Monthly Archives: June 2017

From Kilayim to Kabbalah to CRISPR

I participated 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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

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Naso 5777: The Problem with Priests

[Written for JTS Torah Commentary]      Modern Judaism has a problem with the priesthood. The notion of hereditary holiness—that one segment of the Jewish people is set apart from others, given ceremonial privileges, and invited to bless the people—conflicts with our egalitarian ethos. The strange rituals of the priests, especially when they are invited to raise their hands in blessing the people, feel magical and irrational. For these reasons, many non-Orthodox communities have diminished or even eliminated the priestly privileges such as reserving the first aliyot for kohanim and Levi’im. On festivals, when priests traditionally ascend to the bimah during the Musaf service and chant the biblical blessings from underneath their tallit, many of our congregations simply assign the role to the leader, regardless of tribal status.

Yet there remain passionate defenders of the priestly prerogatives, and they, too, have their reasons. First, of course, the Torah itself defines an elaborate role for the tribe of Levi and within it, the descendants of Aaron. In our portion this week we read, “And they shall set My Name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.” R’ Yehoshua b. Levi states in the Talmud (BT Sotah 38b) that a kohen who refuses to bless the people violates three commandments (for the three times that the Torah instructs kohanim to bless the people).

Beyond the biblical imperative, the priestly blessing also infuses ritual with mystery. Further, it is a deeply meaningful family tradition for many kohanim. Although traditionally women were excluded from the ritual, the CJLS approved a 1994 responsum by Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz called “Women, Raise Your Hands,” which argued that women from priestly families also have the ability to bless the community, and therefore may play all of the liturgical roles traditionally assigned to male priests. These reasons suffice for many of our congregations to continue, restore, or initiate the traditional practice of inviting priests to bless the community from the bimah (dukhening) on festivals. Continue reading