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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Noach: Interbreeding and Genetic Manipulation

I'm not finished with the last post.  But its time for Parshas Noach, and there is something I've been meaning to write about.  Earlier Posts on Parshas Noach:

Luxury at a Price
The Two Reasons We Were Zocheh to Tzitzis
The Victim of Victimless Crime

One of the behaviors of the generation of the Mabul, as Rashi says (6:12), was spontaneous inter-specific mating of animals. 
וַיַּרְא אֱ--לֹהִים אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְהִנֵּה נִשְׁחָתָה כִּי הִשְׁחִית כָּל בָּשָׂר אֶת דַּרְכּוֹ עַל הָאָרֶץ:
And God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth.

כי השחית כל בשר: אפילו בהמה חיה ועוף נזקקין לשאינן מינן:
Even cattle, beasts, and fowl would mate with those that were not of their own species.

This is made clear in the Medrash here, 28:8, in the name of Rav Azariah.

This Rashi might be understood as referring to the animal behavior as a symptom or a reflection of human degradation (see Beis Halevi), but not as inherently iniquitous or repugnant.

But later (8:1), Rashi says that when Hashem remembered the animals in the Ark and looked upon them with favor, this was because Hashem knew that these individual animals had not engaged in inter-specific sexual congress. This does indicate that such behavior is inherently iniquitous or repugnant.  Furthermore, the Gemara in Sanhedrin 108a states that mankind was guilty of intentional cross species animal husbandry.  According to the Mizrachi, (also mentioned by the Maharsha there) this is an alternative to the Medrash of Rav Azariah; according to the Maharal, this is consistent with the Medrash (and see Rav Povarsky's Bahd Kodesh here).  But in any case, whether the interbreeding was spontaneous or forced, it is clear that it ultimately generated chaos, a suspension of the laws of nature-- androlomusia (Medrash 26:5). 

In Vayikra 19:19, the Torah prohibits us from intentional mating of animals of different species:
אֶת חֻקֹּתַי, תִּשְׁמֹרוּ בְּהֶמְתְּךָ לֹא תַרְבִּיעַ כִּלְאַיִם  שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרַע כִּלְאָיִם  וּבֶגֶד כִּלְאַיִם שַׁעַטְנֵז  לֹא יַעֲלֶה עָלֶיךָ.

The Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachaya there say that interbreeding of species for the purpose of creating an animal that is not part of the natural world expresses a denial of the perfection of the world as created (see, e.g., Chulin 127), it is an act of rebellion against God's will, and it is Makchish- it weakens- God's act of creation.  I would say that this 'Makchish,' weakening, is derived from the term androlomusia, a breach in the laws of nature, resulting in chaos.  It is as if natural law- physics, mathematics, biology- is a treaty between Man and God; if Mankind breaches the treaty, all natural law is subject to abrogation by God, as occurred at the time of the Mabul..

Now, here is a paragraph from an editorial in Nature, published June 2007.

Many a technology has at some time or another been deemed an affront to God, but perhaps none invites the accusation as directly as synthetic biology. Only a deity predisposed to cut-and-paste would suffer any serious challenge from genetic engineering as it has been practised in the past. But the efforts to design living organisms from scratch — either with a wholly artificial genome made by DNA synthesis technology or, more ambitiously, by using non-natural, bespoke molecular machinery — really might seem to justify the suggestion, made recently by the ETC Group, an environmental pressure group based in Ottawa, Canada, that "for the first time, God has competition".

I suppose it's nice to see that these people were mechavein to, and so eloquently stated, the essential thesis of the Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachaya.  And, of course, the Ramban issue does not apply only to synthetic biology, but even to gene splicing, which is now so common as to often be done in high school science projects.

The natural halachic reaction to this Rashi is that the fact remains that after Matan Torah, we have 365 prohibitions, no more, no less, and if no specific prohibition covers an act, there is no reason to avoid it other than the vague mussar of "kedoshim tihyu".  After all, the issur of Kilayim in Vayikra 19:19 is called a "chok."  If it is a chok, perhaps the issur is limited to the specific cases that were prohibited and not meant to be extrapolated, and we have no right to establish a binyan av. Perhaps, then, the manipulation of genetic material in a laboratory, which does not involve the unnatural act of mating dissimilar animals, is not prohibited.

Continuing the train of thought, here's a piece of Torah from Reb Elchonon Wasserman.  Every single line in this  piece is a fascinating chiddush.  Items 1 and 2 will appear irrelevant to our discussion, but you will see that they lead back to this topic.  Unfortunately, I can't find a full text copy of the Kovetz Shiurim online, and I'm not getting paid enough to type it, so I'll just give you the mareh makom and a synopsis.  Kesuvos 60, # 203 in my copy.
1.  Citing Rabbeinu Chananel in Chagiga 16- a child conceived through artificial insemination, and certainly in vitro, does not generate tumas leida for the mother.  (Ed: Of course there would be the standard "ein pesichas hakever belo dahm."  But neither the chumra of tumas leidah, nor the kula of dahm tohar, would apply to a child of AI, and certainly not to in vitro fertilization.)
2. This would only be true where AI and IV are rare.  If they were to become common, their halacha would be the same as natural conception. (Ed: in the previous piece he says like Reb Moshe and the Avnei Nezer, that bishul be'chama is only different than bishul in fire so long as it is rare.  Once it becomes common, there would be a din of bishul basar be'chalav, the issur of bishul korban pesach, and a de'oraysa of bishul on Shabbos, even in bishul bechama.  See, e.g., this.)
3. Now that cross-pollination is common, cross-pollination is prohibited between any trees for which grafting would be assur.  (Ed: the Chazon Ish (Zeraim, Kilayim 3) leaves undecided the question of whether grafting among dissimilar citrus trees is prohibited.  According to many poskim, the issur of harkava is the reason that we avoid grafted Esrogim, though the Chazon Ish prohibits grafted Esrogim even if the the issur of harkava does not apply.  According to Reb Elchonon, then, the act of intentional cross-pollination between dissimilar citrus trees would be a safek de'oraysa.  If so, it would seem that the fruit of any naturally cross-pollinated esrog would be passul.  If so, there hasn't been a kosher esrog in the world since the time of Adam Harishon, because cross-pollination with other similar citruses occurs whenever the wind blows.  In fact, I believe that the only reason we can use them on Sukkos, even though they inevitably contain a certain percentage of lemon genes from cross pollination, is that yichus goes after the mother (the ovary/stigma), not the father (the pollen/stamen.))

Some aspects of this issue have been addressed by certain rabbinical figures, some of whom propose that the prohibition of harkava only applies to living entities. Genetic material, on the other hand, is not alive, and, they say, may be manipulated at will.  This might come as a surprise to the Ramban, to Reb Elchanan, and to the editors of Nature.  It is similar to an argument that ma'aseh Onan is muttar for anyone that was already mekayeim pirya ve'riya.

Regarding Cloning, there are those who do not discourage it.  Rabbi J. David Bleich, in Tradition, Spring 1998, argues that cloning is muttar because
"The matter of identification as a member of a species is best summed up in a pithy comment attributed to Rav Chaim Soloveitchik. It is reported that Rav Chaim explained a certain Halachic concept by posing the following query: Why is a horse a horse? The answer is that a horse is a horse because its mother was of that species. For that reason the Mishna, Bechorot 5b, declares that the offspring of a kosher animal is kosher even if it has the appearance and physical attributes of a non-kosher animal and, conversely, the offspring of a non-kosher animal is non-kosher even if it has the appearance and physical attributes of a kosher animal. Thus, identity as a member of a particular species is determined not by distinguishing characteristics, but by birth."
He then cites Reb Elchanan in Kovetz He'aros 8:33 who broadly applies the rule of the Mishna in Bechoros.The Chazon Ish (Yoreh Deah 116:1) has also been cited as support for the approach.

On the other hand, Rav Eliashiv has been quoted (see Torah U’madda Journal 9:195 and 216) as stating that cloning violates the spirit of the Torah, as it is similar to Kilayim.  Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 15:45:4) emphatically objects to cloning. 

But there is a fundamental distinction between that discussion, which focuses on the product of cloning, and   Rashi and the Ramban's statements, which address the process of hybridization.  In fact, the Chazon Ish in YD 168:1 is arguably a strong source for the prohibition of interspecific gene splicing.

In any case, it could be argued that the Torah is warning us that the creation of new life forms, either by conflation or synthesis, endangers all life on earth.  One doesn't have to be a Luddite or a fundamentalist to recognize that if the black plague, which involved a natural life form which co-existed with humanity for millennia, reduced the population of Europe by sixty percent, the escape of a carelessly or maliciously engineered organism could do at least as well.  I don't mean to rehash the trope of endless science fiction novels and thrillers.  The idea here is that besides the natural danger, a more important factor might be the breach of the natural treaty between man and G-d.  True, Hashem promised that the wholesale abrogation of the laws of nature will never happen again.  But this does not exhaust the list of alternative horrors.  There are many who consider themselves Orthodox Jews who have a hard time believing the literal truth of the story of the Mabul and Noach.  Here's hoping that the thesis I presented here is incorrect, so that we don't have to witness conclusive proof of the literal truth of the story of the Mabul.


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