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Cloning in Jewish Law

Last week Dr. Avi Ben-Avraham and his Italian colleague created an uproar when they announced that “the first human clone will be born in Israel”. Dr. Ben-Avraham even claimed, according to Der Spiegel, that “unlike Catholicism, the Jewish religion does not absolutely oppose the idea of cloning. The time has come to cross the laws of nature”. As a matter of fact, Judaism has yet to develop a clear approach regarding cloning, and the subject demands careful study.

There is no doubt that if doctors clone human beings, many halakhic and ethical questions will arise: who is the mother – the egg donor, the cell donor, the surrogate mother – or all three? Who is the father – the cell donor, the mother’s father, or perhaps the clone has no father? Or perhaps the clone is the identical twin of the cell donor? May we clone someone without their knowledge? May we clone a dead person? Does the nucleus donor fulfill the mitzvah to “be fruitful and multiply”? If a child is fatally injured in a car accident, may we take one of his cells and clone him? May we create a clone in order to provide bone marrow for a person suffering from leukemia? These questions show just how complicated human cloning is from a moral and religious point of view.

Our sources did not explicitly deal with cloning. Even so, there are Jewish sources relevant to our question.

There are four sources which would seem to permit human cloning: 1) Rabbi Israel Lifshitz stated in the nineteenth century that “anything which we cannot find a reason to prohibit is permissible without justification”. According to this, human cloning is permissible until we find a specific reason to forbid it. 2) According to Genesis (2:21-23), Eve was created from Adam’s rib without sexual relations. Perhaps we may imitate God through human cloning? 3) Rabbi Menahem Hameiri ruled in his 14th century commentary to the Talmud that “anything done by a natural method is not considered magic [which is forbidden], even if they knew how to create beautiful creatures without sexual relations, which is possible according to the science books”. If so, it might be permissible to clone human beings “by a natural method”. 4) Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ruled in 1958 that artificial insemination by a donor is permissible as long as there is medical supervision to avoid “mamzerut” since we should not “forbid good people from doing what is permissible because of irresponsible people”. According to this, if cloning itself is permissible, we should not forbid it to good people just because we fear abuse by evil people.

On the other hand, there are six sources which would seem to prohibit human cloning:

1) Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kuk warned that when people improve nature, they have “the obligation to be careful lest they destroy nature” (Ozrot Har’iya). In other words, we must ask before every medical experiment: does the benefit outweigh the damage?

2) The Jewish ideal is that “there are three partners in a human being: God, the mother and the father” (Niddah 31a). Since the 1930s, we have gradually developed artificial means of reproduction which contradict this source. We progressed from artificial insemination by the husband to artificial insemination by a donor to artificial insemination of a single woman to IVF to surrogate mothers to human cloning. Could artificial wombs be next? Some rabbis and doctors have stressed that in Judaism, bringing children into the world is not an ideal outside the framework of marriage. On the contrary, the result of these medical procedures is to separate birth from marriage and to hasten the dismantling of the Jewish family.

3) The Sages praised God in many passages for creating human beings who are different from each other in appearance and intelligence (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 et al). Today, scientists use the concept of bio-diversity which means we should protect as many plant and animal types as possible so that a specific disease should not wipe out an entire species. Cloning enables the production of many “copies” of the same person. This trend runs contrary to the rabbinic sources and to the need for bio-diversity.

4) The above description of Eve’s creation may actually prove the opposite – that God may clone a human being, but it is forbidden for us to enter His domain and to “play God”. Human beings were created in the image of God, but in the Bible, every time they tried to overreach and to achieve equality with God or play God, it led to disaster (Genesis 3:5, 11:4 et al). We are “little less than divine” (Psalm 8), but we are not divine.

5) In the Mishnah (Pesahim 4:9), it says that King Hezekiah “hid away the book of healings” and the Sages of his day “consented”. Maimonides explains (ibid.) that the book of healings contained recipes which could heal or kill and when people became corrupt and used it to kill – he hid it”. Indeed, Bill Joy, the Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, has recently made a similar suggestion:
The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge. Yes, I know, knowledge is good, as is the search for new truths. We have been seeking knowledge since ancient times. Aristotle opened his Metaphysics with the simple statement: “All men by nature desire to know.” We have, as a bedrock value in our society, long agreed on the value of open access to information, and recognize the problems that arise with attempts to restrict access to and development of knowledge. In recent times, we have come to revere scientific knowledge. But despite the strong historical precedents, if open access to and unlimited development of knowledge henceforth puts us all in clear danger of extinction, then common sense demands that we reexamine even these basic, long-held beliefs. (Wired, April 2000)

6) Finally, a Jewish court of law may forbid something through a takkanah or a “temporary measure” (Rambam, Sanhedrin 24:4).

We believe that the arguments against cloning human beings are much more convincing than those in favor. Therefore, the Knesset acted wisely in December 1998 when it ruled “a fixed period of five years during which certain types of genetic manipulation of human beings shall not take place” including “human cloning”.

May God give us the wisdom to use science and technology for the benefit of mankind and not, God forbid, the opposite.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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