In my book club, we read some books with Jewish themes or authors, as well as others that have no Jewish connection, yet we always end up in discussions relating to community issues, religious tenets or our own lives.
The former category includes The Midwife of Venice, The Dovekeepers, and People of the Book.
The Midwife of Venice gave a glimpse into the way Jews lived in the Venetian ghetto. With Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, we looked at my facsimile copy of the Sarajevo Hagaddah with fresh eyes, wondering how in its travels from Spain to Sarajevo it acquired its present characteristics.
We compared Alice Hoffman’s fictional account of the Masada zealots with Yigal Yadin’s account of excavations at Masada. Given Yadin’s conclusions – if you read both books, check his theory about skeletons found near the palace with Hoffman’s fictional reason – you see how she creates a different scenario.
But a real challenge looms with the book I will present this year – an example of one with no direct Jewish connection – Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, on a timely and delicate subject: human cloning.
From a Jewish perspective, what are we to make of clones being created and used for spare parts by their “models?”
I never thought that cloning humans, even for infertile couples, could be halachically permitted, or ethically, either, for that matter. My thought – even before reading the book – was that cloning an individual is monstrous. We’re all unique: even identical twins, with identical DNA, grow up as different people. There is so much more to us than our DNA: the sum of all our experiences and the way we filter those experiences through perspectives created over a lifetime. So when I went to Rabbi Google for a Jewish perspective, I was shocked.
Here’s some of what I found.
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, in a 1997 New York Times letter to the editor, wrote that in the instance of a Holocaust survivor (for an example) who had no family left, it could be permissible for that person to be cloned so as ensure continuation of a family line. He saw no halachic problem with this, at least in his short letter.
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde agrees (Cloning People and Jewish Law: A Preliminary Analysis). He argues: “I am essentially unaware… of any substantive violation of Jewish law that… occurs when one clones cells from one human being into the egg of another and implants that fertilized egg into a gestational mother… [W]here the clonor is a man such that he fulfils the obligation to be fruitful and multiply… and he cannot fulfil the obligation otherwise… cloning can be classified as a good deed (mitzvah kiyumi); in those circumstance where the clonor is a woman, cloning can be classified as… neither prohibited nor a mitzvah, simply permissible.”
But wait! What about creating clones for spare parts? Or having a second child as a bone marrow or kidney donor for a first child? This rabbi sees no difficulty in the latter, and leaves the former for “ethical” considerations apart from Halachah, quoting the Maharal, who wrote that people were put into this world to participate in creation, to “bring to fruition things that are not found in nature.” Cloning, Rabbi Broyde concludes, “is but one example of that conquest, which when used to advance humanity, is without theological problem in the Jewish tradition.”
I was uncomfortable with this, to say the least. So, onward to Eitan Fiorin’s article “The Case Against Cloning” (Torah u-Madda Journal, 2000).
He argues that in ethical terms, “there are technological heights to which humanity ought not ascend, and I would include human cloning among these.” I guess that would translate as “just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.”
The strict halachic view may say yea, but should we not include an ethical imperative in our considerations? Can you say The Boys From Brazil?
There are already signs that a rosy picture of continual human technological advancement is stuttering: what about militaries investigating the possibility of a cloned army, in order to save lives – human lives, that is. And the replacement child? How would you feel about being one?
We have the right to save a life, and we possess the ability to create things not found in nature.
But cloning? It just feels wrong. Let’s see what my book club thinks.