Gene-ius: Alan Mittleman is a professor of Jewish philosophy.

Of Genetics and the Sanctity of Human Life

“You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules,” Nobel laureate Francis Crick, who co-discovered DNA’s double strand architecture, wrote in his 1994 book on consciousness, “The Astonishing Hypothesis.”

This quote reappears in “Human Nature & Jewish Thought: Judaism’s Case for Why Persons Matter,” (Princeton University Press, 2015) the latest book by Alan Mittleman, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Mittleman seeks to counter what he sees as a reductionist worldview embodied in Crick’s statement, proposing instead that individuals cannot be reduced to their physical constituents.

The Forward’s Richard Blaustein asked Mittleman how Judaism can offer broad guidelines for some genetic questions ahead.

Richard Blaustein: In your book you say that you see the philosopher’s role as bridging the gap between theology and science. In the case of genetics, what would enable a Jewish humanist philosopher like yourself to bridge that divide?

A central concern of my book is to explain why persons matter. It seems to me the whole mentality of science is to try to explain complex wholes through reduction to parts, and to the way parts work. And from a biological point of view, getting deeper and deeper down unto the ultimate constituents of physical reality, persons easily get lost. You see that in that Frances Crick quote. On the one hand genetics is an immensely exciting and powerful tool that explains not just aspects of human anatomy and physiology but also aspects of human personality and intellectual capacity. I think it is unlimited as to what genetics can potentially explain. But does that in the end come down to seeing ourselves as [just] complex molecular processes? It might. So I see the philosopher’s role here as trying to bridge a scientific discourse that is largely reductionist with ordinary human or perhaps religious discourse in which persons have reality and primacy. And insofar as Judaism wants to take on board as much good science as it can and have rational beliefs, I see that as the role of the Jewish philosopher — to bring about that kind of bridging to these realms of discourse.

Toward the end of the book, you write: “As the technological possibilities opened by such advances as preimplementation genetic diagnosis, stem cells, cloning, and gene therapy become available, our moral frameworks for how to evaluate them become ever more thin and tenuous.” You also say that Jewish tradition and texts can nonetheless offer guidance. How so?

If you look at Jewish attitudes throughout history toward medicine, they are mostly positive, but they are not entirely positive — you have medieval thinkers like Bahya Ben Asher who was pretty skeptical about medicine but was inclined to believe that God is the true healer and that human intervention with healing is a sign of human presumption. A lot of the language of healing in the Bible goes to God. And the rabbis in the Talmud have to infer the permissibility of medicine from the text in Exodus as to an assailant paying for the healing of the person he attacked. [T]hat is a somewhat indirect way of introducing the legitimacy of medicine. So this generated quite a bit of resistance, particularly in an age when medicine was something of a crap shoot. For the most part, Judaism sticks its neck out and says that medicine is legitimate and that it is legitimate for human beings to work with God, using their reason and using the scientific tools of their time, to advance human welfare. [With] the radical new possibilities of genetics like therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning, genetic diagnosis and pre-implementation therapy, the real challenge is: Are these continuous with that benign positive understanding of medicine that the tradition involves? It is one thing to encourage genetic engineering that might cure hereditary disease among Jews — but it is another thing to think that designer babies are part of that continuum. It seems to me that the Jewish position is generally positive toward these technologies with caveats.

How or where in the Jewish tradition might we find these caveats for genetics?

That is a difficult question. It would be nice to be armed with a big principle in advance, to help you sort out what’s permitted and what’s forbidden, when something is a therapy that works for health and when something is an enhancement that is somewhat more unnecessary. I don’t think it is a matter of rules and principles as it is a matter of having good judgment, and you get that good judgment by taking the sanctity of human life with utmost seriousness, and you are able to do that because you’ve been raised in a tradition that has inculcated the values of this. I think that weighs heavily against reproductive cloning, for example and it would certainly militate against the idea that you can create a spare human being in order to have spare parts. [Nonetheless] it seems to me the Jewish tradition, unlike contemporary conservative politics, is willing to move ahead if human betterment and advance of medicine is what’s at stake, without the kind of deep unsettling worries that we might be upsetting the natural order of things. I think in Judaism, humans are viewed as partners with God and advancing the work of creation.

This interview has been edited for length and style. Richard Blaustein is a freelance science and environmental journalist. Follow him on Twitter @richblaustein

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