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

JTS Ordination/Investiture Address 22 Iyar 5777 / 5.8.2017

In April of 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published an article in the journal Nature describing the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. This molecule of life was arranged in a double helix structure comprised of four nucleotides symbolized by the letters A, T, C and G. Aided by the photographs and analysis of a Jewish scientist named Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick explained how the four letters are arranged in pairs—A with T, C with G—and in their arrangement along the strands of DNA, how they form a genetic code from which proteins are created, and all organisms are formed. They are the letters of life. Each nucleotide is indispensable, but in isolation, they are powerless. Only in their combination do the components of DNA assume their great ability to fashion life in all of its diversity and wonder.

What scientists spent much of the twentieth century discovering and describing was similar in a sense to the intuition of our ancient Sages of blessed memory. They too believed that life was formed from building blocks, and that these could be identified with a letter code, specifically with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the Talmud at Brakhot 55a, Rav Yehudah says in the name of Rav that Bezalel, the architect of the tabernacle in Exodus, knew how to combine the letters used by God to create the world. Continue reading

Emor 5777: Do Kabbalistic Intentions Add or Detract from the Omer?

The Mishnah famously proclaims that one must not stand to pray unless they have first focused their mind (M. Brakhot 5:1). Curiously, the Talmud pairs this instruction with a similar rule not to separate from a friend except with the proper focus of mind (B. Brakhot 31a). The Sages daringly compare the encounter of a person praying to God to the encounter between two friends. And just as one owes God the respect of proper intention when standing in prayer, so too do we owe one another proper respect when parting ways—we want to remember each other well, and to view each other not just as acquaintances but as a cherished friends and teachers. For this reason, the Sages say that when parting, one ought to share a teaching of halakhah, literally a guide for walking, so that their friend will remember them on their way. As we complete this academic year then, here is a word of halakhah that also relates to the mitzvah of counting the Omer of which we read in Parashat Emor.

Each night of the Omer season it is our custom to recite Leviticus 23:15 as an intention (כוונה) before the counting: “הנני מוכן ומזומן–Here I am, prepared and ready to fulfill a positive command, as it is written: And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” In this way we signal our serious intention to count the Omer and to connect the counting to its biblical source. We are very careful about the count, even though the original context for this mitzvah is a sacrificial rite which has been dormant for two millennia. The Torah’s intention seems to have been to remind the farmer of his or her dependence on God as a way of motivating the sharing of produce with the poor (see 23: 22), but the mitzvah today has evolved into a meditation on theology. Continue reading

Aharei Mot-Kedoshim 5777: Loving all Life, from Humans to Plants

If you want my nomination for the top phrase of the Torah, it would clearly be Leviticus 19:18b, “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.” The Torah’s core message is that we are responsible for one another because we share one Creator. God brings us into being, and God demands that we take care of the other. Does “love” mean tender emotions, or perhaps fair treatment? A bit of both. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch calls this “the intended climax of humanity,” when people transcend their selfish instincts and instead identify with God’s love of all. So much follows from this command, which is the foundation of social ethics and law, and yet what literally follows, the prohibition on mixing seeds, is quite a puzzle.

Leviticus 19:19 follows the command to love your neighbor “like yourself” with a demand to keep everything in God’s world in order—plants and animals and even clothes are all to be kept in neat categories. A plausible link between verses 18 and 19 is some sort of species loyalty—people should take extra care to love other people, and only other people. So too with other animals and plants—they should “love” only their own kind. God commands people to love each other, and as God’s custodians, people must likewise keep God’s other creatures in species purity and distinction. Continue reading

Tazria-Metzora 5777: The Courage to Recover from Death to Life

Jewish consciousness in the coming months will be dominated by major anniversaries related to Israel–the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War, the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, the 70th anniversary of the UN partition vote, and then, next April, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence. Each of those markers has complex associations which we will consider in due course. To frame these words of Torah I would like to consider not the 69th birthday of the State of Israel, but rather the state of the Jewish people 70 years ago, in May 1947, before the UN vote and before the State was declared. What was Jewish life like in 1947?

During WW II between 11-20 million people were displaced, many of them Jews; many, of course, were not only displaced but murdered. At the end of the war the conquering armies tried to repatriate the refugees back to their countries of origin, and 6 million or so people were returned “home,” but over a million could not or would not be repatriated; many of these were Jews. By 1947 there were about 850,000 displaced persons living in DP camps, a number that gradually subsided over the next five years, though the last camps were closed only in the late 1950s.

For the Jews of Europe, 1947 must have seemed particularly hopeless. Over a millennium of Jewish life in Europe, much of it robust and secure, was now in shambles. Families were splintered and destroyed; Jewish villages and urban communities were blotted out. America remained out of reach for most refugees, and the British blockade on Palestine kept many Jews from reaching the land of Israel. Jews had been persecuted by Christians, and also by Muslims, for many centuries, and the desperate hope placed by many in socialism had failed to create a universal sense of brotherhood and solidarity. Religious faith was at a nadir, and the simple claim that God would be a the guardian of Israel seemed ludicrous. Continue reading

Shmini 5777: Ostrich Eggs and Miracle Meat

It might have been Parashat Shmini that put the idea of becoming a rabbi in my head. No, not the part about the two young priests getting zapped, but rather the detailed laws of kashrut. I grew up eating “glatt treife,” but by the time I was 13 I bought into the kashrut system as a way of cultivating self-control and awareness of the potential for holiness in every bite. I was one of the only teens who regularly attended services at Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake, NJ (one of the others was named Benjamin Sommer), and somehow I got invited to make a presentation each week to the b’nai mitzvah. My presentations grew increasingly elaborate, no doubt trying the patience of our distinguished (and terse!) Rabbi Andre Ungar, reaching their apotheosis with an impassioned plea for kashrut one Shabbat morning. Weirdly, the congregation applauded, and my grandparents (who did not keep kosher, though Nana waited an hour to serve ice cream after eating meat) kvelled. Well, it took another decade to sort things out, but that is a decent origin story for my rabbinate.

And so it is to kashrut that we turn, but in a very strange way. The Torah’s code is reasonably specific about the criteria for kosher mammals and fish, but as for birds, all we get is a long list. What distinguishes the “impure” birds listed in Leviticus Chapter 11 (and Deut 14) from edible avians is not specified, though many have noted that the banned birds are all predators (yet I suppose that worms consider chickens to be predators). We can’t really say for sure what each listed species corresponds to in modern identifications—is a nesher really an eagle, or perhaps a vulture? (…”and I shall bring you on vultures wings” doesn’t have the same ring).

For today what really interests me is the ostrich, which is identified here as בת היענה. Literally, this could be read as “daughter of the ostrich,” though BDB suggests (p.419) perhaps “daughter of the desert or steppe.”  In other words, it is a bird that dwells in the desert, as ostriches tend to do. The rabbis, however, took its name literally and they asked, why does the Torah mention the ostrich’s offspring? Continue reading