Is Genetic Engineering Kosher?

Hi, I’m Ariela. I am studying nutrition sciences (dietetics) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I have a bachelors in sociology from UC Davis, and I am interested in the sociological aspects of people’s lives, especially food and culture. Hanukkah started last night at sundown, and I thought it was particularly relevant to talk about a project I worked on the last academic year.

As part of an Undergraduate Research Scholars program, I gathered research for Professor Jordan Rosenblum. He is interested in how the slow food and local food movements, as well as the biotechnology revolution relate to Kosher Laws. He is working on writing a book about ancient Jewish dietary practices, and the various arguments for or against it. He is a well-versed scholar on the subject of biblical and rabbinical literature. My role was to help him find modern arguments concerning Jewish dietary laws and culture, and how they are interpreted in the 21st century. I have read and analyzed over a dozen books, journal articles and web links to focus on two modern debates concerning Jewish dietary laws. I wanted to find out how Jewish beliefs influence their views on genetic engineering, and whether there was evidence for the modern argument that certain Kosher laws were based on health considerations.

The first topic that I researched was Jewish views on genetic engineering. I was surprised by what I found because I had assumptions going into it. I thought liberal Jews would be open to genetic engineering because of an “open mind” to modern biotechnology. On the other hand, I assumed conservative Jews would be against genetic engineering because I thought they would view it as a potential threat to their views on social and religious order. I was completely proven wrong.

Liberal Jews tend to be more cautious and reserved about food biotechnology. They employ a different set of ethics compared to their Conservative counterparts, like the use of secular, modern liberal ideology. They feel that not enough is known about its potential drawbacks and benefits to completely integrate its use into modern society. Some also feel, in a very general way, that an organism’s “soul” has been tampered with by manipulating its genome. There is one exception to these feelings of doubt and malaise concerning genetic engineering. This is the Jewish duty of pikuach nefesh – the solemn duty to save a human soul. If genetically engineered food can save lives, then it must be supported.

On the whole, conservative Jews are strongly in favor of biotechnology. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, there is no fear over “playing God.” They regard themselves as “co-creators” with God in improving the natural world. Psalm 115:6 reads ‘the heavens are the heavens of God’ yet ‘the earth he has given to the sons of man.’ Second, the Torah and the Talmud has nothing in it that directly or indirectly forbids genetic engineering. So conservative Jews who strictly follow the holy texts openly embrace genetic engineering and use it to their advantage. Interestingly enough, we also see Amish communities as deeply religious and resistant to modern technologies, yet there are Amish farmers who grow genetically engineered crops because they believe it supports their way of life and it is not directly forbidden in their Scriptures.

Frank N Jordan
Frank and Jordan. Shalom! שָׁלוֹם

The second topic is about modern scientific claims surrounding the kosher laws. Our current understanding of food safety has imbued ancient religious discourses about food and dietary practices. For instance, there are many scholars who argue that ancient injunctions against consuming pork products were a way of avoiding being contaminated with trichinosis. The kosher laws were thought to have been enacted for religious purposes, intent upon purifying one’s soul of “unclean” food sources. The truth is, no scholar is certain as to the origin of the kosher laws. The modern analysis of kosher laws as health prescription is a wholly modern invention, with little Biblical or Talmudic justification. The application of modern scientific ideas to ancient food rules and practices is a way of rationalizing non-rational rituals.

There are various reasons given for the nature of the kosher laws, some are intellectual and others are hukum. Intellectual arguments in favor of kosher laws are laid out by rabbis in the Talmud. Hukum is a non-rational justification for following a rule. Basically, as a Jew, you are expected to follow the kosher laws because God said so. It is like being told to do something that seems irrational by a parent without a good explanation. The Kosher laws are also seen as a form of cohesion within the Jewish community. During ancient times and even today, they were a way of stating one’s unique Jewish heritage. Kosher food rules made it difficult to mingle with Gentiles or non-practicing Jews who did not keep kosher. This definitely solidified social bonds between Jews through food and ceremony. The fact that certain dietary laws may be healthy or sanitary is superfluous to its initial meaning.

My research on the kosher laws will be relevant to me as a trained sociologist and Registered Dietitian. This will be very useful for me as an aspiring dietitian to know the rationale behind religious food rituals. I would know what questions to ask and boundaries to respect concerning these food practices. Given the growing number of practicing Muslims and Jews in the United States alone makes this topic worth researching. Even after having completed my work with the Undergraduate Research Scholars, I plan to keep researching this topic. Food and sociology are two very relevant and important topics for me as an aspiring dietitian!

References:

  1. Green, Ronald M. “The Jewish Perspective on GenEthics.” Ed. Pfleiderer, G., Brahier, G., Lindpainter, K. Genethics and Religion. Basel: Karger, 2010. 118-127.
    Hart, Mitchell B. The Healthy Jew. New York, Cambridge, 2007.
    Regenstein, Joe M. and Carrie E. “An Introduction to Kosher and Halal Food Laws.” Ed. Patricia A. Curtis.  Guide to Food Laws and Regulations Iowa: Blackwell, 2005. 163-201.
  2. Reichman, Edward. “Why Is This Gene Different from All Other Genes? The Jewish Approach to Biotechnology.” Ed. Michael C. Brannigan. Cross-Cultural Biotechnology. Oxford: Rowman, 2004. 93-102.
  3. Schlich, Thomas. “The Word of God and the Word of Science: Nutrition Science and the Jewish Dietary Laws in Germany, 1820-1920.” Ed. Harmke Kaminga and Andrew Cunningham. The Science and Culture of Nutrition, 1840-1940. Amsterdam: Atlanta, 1995. 97-120.
  4. Sherwin, Byron L. Golems Among Us: How a Jewish Legend Can Help Us Navigate The Biotech Century. Chicago: Dee, 2004.
  5. Tirosh-Samuelson, Hava. “Jewish Philosophy, Human Dignity, and  the New Genetics.” Ed. Sean D. Sutton. Biotechnology: Our Future as Human Beings and Citizens. New York: Albany, 2009. 81-112.
  6. Zoloth, Laurie. “When You Plow the Field, Your Torah Is with You: Genetic Modification and GM Foods in the Jewish Tradition(s).” Ed. Conrad G. Brunk and Harold Coward. Acceptable Genes? Religious Traditions and Genetically Modified Foods. New York: Albany, 2009. 81-110.
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Ariela Haro von Mogel is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a B.S. in Dietetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is particularly interested in Latino health, cultural competence, and nutrition education.
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