Brisker CRISPER: The Hezekian Archetype for Halakhic Discussions of Embryonic Editing (Week Three Summary of SBM 2019)

by Gershon Klapper and Doniel Weinreich, SBM Fellows

In those days Hezekiah sickened unto death; the prophet Isaiah son-of-Amotz came to him and said, ‘So saith the Lord: Instruct your household that you, moribund, will not survive.’”(2 Kings 20; Isaiah 38)

But Hezekiah survives, after pleading his case to G-d, and sires children. Why did G-d initially send Isaiah to declare his death a fait accompli, and how did Hezekiah change His mind? 

On Brachos 10a, Rav Hamnuna offers a reconstruction of the lifesaving dialogue. Hezekiah was reluctant to procreate on account of a spiritual vision which foretold unworthy progeny. But Isaiah said to him, “What are the kavshei d’-rachmana (secrets of the Merciful) to you? What you have been obligated, do, and what He likes, He will do.” Hezekiah agrees to procreate, asking Isaiah for his daughter’s hand, and G-d then accepts his prayer.

Abravanel explains the redundancy of Isaiah’s initial declaration “you, moribund, will not survive” to mean that “you will die, and your line will cease.” G-d’s plan for history required the Davidic line to continue, even though segments of the line such as Hezekiah’s son Menasheh would be wicked. “Although Menashe was wicked and his sons like him, behold: Josiah came from him, and this is the good fruit which comes eventually from evil branches” (Abravanel, Isaiah 38).

According to this interpretation, what are the kavshei d’-rachmana, and why was Hezekiah enjoined from considering them? Abravanel’s analysis suggests that the ban on considering kavshei d’rachmana as a factor in procreation applies only to kings, who need to ensure an heir to the throne. 

Rabbi Moshe Alshikh interprets kavshei d’-rachmana in a much more expansive, maximalist fashion. He claims that no one, royal or commoner, should ever dispute G-d’s command in any area based on a personal moral calculus (Alshikh, Genesis 26). Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky agrees with the expansion to all people, but seems to reject Alshikh’s assertion that calculations never limit obligations. He claims that Hezekiah was wrong morally only because he was wrong factually — he didn’t know that Menasheh would repent, or that Josiah would descend from him. But in principle, Hezekiah was correct that it would be better to not procreate than to have unmitigatedly evil descendants (Emes L’-Yaakov, B’rachos 10a). Possibly Abravanel agrees.

Rabbi Menachem Meiri held a middle ground. He apparently limits the ban on considering kavshei derachmana to issues of procreation, but agrees that no calculation based on them can affect obligation. His creative contribution is to extend kavshei derachmana from the supernatural to the natural: “A man must not curtail the commandment to procreate because of any sort of suspicion that he or his partner cannot produce proper progeny, whether on the basis of tradition, reason, or experiment, because a man has no business with the secrets of G-d, at all, as it says, ‘why are you involved in these kavshei d’-rachmana?’” (Beis Ha-B’chira, B’rachos 10a). Netziv contends that “even the decision to form a couple is included within kavshei d’-rachmana, as it has been since the antediluvian start” (Ha-Amek Davar, Genesis 24:51).

These differing understandings of kavshei d’rachmana have direct implications for modern p’sak. For example, Rabbi Menashe Klein ruled that genetic testing for Tay-Sachs through Dor Yesharim was prohibited because it might prevent some heaven-ordained couples from procreating: “And this is an extraordinarily clear matter, because even if you see through prophecy that you will have unworthy progeny, you are within the kavshei d’-rachmana” (Shu”t Mishneh Halakhos, 12:265).

A responsa by Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein answers a question from a man who wished to abstain from procreation because he discovered that his wife had a family history of schizophrenia, creating an increased risk of his children inheriting the disease. The man must procreate, ruled Rabbi Zilberstein, because “he has not fulfilled the commandment of p’ru u-r’vu and he is not at liberty to abstain lest his son be diseased, as per B’rachos 10a” (Chashuskei Chemed, B’rachos 10a, s.v. b’-hadei kavshei). Rabbi Zilberstein rules similarly in cases where there is a family history of Marfan’s Syndrome or of irreligiosity, and where there is a high risk of abduction by the Catholic Church. In all of these, he says, to interfere with reproduction would be to risk atrapalliation/unraveling of G-d’s plan. 

Can any pragmatic concerns supersede the command to procreate? A beraita on Bava Basra 60b relates that at some point in history, when the Jews were being oppressed and circumcision was forbidden, it would have been proper to decree for Jews to not marry, or procreate, at all. No decree was made, however, because most Jews would not follow such a command. We don’t issue a decree unless the majority of the populace can uphold it, and “it is better for them to be accidental sinners rather than purposeful sinners.”

The Tosafists ask: How could it be proper to make a decree against fulfilling the commandment to procreate? They suggest that the proposed decree would have only applied to people who had already fulfilled the minimal requirement of having one male and one female child (ibid. Tos’fos s.v. din hu). Rabbi Avraham Chaim Schor, alternatively, answers that the rabbis in fact have the power to require us to passively violate commandments, such as by not blowing shofar when Rosh Ha-Shana falls out on Shabbos (Toras Chaim, Bava Basra 60b).

Meiri and Sforno (to Bereshot 35:11) reject these answers. They instead read Bava Basra 60b as contradicting the story of Hezekiah on B’rachos 10a. If it was wrong for Hezekiah to reason himself out of the command to procreate, they argue, it would also be wrong for Jews living under oppression to reach such a conclusion.

A third passage concerning nonfulfillment of procreation is found on Sotah 12a. When Pharaoh ordered his people to throw all male Jewish babies into the Nile, Amram divorced his wife, and the Jewish masses followed suit. Amram’s daughter Miriam protested that his action was worse than Pharaoh’s; Pharaoh’s decree affected only the male children, but Amram’s actions affected both male and female children. Furthermore, Pharaoh’s decree only affected the children in this world, but Amram’s actions would affect them in this world and the world to come (because unborn children garner no merit). Convinced by his daughter’s objections, Amram returned to his wife and the masses followed.

Many achronim question how Amram could have entertained this idea in the first place. Doesn’t the story of Hezekiah teach that one ought not engage in teleological calculations commandments? The Marafsin Igra responds by citing a gemara in Yevamos which says that, if one’s children die without procreating, one has not fulfilled the commandment. Since Pharaoh had commanded his people to kill all male progeny, the next generation would not be able to procreate (endogenously), and so p’riah u-r’viah could not be fulfilled anyway. But the virtue or wickedness of progeny has no bearing on the fulfillment of the command. 

This summer, we are investigating precedents for halakhic perspectives on gene editing. Understandings of kavshei d’-rachmana which contend that G-d directly intends specific children to result from specific unions — can easily be understood to imply that it is not the role of mankind to interfere in such matters, e.g. by editing an embryo to avoid disease. This may result in psakim such as those we’ve cited above from Rabbi Klein and Rabbi Zilberstein.

The alternative, narrower understanding of Rabbi Kaminetsky provides more leeway to would-be permissive decisors. If Hezekiah was wrong only because his source of information was unreliable, it may be perfectly legitimate to use scientific information to make such decisions.

Similarly, different treatments of the gemara in Bava Basra lead to distinct halakhic conclusions. The simple read of the Talmud has been used for a millennium to allow infertile couples to remain. Tosafot’s position can lead to leniencies about contraception once p’ru ur’vu has been fulfilled. Rabbi Schor’s position might allow the use of IVF before the fulfillment of p’ru u’rvu, in extenuating circumstances such as high risk of disease, even for poskim who hold that IVF procreating does not fulfill the commandment.

The plain implication of the sugya in Sotah is that even a single generation of Jewish women, who will never be able to reproduce, is valuable, and that it is worthwhile to have children even when Pharaoh has decreed that they die in their infancy. In the case of the Jews in Egypt, G-d rescues them and they do not die out, neither the women without procreating nor all the men in infancy. It is no stretch to expand this case to our subject — if it is worth having children even if they are sure to die, and worth following the letter of p’ru u-r’vu even if it guarantees disaster, in the hope of heavenly intervention, how are we empowered to interfere with Jews’ embryos? Yet we can of course distinguish between cases where the choice is binary, procreate or not, and cases where there is a therapeutic option. 

Ultimately, as we move toward writing responsa, two core questions will be: Do we feel comfortable ascribing any sphere of knowledge about our material world exclusively to G-d? Could we come to terms with any halakhah that limits the use of reliable medical knowledge?


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