hybridization techniques?
  2. As a metaphor, what does this text suggest about the consequences of untested experimentation in genetic technology?

6. Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment: “Statement on Genetically Modified Organisms in the Environment and the Marketplace”, 2013.

In the mid-1980s, primary care physicians, and subsequently their rheumatology colleagues, began to see a number of chronically ill individuals with severe pain syndromes affecting muscle tissue, accompanied by abnormally high eosinophil counts. In time, it became clear that a new disease entity had arisen, which was eventually called “eosinophilia myalgia syndrome.” Some dozens of people died from this illness and several thousand remain permanently disabled.


What took a long time to understand about this condition was its cause. It was eventually discovered that, in the early 1980s, one of the first industrially produced and commercially marketed amino acids, tryptophan, had begun to be manufactured by a novel process, in Japan, utilizing genetically modified bacteria. In an unexpected twist of fate, the genetically modified but poorly controlled bacteria had created an undetected, and highly toxic, dimerization of the tryptophan molecule. This toxic molecule was undetected in pre-market testing, and so the new product was deemed “biologically equivalent” to existing, conventionally produced tryptophan. Unfortunately for the individuals who ingested it, their bodies responded very differently to the altered amino acid, and they suffered severe illness and even death as a result.


Fast forward a few years, and we discover that without any real public input or debate, and with essentially no human trials, our infant soy formula is now created with genetically modified plant material, our corn chips are made from insect resistant, genetically modified corn, and our veggie burgers contain altered soybeans. Current estimates suggest that fully 60% of products in Canada’s grocery stores have genetically modified ingredients. Our children and our grandchildren are growing up on them.


Is this a bad thing? No one knows. There have been no significant human trials of any size or length, nor does it appear that any are currently funded… What we increasingly understand, however, is that the biological systems in all of us are complex… We believe, therefore, that if there is any question about the safety and bio-equivalence of new foodstuffs being brought to the market, we must not expose humans to these foods until careful trials have been completed and their results made widely available.


What is more, we have real concerns about the relationships among living organisms. We are concerned about what it means to introduce what are essentially newly created species, some of which contain a chimeric blend of genes from entirely different creatures, into our world. We have seen the effects of chemical and nuclear contamination of the environment, and have real fears that biological contamination with newly minted organisms may be even more threatening to the natural order. We urge caution. What is the rush? We must resist the drive for quick profit, and review the implications of our new-found abilities…

  1. What are the primary concerns of the CAPE in this statement? Are they opposed to GMOs for essential or practical reasons?
  2. Where are there echoes of the Ramban’s theology or of the Bereshit Rabbah text in this statement?

7. Sefer HaChinukh, Mitzvah 62

משרשי המצוה, שידוע כי ענין הכשוף דבר רע עד מאוד וגורם כמה תקלות לבני אדם…לפי שהוא בא כנגד חפץ השם, שהוא חפץ בישובו ושיתנהג הכל בדרך הטבע שהוטבע בתחילת הבריאה, וזה בא לשנות הכל.

וענין הכישוף הוא לפי דעתי כן, שהשם ברוך הוא שם בתחילת הבריאה לכל דבר ודבר מדברי העולם טבע לפעול פעולתו טובה וישרה לטובת בני העולם אשר ברא, וציוה כל אחד לפעול פעלו למינהו, כמו שכתוב בפרשת בראשית [א’, י”ב ואילך] למינהו על הנבראים…ובמלאכת התערובות יש בה צדדין שלא הורשו בני אדם להשתמש בהן, כי יודע אלהים שסוף המעשה היוצא לבני אדם באותן צדדין רע להן ומפני זה מנעם מהם. וזהו אמרם זכרונם לברכה דרך כלל, כל שיש בו משום רפואה אין בו משום דרכי האמורי [שבת דף ס”ז ע”א], כלומר אין לאסרו מפני צד כישוף, אחר שיש תועלת בו מצוי בנסיון באמת אין זה מן הצדדין האסורין, כי לא נאסרו רק מצד הנזק שבהן… 

The root of the mitzvah is that it is known that the magic is a very bad thing, and causes a numerous disasters for humanity… Since it goes against the will of God, who desires that the world be settled and that everything behave in the manner of nature that was established at the beginning of the creation, and this [magic] comes to change everything.

And magic is, according to my opinion thus, that the Lord, blessed be God, at the beginning of creation gave each and every thing in the world a nature to do go about their business well and correctly, for the good of the people of the world that God created. And God commanded each one to go about their business according to their kind, as it says in parshat Bereishit [1:12 and so forth] “for its kind” about each creation… And in the work of intermixing,, there are aspects that are not permitted for humans to use, because God knows that the outcome of the action for people is bad for them, and because of this God forbade these things from them. And this is what [our sages] say, may their memories be for a blessing, in general: ‘Anything that is involved in healing, is not considered part of the ways of the Emorites [Shabbat 67a], which is to say that it is not forbidden for being magic since its benefit is known from experience, it is truly not one of the forbidden aspects, because these were forbidden only because of the damage that come from them….

  1. What is the Chinukh’s litmus text to determine whether a particular act of hybridization should be considered forbidden magic or not?
  2. Based on this text, what do you think the Chinukh would say about GMO’s?

8. Luis Herrera-Estrella and Ariel Alvarez-Morales, “Genetically modified crops: hope for developing countries?”, EMBO Reports, 2001 Apr 15; 2(4): 256–258.

For many people in the First World, genetically modified crops have become the latest incarnation of evil biotechnology, which sacrifices humans and the environment for the sake of revenues and shareholder value. On one side of the heated discourse are people who firmly believe that GM crops pose a threat to human health and biodiversity. On the other side are mainly scientists who are convinced that genetic engineering of plants represents a technology with enormous potential for increasing food production in an environmentally benign way…


But while environmental and consumer advocates in the First World fight against the worldwide use of GM crops in agriculture, hundreds of millions of people in the Third World are malnourished. And while trying to protect the environment and consumers in developed countries, critics of GM crops block a technology that could be of immense benefit for the majority of people in the Southern Hemisphere. Any serious attempt to discuss and make long-term decisions regarding GM plants must therefore take into account the facts about poor countries that, so far, have been largely ignored by opponents of this technology.


The human population is growing and it is growing faster than anticipated. Last March, the UN published its latest estimates, which project the world’s population to be 9.3 billion in 2050—400 million more than previously estimated. To feed all of these people and thus prevent famine, upheaval or civil war, more and better food is needed, at least for the majority of people on this planet who need it most…


Another important point often left out of the debate is how to make sure that new technologies help people in developing countries. Some people argue that GM technology is controlled by large multinational companies and thus will never be used by small farmers. Consequently, instead of condemning and blocking GM crop technology, government-funded institutions and non-governmental organisations should find ways to ensure that the knowledge is transferred to developing countries…


Many people assume that GM technology is meant to replace traditional breeding and that it will solve all current agricultural problems. It is important to understand that solving the problem of food production for a growing population without harming the environment will require the concerted use of traditional breeding and organic farming, as well as GM crop technology, each being used to solve specific problems and needs. Alleviation of hunger cannot depend on a single technology…


To ensure safe and sufficient food production, political and economic decisions by governments and companies, rather than technological limitations, will determine how successfully we can feed a growing population in poor countries… UNESCO has been designating monuments as belonging to humankind, which must be preserved not only for the benefit of the locals, but for the entire world. Perhaps new technologies that could solve fundamental problems of human well-being should be given a similar status, to ensure that they reach everybody who needs them.

  1. How does this piece reflect the values we saw in the Ramban on Bereshit and the Chinukh above? In what ways is it different?
  2. How would Dr. Herrera-Estrella and Dr. Alvarez-Morales respond to the Statement of the CDE? How would the authors of the CDE statement respond to this piece?
  3. What theological position resonates most strongly for you? Is this reflected in your position on GMOs? Why or why not?