I had the honor of participating in a conference on the new gene-editing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9 at Berkeley on June 18-19, 2017. Below are my remarks, building on the foundation of my 2015 responsum on genetic engineering.
Gene Editing Ethics Workshop convened by Jennifer Doudna and Bill Hurlbut
Panel on Catholic, Muslim and Jewish Perspectives
(Texts displayed as slides; found below)
- I’m honored to have been invited to attend this conference and offer some comments on Jewish responses to gene editing. In addition to serving as dean of the JTS rabbinical school, I am a member of our denomination’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. In this capacity, I engage in writing responsa, which are essentially position papers on topics of halakhah, a Hebrew term which encompasses Jewish law, ethics and devotional life. In 2015 the CJLS approved my paper on genetic engineering, which touched on CRISPR/Cas9, but which requires greater inquiry, making this conference especially helpful to me.
- In searching for halakhic values and precedents of relevance to gene editing, I identified two discourses in tension, one which we may call preservationist, and the other interventionist. They begin from the same point of origin, shared with most peoples of faith, that life is not only precious but also sacred. The Bible and biblically-based religions go further, declaring human life to be fashioned in the divine image, בצלם אלהים, an ambiguous expression which nevertheless implies that humanity has God-like qualities and therefore great responsibilities. This core principle is the foundation of the special abhorrence for the crime of murder, and is also the basis for the obligation to do what we can to heal illness and extend human life. The idea of the divine image imposes an obligation to preserve human dignity and to prevent humiliation. The belief that life is sacred likewise grounds the prohibition on causing animals excessive suffering, prevents the wanton destruction of trees, and curbs the human tendency to eradicate species. Life is sacred, and humans are charged to be its custodians, a task for which we have proven to be spectacularly inept.
- That life is sacred is a point of easy consensus, but the nature of human stewardship proves more divisive. The preservationist school points to commandments such as Leviticus 19:19, the ban on mixing seeds and cross-breeding animals: