Friday, 4 April 2008

Judaism and Human Fertilisation and Embryology


Ishah ki tazriah

When a woman gives birth


This week we are reading, in the Torah, the laws appertaining to childbirth.

And the papers (and certainly the pulpits of my Catholic colleagues) are full of the ethics of childbirth.

Parliament is debating the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill and Cardinal Keith O’Brian is using his Easter sermon to denounce experiments of ‘Frankenstinian proportion’ O’Brian considers the Bill ‘a monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life!’


What’s a Jewish view of all this?

What a Jewish view on human-animal hybrid embryos?

Don’t think it’s still beyond the realm of science. Just yesterday Dr Lyle Armstrong of Newcastle University reported that Britain’s first hybrid embryos had been created and grown for three days.

Human DNA was mixed with animal DNA and then inserted into a hollowed-out cow egg. And electric shock then induced the hybrid egg to grow.[1]


Dr Armstrong, whose work is licensed by the HEFA, is now waiting for the Bill to be passed to learn whether he is to be allowed to extract stem-cell lines from these three day old hybrids, because with these stem-cells he might be able to make a contribution to diseases and injuries that, at present, spell utter disaster and death.


The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill bumps up against the greatest miracle of all, the miracle of the creation of life, and in doing so it bumps up against our dearest held conceptions of ethics and the nature of humanity.


What’s a Jewish view of all this?

One section of the Bill refers to pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.

When embryos are created, for want of a better term, in a test-tube, Doctors have for more than 20 years routinely screened these embryos for more than 20 potentially life-threatening conditions.

The new Bill offers a different possibility – it offers parents with a hereditary disease or defective gene the chance to have one or more embryos created outside the body and tested for this defect before implantation.

The Bill doesn’t open a possibility for testing for gender or any other kind of ‘social’ issue but, and this is radical.

There is a Talmudic passage[2] that seems to acknowledge, at least in theory, a kind of pre-implantation genetic manipulation.


We need to go back to Genesis.

Leah has had six children, all boys and the Biblical text says veachar yalda bat

And after she gave birth to a daughter.

After what Rav Yoseph wants to know.

After doing some mental arithmetic comes the answer.

Leah, the Talmud assumes, knows that Jacob is to have 12 sons.

She knows that she has 6 of them.

She knows that both the maidservants, Bilhah and Zilpah, have two sons – leaving only two left.

Leah knows, the Talmud suggests that if she has another boy that will only leave one boy for Rachel. Rachel would have fewer sons than the maidservants, and that seems impossible.

So she determines to have a daughter, and so Dina is born.


There is another equally odd, but equally pertinent text in Baba Metzia.[3] Rabbi Yochanan is one of the great beauties of the Jewish tradition. And, we are told that he would sit at the gates to the Mikvah and when the women would emerge he would say, ‘let them look at me and they will have children as handsome and as learned as I.’


Of course the science of these stories makes no sense to us enlightened folk. We understand mitochondrial protein synthesis. We’ve come a long way from the time of Leah and the time of Rabbi Yochanan, and these texts now seem a little ridiculous, but under their superficial naiveté lies a more profound approach which can help us with the sorts of advances that the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill places before us.


As a conceptual issue we do not have in Rabbinic sources an objection to playing God.


Rabbi Barry Freundel,[4] an orthodox Rabbi based in Washington reported that he was invited to give evidence to an Ethics committee ‘on the Hill’ together with a Cardinal. The Cardinal railed against some particular stance being discussed – ‘this would be,’ the cardinal said, ‘like making humans a partner in the act of creation!’

The striking thing, Rabbi Freundel reported is that this exact phrase – a partner in the act of creation – is Rabbinic. It is used in this much loved passage from Kohelet Rabba


It was taught; at the time a babe is formed in the womb of its mother it has three partners in its creation; the Holy Blessed One, its father and its mother. Its father implants the white that is in him – the brain, the nails, the white of the eye, the bones and the sinews. Its mother implants the red that is in him – the blood, the skin, the muscle, the hair and the black of the eye. And the Holy Blessed One, may God’s name be blessed, places ten things within him. And these are they; the soul, the spirit, the lustre of the visage, the ability to see and the sense of hearing, the speech from the lips, the strength of the arms and the legs’ ability to walk, wisdom, understanding, counsel and intellect and might. And when it comes to the time to pass, the Holy Blessed One, takes back His part and leaves behind the parts of the mother and father before them. And the father and mother weep.[5]


The human is the product of the combined shutafut – partnership between human and God, and while the Catholics see the notion of a human-divine shutafut as a terrible overreach of humanity, we, Jews, see it as inevitable but also as a challenge. How can we live up to our side of this shutafut – this transaction?


In Catholicism there is a religious goal of surrender. Even in the work of as radical Christian theologian as Soren Kierkegaard one can see the notion of the suppression of the human instinct, of, what Kierkegaard calls in Fear and Trembling a ‘suppression of the ethical.’ It’s not really a Jewish way.


Islam, the term itself means surrender, also has elements of this suppression of the self. One important image is that which states a person should ‘place himself in the hands of God by making himself like a corpse in the hands of a washer.’[6]

With the washers turning the body over and over to wash it, with the body hanging limply. It’s just not very Jewish.


Marx considered religion an opiate, he thought religion dampened down human creativity, human engagement, human struggle.

Again, it just doesn’t feel like he could have had even his own mother religion in mind.

Religion as abstention is not a religion I recognise.


We are not people to ‘down our tools’ when there is something to be done that could improve the world.


Stem cells offer extraordinary promise.

There simply aren’t enough donated human eggs available to be able continue making the progress we would want to, to save lives, to diminish the reach of death.


Vyarpo yirape ‘­and surely he shall be healed,’ says the Bible[7] in the context that has nothing to do with infertility or illness, but it’s enough for the Rabbis to create an overarching obligation to heal

Another verse, this time one which needs no fancy interpretation - You shall not stand by the blood of your fellow.[8] Healing is a command.


One might think that illness is divinely mandated, that infertility is divine punishment, indeed there are religious groupings that think these things, but they are not Jewish groups.


In my recent talk on medical ethics I cited a little known text from Midrash Temura which captures perfectly the core of a Rabbinic approach to healing, illness and medical advancement.

Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva were walking through the streets of Jerusalem when the were me by a sick person. He said to them, ‘what must I do to be cured.’ They told him, ‘do this and that until you are cured.’

The sick man answered, ‘and who afflicted me?’

‘They replied, ‘The Holy Blessed One’

The sick man responded, ‘you have entered into a matter which does not pertain to you. God has afflicted and you seek to cure! Are you not transgressing God’s will’

The Rabbis ask the man his profession, he is a farmer.

So they ask him why he interferes with the God-given state of his land by fertilizing and weeding. ‘Just as plants, if not weeded, fertilised and ploughed will not growth and bring forth fruit, so to the human body. The fertiliser is the medicine and the means of healing and the tiller of the earth is the physician.[9]


And this is about more than medical ethics, as important as these complex issues are, and I wouldn’t want to reduce them to a generalisation.

But I do want to address the broader issue, and that is what I call sleeves rolled up approach to life that typifies the Jewish soul.


We don’t sit and wait for destiny to unfold before us, meekly accepting the slings and arrows of fortune.

Yitgaber adam baboker kari, opens the greatest of all our law codes, the Shulchan Arukh

We are commanded to rise, each morning like a lion,[10] ready to engage with the world with all its complexities.


The Midrash teaches that a great many Israelites never left Egypt, they were too scared to leave.

They were waiting for something, some other kind of a sign, that would tell them it was OK to pack up and get out.

If you wait too long the opportunity passes.


As is taught in Vayikra Rabba, everything created in the six days of the Beginning needs further treatment: wheat can do with being milled, mustard with being sweetened.[11]


Life and death, blessing and curse have been placed in our hands.

It has been so ever since the time of the Garden of Eden, charged with responsibility, encouraged to work and tend the garden and everything in it.


We have to brace ourselves for the future, decide what is and what is not to be permitted, but we should never desist from the very radical notion that we are indeed partners in the act of creation.

Responsible for human failure, but also emboldened to believe in human success.



[2] Brachot 60a

[3] Baba Metziah 84a

[5] Kohelet Rabbah 5

[6] Lecture of Prof Ray Scheindlin, JTS Library Talk, 25 February 2008

[7] Ex 21:19

[8] Lev 19:16

[9] Midrash Temurah, cited in Feldman, Health and Medicine in the Jewish Tradition p.16.

[10] Shulchan Arukh OH 1:1

[11] VR 11:7

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