Contemporary American Reform Responsa

20. Genetic Engineering

QUESTION: Would a person produced through genetic engineering rather than natural reproduction possess a soul? Does a clone have a soul? (Z. Shtohryn, St. Joseph, MO)

ANSWER: We should divide this question into two segments. First we must deal with the question of when a soul enters the human body. There are a number of midrashic and halakhic responses to this, but the practical halakhic implication is that a baby becomes a person only at the moment of birth. Therefore, if a woman in labor can not give birth, and her life is endangered, it is permissible to destroy the child as long as its head has not come out of the womb. Until that time it is considered an integral part of the woman, and so may be treated like any other limb of the body rather than a separate human being (M. Ohalot 7.6, Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 425.2). Many safeguards have been built around this statement by the rabbinic tradition to assure that it would not be misused for broad scale abortions. This practical decision developed independently from the Talmudic conceptions of the soul.

The rabbis of the Talmud developed several doctrines of the soul, but they have not been systemized. A prayer from this period taken into the liturgy expresses a leading motif. It states: "My God, the soul which You have given me came pure from You," (Shab. 152b). A dualism between body and soul was assumed by many scholars of that period (Ber.10a; Shab.113b; Yoma 30b; etc. ) . There is considerable discussion among the rabbis about the moment at which the soul enters the body. Is it at the instant of conception, of embryonic formation, or of birth (San. 91b; Gen. Rabbah 34.10)? All three were possible for those rabbis who followed the Neo-Platonic three-fold division of the soul. An additional element of the soul would then have been added at each of the above mentioned stages.

In the Middle Ages, when Jewish philosophy was influenced by Greek thought transmitted by Arab scholars, other ideas of the soul developed and many thinkers divided the soul into three forms in accordance with Islamic Neo-Platonists. The first was equated with man's active intellect, while the other two were connected with lower forms of life (Saadiah, Bakhya Ibn Paquda, Ibn Gabirol and Maimonides). Maimonides and some others considered the three forms of the soul to be animal, vegetative and human, and so felt that the lower forms of life also contained souls.

The Zohar, the leading mystical work of medieval Judaism, also divided the soul into three elements. The first was rational, the second moral and the third vital. All three were then connected to the Sefirot, which link God and man. There is a considerable amount of speculative literature about the nature of the soul, and many different philosophical patterns have appeared in Jewish thought. Anything produced asexually like a clone would be akin to a plant, would also be considered to have at least a lower form of the soul. The soul in its human form, according to the halakhic tradition, however, enters a body only at the time of birth as the references above have indicated.

The only references in traditional literature to man-made creatures are the legends of the Golem. These stories arose in the Middle Ages and are akin to those found in other folk mythologies. The Golem was thought to be a clay or wooden figure brought to life by its master through the insertion of the divine name in its mouth, or the placement of the name on its forehead. Golems were sometimes considered dangerous and had to be restrained through removal of one of the letters of God's name, otherwise they could become destructive (Gershom Scholem, The Kabbala and Its Symbolism, 1965, pp. 185-204; A. D. Eisenstein, "Golem," The Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 6, p. 36 f). The Golems which appear in various legends were completely controlled by their master or maker. They, therefore, were akin to modern robots which can perform tasks upon command, but are controlled by a human master. No one would consider a computer to possess a soul. When Zvi Ashkenazi and Jacob Emden were asked whether a Golem could be counted as part of a minyan they responded that it could not (Hakhanz Zevi #93).

We are, however, concerned with an entirely new being which might conceivably begin its life in a test tube from a fertilized ovum or a variety of genetic material and would be capable of sexual reproduction itself. We shall not discuss the desirability of such an undertaking, but at some time in the future it will, undoubtedly, occur with or without approval. We could well consider such a being to have a soul. It will have been formed from human material despite all genetic alterations. Its development will have taken place in an artificial environment rather than the womb, but at some point it will emerge as a human being. Hopefully, it will then not be enslaved to its maker or master, but will develop independently as other human beings. Unless such possibilities of independent intellectual and moral development are genetically removed, this would be a human being.

We must add that these conclusions remain speculative as knowledge in this field remains limited. The parameters and possible consequences of genetic engineering remain to be explored; until this has been done, only preliminary guidance can be provided.

February 1978

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.