by Zachary Orenshein, SBM Fellow
Does halakhah place limits on technological innovation?
Some rishonim may imply such limits in their interpretations of the various Torah prohibitions under the rubric kil’ayim, namely shaatnez (interweaving wool and linen), crossbreeding animals, sowing the seeds of different plants together, and using different animals to drive the same plow. These prohibitions are listed together in Vayikra 19:19 following the phrase “you must observe my chukim.”
Rashi understands chukim to be Divine fiats, and declares that there is no rationale other than Divine command for any of the prohibitions of kil’ayim. Ramban objects that Rashi has no Talmudic basis for this assertion; the source Rashi cites at best makes such a claim only about shaatnez. Moreover, he contends that even regarding shaatnez, the Talmud claims only that there is no revealed or humanly intelligible rationale, not that there is no rationale at all.
Ramban then offers a rationale which relates to scientific innovation: mixing these individual creations weakens the force of the initial creation (makchish b’koach maasei Bereishit). This argument seems to assume that God created the world with a certain amount of species, each of which had an intended role. When humans crossbreed plant or animal species, they mess up the ideal of how God intended the world to run. This prompts us to ask: Are any of our modern scientific innovations, such as gene editing, messing with God’s intention for the nature of the world?
One objection to applying Ramban now is that his opinion contradicts the accepted modern scientific view of the world, which sees evolution as constant and extinction as common. To what extent it is possible to take halakhic explanations rooted in a scientific worldview much different from our own, and apply them to new circumstances? Should we instead refuse to apply them even to old circumstances, because of our new understandings?
Alternatively, perhaps we can separate the still-relevant religious assumptions and values undergirding halakhah from the outmoded scientific thinking that generated specific regulations. Ramban could then be taken as precedent for regulating technological innovation lest one come to be makchish b’koach maasei Bereishit, even if our sense of maasei Bereishit would be unrecognizable to him.
Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi finds Ramban’s rationale unconvincing. He argues that because the Torah presents the prohibitions of kil’ayim as a group, they must share the same rationale. But mixing seeds does not change the plants themselves, unlike crossbreeding animals, so Ramban’s rationale cannot apply to it! Therefore, all we can say is that God does not like mixtures, or at least certain mixtures. We can’t know why.
How rational we deem these laws may determine how far we can apply them. If we can locate a rationale, then the prohibition may apply more generally to areas of modern science which similarly veer the world from its original Divine plan. Without a rationale, there is nothing upon which to generalize the law. It would apply only to the specific cases the Torah describes.
Under Rashi’s understanding of shaatnez, there is no basis for prohibiting any other fabric mixtures. By contrast, Mizrachi can be read to say that God generally disdains mixing things, which would have broad implications for scientific innovations. However, he plainly cannot mean that G-d disdains all mixtures! No one has ever suggested that G-d bans making flour and water into dough, for example. Since Mizrachi offers no parameters for determining which mixtures G-d disdains and which He doesn’t, we should probably avoid any applications that go beyond the narrow framework of the Biblical prohibitions. Ramban does provide a parameter – makchish b’koach maasei Bereishit. To the extent we understand what he means, he can become a precedent for limitations on technological innovation.
Another mitzvah which can be used as precedent for setting such limits is the prohibition against kishuf, usually translated as witchcraft. Although “witchcraft” for many in the modern world conjures up a very particular image which has little to do with science, Sefer HaChinnukh defines it more broadly. In his definition, witchcraft is the practice of mixing things with different natures so as to cause damage in the world. Under this definition, it is possible that the prohibition of witchcraft includes scientific innovation which turns out to have negative consequences for the world. This could have radical implications, such as banning Jews from experimental science, as it is almost impossible to know definitively beforehand whether new initiatives will be harmful once in practice.
However, like Ramban’s position regarding kil’ayim, Sefer HaChinnukh’s position on kishuf seems to be rooted in an outdated philosophical position. Modern philosophy does not speak of each species as having a particular nature which can be violated by changing the characteristics of its members, for example via crossbreeding. Rather, we see everything that exists in nature as natural, and our definition of a species must account for all variations present in any member of that species. It is true that most calves have one head, but there exist naturally occurring two-headed calves; therefore, a cow must be defined as having one or more heads. Moreover, we are aware that every species is constantly evolving, In addition, Sefer HaChinnukh describes as part of the problem that there are specific celestial powers in charge of each type of creation that become lost when these creations are mixed. Modern conceptions of metaphysics generally regard such intermediate powers as unnecessary to explain the world and therefore, by Occam’s razor, as nonexistent.
Yet there may still be a way to preserve Sefer HaChinnukh’s position in this halakhic discourse. We can ask, “What would Sefer HaChinnukh say if he accepted a philosophy and metaphysics we currently see as viable?” Perhaps his position can still generate an obligation to diligently monitor scientific innovation for possible negative outcomes down the line. But do we want such an obligation? Imposing halakhic limits on technological innovation would limit Jews from being participants in these advances, while likely having no overall impact on the world. Sefer HaChinnukh’s position seems to require the equivalent of the Shabbos Goy phenomenon in the world of innovative science. We would leave all the actual experimentation and innovation to nonJews, and only have Jewish scientists follow suit if we see that the results of the field are not damaging.
This makes little sense in an interconnected world, where the scientific activity that occurs in the general world has direct effect on the Jewish communities. Furthermore, if we believe that halakhah has an important moral contribution to the universal discourse on these issues, we must consider that the real world effect of Sefer HaChinnukh would be to prevent halakhically concerned scientists from having any voice in innovative fields.
Perhaps, then, the proper application of Sefer HaChinnukh today is not to ban Jews from participating in the production of innovative science – quite the opposite! It would call for Jews to enter these fields and provide a voice for practical caution and concern for unintended consequences, and provide a brake on risk-taking in service of ambition.
Maharal offers a completely different approach. His starting point is a Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah which says that God crossbred a horse and donkey to create a mule on the first Motzaei Shabbat of creation, even though the Torah subsequently forbids Jews to crossbreed animals. He concludes that God must be wholly supportive of even the forbidden crossbreeding which the Torah prohibits. If Ramban thinks the laws of nature constrain us, Maharal believes they create a space for human initiative; it is just that Jews, for reasons specific to their nature and mission, must observe a certain set of narrow restrictions. Outside these specific prohibitions, Maharal should be ardently in favor of Jewish participation in emerging fields of scientific innovation as ideal expression of human creativity.
Where does this leave halakhah, and the poskim charged with deciding, discovering, or creating it? Our divinely rooted tradition could reasonably be expected to provide guidance for the scientific community to navigate innovation ethically and responsibly. Yet, though the debate outlined above speaks to today’s circumstances, it does not sound like standard halakhic discourse. Its modern applications sound much more like mussar. Is “Don’t be too ambitious” and “Consider the consequences” all that poskim have to say by way of guidance to the emerging field of gene editing? As halakhah so often makes evident, ritual followed by a committed community is powerful and enduring. Does halakhah have nothing more specific to offer?
Perhaps all we have to offer is the importance of balancing a drive for creation with caution about consequences. Or, perhaps we can find resources within our tradition that will enable us to construct more precise formulations and concrete rules. How compelling must those resources be? How and on what basis should those rules be given authority? To what extent should halakhah and halakhists seek to participate in a universal ethical discourse, rather than focusing exclusively on guiding the practical decisions of Jews? How we answer these questions is vital not only to our responses to specific biotechnological innovations, but to the general and pressing question of how our live ancient tradition can thrive in a world of rapid technological progress and social change.