Richard Greenberg Author of the book "Pathways: Jews Who Return," published by Jason Aronson Inc
"Today," President Clinton declared at a recent White House ceremony, "we
are learning the language in which God created life."
No, he didn't mean Hebrew, although that would have been a nice touch.
Clinton was referring to the human genome, the multi-billion-letter
"operating manual" for homo sapiens that scientists have finally
deciphered -- surely the most eagerly awaited literary release this side of
This cracking of the genetic code promises to revolutionize medicine, but it
also raises a host of moral and ethical questions that Judaism speaks to.
The genome, for example, will no doubt help us better understand human
behavior-and misbehavior-by identifying its genetic components. Consider
where that might take us. Fast-forward to the year 2015: Is it farfetched to
imagine, say, enterprising defense attorneys concocting "genetic defenses"
for their clients?
Judaism wouldn't buy it. Our tradition maintains that biology is not
destiny, and therefore holds people accountable for their actions-whether or
not they have whatever syndrome is momentarily fashionable.
There are legitimate mitigating factors, of course, such as mental
incompetence, but Judaism otherwise consistently affirms the ability of
people to exercise their free will and make moral choices. In fact, in
general the Talmud says a person is always liable for his actions, whether
awake or asleep.
Unfortunately, Judaism's position runs counter to a growing societal
tendency to diminish personal accountability, often using medical or
psychological "explanations" to excuse evil deeds. Does the term "Twinkie
defense" ring a bell? That argument was used in a celebrated 1978 case by an
attorney who maintained that his client was driven to commit murder by his
addiction to junk food.
Time will tell whether the human genome is abused in this and other ways.
The possibilities are endless. Will it be used, for example, to invade
individual privacy through the unauthorized release of sensitive genetic
information? Moreover, will man use it to play God through selective
breeding or the engineering of desirable traits?
As for privacy, Judaism certainly values it-to the extent that it opposes
even subtle forms of snooping. The Torah speaks of the Gentile prophet
Bilaam praising the Israelites for dwelling arrangements that prevented
unwanted intrusions and other invasions of privacy.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, no one is fit to play God,
genome-enhanced expertise notwithstanding. This category, however, does not
include a wide range of scientific endeavors, such as legitimate medical
intervention and research, which Judaism encourages. The human genome
promises to be an invaluable tool in this area. What Judaism discourages is
interfering with God's natural plan for no good reason. This theme is
reflected in the Torah, which forbids the mixing of distinct plant and
animal species. Disrupting the natural order is not only arrogant; it can be
downright dangerous, too. It's common sense. It's also the law-the law of
Mr. Greenberg's book, "Pathways" is
a collection of stories told by once-assimilated Jews who have rediscovered
their spiritual roots. Mr. Greenberg is available to discuss his book at
RickG613@aol.com or 301-649-0846.