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.
Ariela Haro von Mogel

Written by Ariela Haro von Mogel

Ariela Haro von Mogel is a Registered Dietitian. She holds degrees from the University of California-Davis in Sociology and Music and the University of Madison-Wisconsin in Nutrition Science. Ariela is particularly interested in Latino health, cultural competence, and nutrition education.

18 comments

  1. As an atheist (but one who is genuinely interested in the religious beliefs, philosophies and cultures of other people/societies) I found this post a very enjoyable read. Intelligent, well thought out and well written.
    Isn’t it amazing what you can find when you approach a subject with an open mind. I find it is actually an enjoyable experience to realise that your preconceived ideas were wrong all along following proper research and analysis of the facts. If only more people were prepared to do that.
    Well done on your article.
    Jonathan

  2. Good post and very interesting. You may be interested in a parallel discussion within the Jewish community. There is a group that believes kosher food should also meet a standard of social justice, including standards for workers, consumers, animals, and the environment. They are working to establish a ‘Magen Tzedek’ or ‘Seal of Justice’ that would pertain to these considerations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magen_Tzedek
    An example is the situation with Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. The animals were being slaughtered and processed in compliance with the laws of kashrut. But the working conditions, evidence of undocumented immigrant workers, and mistreatment of the animals before being slaughtered raised concerns within the Jewish community. “How can we be sure that kosher food is consistent with our ethical standards, and not just ceremonial technicalities.”
    I’m sure that as this movement develops, the issue of biotechnology will cause quite a vigorous debate. (Of course, anyone who objects to biotech food always has the option of eating organic, including kosher organic.)

  3. Can you please pass this on to Ariela Haro von Mogel.
    I have just read your recent article on kosher laws, etc.
    Kudos. This has long been needed in the general community and not the exclusive domain of the supervising agencies or Rabbinate.
    Please keep me posted and allow me to correspond with you.
    I have a keen interest in the subject matter and believe that we in New Zealand have a unique opportunity that no one here seems to realize.
    All the best and good wishes for the holiday season.
    N Kabak
    Editor’s note: This comment was moved from another post.

  4. Be careful when you refer to liberal Jews and conservative Jews.
    If liberal/conservative refers to the political left/right, I doubt that Jews view genetic engineering any differently than do other groups. I suppose my doubts might be subject to statistical testing.
    But there are two other ways this can be misunderstood.
    The word Jew refers sometimes to a religious preference and sometimes to an ethnicity. So for example, Jewish atheist is not an oxymoron. Many people who call themselves Jewish are not at all interested in religious practice and are happy to eat pork and shrimp, or to cook beef in cream sauces.
    Finally, Judaism has several varieties and the three main varieties are called Orthodox, Conservative and Reform (just as Christians may be Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant). If you refer to a Conservative Jew, you will probably be understood to be referring to a Jew who attends a Conservative synagogue, not one who leans to the political right. As for the rules about Kosher, Orthodox Jews believe they should be followed strictly, but both Conservative and Reform Jews believe that they can be modified in response to modern life.
    I don’t think very many Jewish scholars would oppose genetic engineering based on biblical commandments. If they were so inclined, they would have to go much further, because Leviticus 19:19 would then have to be understood as banning hybridization.

  5. Good points, Charles. Thanks for the clarifications. It would be interesting to do some proper surveys on this to see if the nuances could be teased out.

  6. I had a short conversation with Anastasia on my facebook profile about this, so I’ll paraphrase my thoughts from the conversation.
    Although it’s counterintuitive that more conservative religious beliefs would be more accepting of changes in technology it doesn’t surprise me. If you look at the types of science denialism that don’t cross party lines, you see things like conservatives who deny evolution and anthropogenic global warming and the standard antivaccionationist and pro-organic farming liberals. Europe is a largely secular culture that has major hurdles to clear in the acceptance of GE foods, while the more religious America doesn’t generally care. Even in regional cultures, I think you’d see a similar divide. Liberal California is the largest organic market in the US, while Alabama has something like 305 acres of organic cropland.
    When I talk to folks who are very conservatively religious, they tend to view themselves as very detached from nature…even to the point of denying that humans are animals. Because of this, they generally feel more comfortable about using nature as a tool because the Earth’s resources are something to be used rather than conserved. Ironically, I think sympathy towards conservation programs would be a decent marker for GE acceptance…unfortunately with an inverse relationship.
    Remember that this is based off of little more than my own experiences talking with religious folks during my days in the skeptic movement of which I am really no longer a part. I could be wrong on this, and I can see some problems with my relatively simplistic argument. California and Alabama are two examples of states with vastly different agricultural outputs, land area and culture. Despite this, I seriously think there would be more of a red/blue state divide that disfavored organic agriculture in red states. I would expect more liberal states to favor anti GE sentiments, and organic agriculture in general.
    http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/Organic/#statedata

  7. Wow, thanks everyone for the great comments, references, links, and of course the praise! 🙂
    I wanted to comment on Joe’s last remark. Even though I am Karl’s wife and hear about anti-GE, pro-GE and middle-of-the-road GE (is that a position?!) arguments all the time, I still had this underlying bias about what religiously liberal and conservative folks of any religion feel about GE crops. I had assumed that liberal people of any stripe felt one way, and conservatives felt another, and I really didn’t think about the nuances and complexity within this issue. I did also want to thank Charles for making that distinction earlier – it is a very important one. This research really opened my eyes over how complicated food, religion, and culture can be. I found myself agreeing with points of views I would have never considered, given my own background and cultural heritage. My parents immigrated from Mexico, and I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to grow up in the United States and be able to be open to different points of view – this is the beauty of our country. I am always pleased when assumptions of mine are questioned and more valid/rational points of view can be encouraged and justified.

  8. I guess there may be a general liberals against and conservatives pro GM, although this certainly isn’t 100 (I’d be classed as liberal in the majority of my views, despite my corporate shilling tendencies – and would generally classify most of my coworkers I’m clsoe enough to make the judgement on as similar) and there are some pretty out there conservatives I’ve encountered along the way who are hugely against GM.
    I wouldn’t expect liberal vs conservative Jews to fall out in the same manner however, as in that context I see the label purely as a way of denoting how strictly they take scripture.

  9. Ariela,
    I don’t know if you ran across this stuff during your research, but someone from the Entomological Society of America posted this collection of links on my Facebook profile and I thought you might find them interesting.
    http://agbioworld.org/biotech-info/religion/kosher.html
    http://agbioworld.org/biotech-info/religion/index.html
    I’ve clicked around on the second page, and so far the article ‘God and the New Foodstuffs’ seems to be the most relevant.
    Peek around, and let me know what you think. I’m interested in hearing your opinions.
    There are always nuances to every belief…even in the Skeptic community there’s a fair amount of headbutting. As I said, this is just the stuff I’ve gleaned talking to religious folks and could very well be wrong.

  10. Hi Joe – the article “Why Biotech Foods are Kosher” is interesting. I will send this to Jordan, as he would also like to read it. I agree with what this article has to say. Others have tried to define what ‘kosher’ is, like the inhumane treatment of workers making something ‘nonkosher.’ But this is not what makes something kosher. There are many rules/laws that God has given the Jews about what constitutes Kosher, and that was not one of them. So an interesting political struggle occurs to try and change terrible working conditions using religion as its main justification.
    Also, as mentioned in my essay, Orthodox and other traditionalist Jews have no problem consuming GE foods, since there is no direct prohibition by God.
    The interesting areas get into the gray and fine lines of what constitutes kosher biotech food. For instance, if a food item has been genetically altered using a gene from an unclean source, like a pig, this is impermissible to eat as kosher. I have heard people (like my husband Karl) say that placing a few “pig genes” into another species does not infuse that species with the “soul” of the other animal. While I may agree, I am also a secular rationalist (or at least try to be!). Rules of Kashrut are religiously based, and these are valid reasons many Jews choose to live by. So if a food item has broken any law of Kashrut, then it is not fit for human consumption according to God’s laws.

  11. “For instance, if a food item has been genetically altered using a gene from an unclean source, like a pig, this is impermissible to eat as kosher.”
    This claim is unsupported and probably wrong.
    It is actually relevant. No plant food has presently been marketed with a gene from a pig, and none is planned, but many GMO developers use a gene from jellyfish, which codes for a luminescent protein. Jellyfish are not kosher.
    But nobody actually takes a gene from the non-Kosher jellyfish and inserts it into the plant. What is done is to make a copy of the gene, and probably a copy of the copy of the copy,…, so that what finally becomes part of the GM plant is information from a jellyfish, not substance from a jellyfish. There is no Jewish prohibition against using information, from whatever source.

  12. Because of the interrelationships between all organisms on the planet, we all eat ‘pig’ genes. A human genome is about 40 percent identical to the carrot genome, so we could say, eating a carrot is cannibalism. Which I suspect is very *not* Kosher.

  13. Actually Charles, my claim is not unsupported nor false. I have given a list of references that I have cited for my essay, and there are Jewish and rabbinical scholars that feel this way about marking certain foods as Kosher. I have talked about this with my mentor Jordan, who is a Hebrew scholar, and the taking of genes from “unclean sources” is definitely not considered Kosher to Orthodox or traditionalist Jews. This is definitely a strict interpretation and understanding of what it means to be Kosher, but it is one Jewish scholars I have cited agree to.
    Please refer to my list of references if you have any more contentions. The “opinions” I give on Biofortified are not solely mine, but ones I have gathered from scholars and their views on the matter.

  14. First, an apology. When I said “unsupported” I did not mean to imply that you just made it up, but I see how it could have been read that way.
    My attitude toward references may be somewhat non-standard but basically it is that referring to someone’s statement does not make that statement correct. Either evidence or logic is needed to support a claim. So I seldom bother to give references.
    You just said “the taking of genes from unclean sources is definitely not considered Kosher to Orthodox or traditionalist Jews.” That statement cannot possibly be correct without at least some qualification, since I am an Orthodox Jew and I do not consider food non-Kosher based on that criterion.
    Let’s use some common sense – although religious beliefs are not necessarily decided by common sense.
    The classical example of a non-Kosher animal is a pig. Just about everyone, Jew or not, knows that. If I prepare a food with pig flesh as an ingredient, almost any Jew would say that food is not Kosher (although many would eat it anyway because they choose not to follow that religious law).
    But we are not talking about that. We are talking about using a information from a pig. A gene is materially DNA, some sequence of chemical letters. The same four letters are present in any gene, so only the sequence is “from a pig”. And it’s not as if any actual atoms from the pig have made it into the plant. Is it OK to use information derived from a pig? We do that all the time in a far more intimate way. We may use a pig as an experimental animal to test medicines. A drug is not “unclean” because it was tested using a pig. The only piggy thing in the medicine is information about how the drug interacts with the enzymes and other bodily substances in a pig.
    Another part of the Kosher law deals with the combination of meat and dairy. Basically, you don’t do it. You may eat meat, and you may eat cheese, but not together. You may eat meat and then eat cheese if you leave enough time in between so that the meat has been digested before the cheese reaches your stomach. Many Orthodox Jews go to the extreme of having separate dishes so that they don’t combine even a tiny speck of butter or cheese from lunch with meat from dinner. This is as close to a zero tolerance rule as any pre-industrial culture could have. But nobody tries to say that milk is inextricably mixed with meat because it comes from a cow and is influenced by genes from a cow.
    As Eric has pointed out, the information carried by many pig genes is surely present in other foods. We don’t consider a goat to be a kind of pig because some genes are essentially identical in both species.

  15. Ha! Good point. I find it to be very awe inspiring that we share so many genes with other organisms, but that must be terrifying for people who consider themselves above nature.

  16. And it’s not as if any actual atoms from the pig have made it into the plant.

    This is almost certainly false, they won’t have got there by the gene transfer per se, but statistically it is nigh on impossible that a sub-set of the atoms from anything you eat haven’t, at some point, spent time inside a pig. Or inside Napoleon. Or whatever. If you reduce kosher laws to whether or not atoms have been in an unclean animal you make them impossible to follow. As the whole thing is about magic anyway it is perfectly rational (within the system of belief) to assume the essence of pig is carried on a gene sourced from a pig, or to not – it doesn’t matter what is or is not real, only what one believes to be real – at least in so far as what keeping kosher means, attempting to inject cold hard rationality into the irrational makes no sense to me.

  17. Ewan, of course you are right that almost any substance larger than microscopic will surely contain atoms that have previously been part of a pig. That’s not the point.
    I’m not claiming that some adventitious presence of atoms is not acceptable. What I am claiming is that information, any amount of information, is not substance.
    You prompt me to repeat an ancient Jewish joke.
    In medieval Spain, some king decided he did not want any Jews living in his realm. So Jews were rounded up and taken to a church, where they were baptized. The priest intoned the words “Once a Jew, now a Christian!” and the former Jews were told to behave as Christians from then on and they were sent back to their homes. But there was suspicion that some of the former Jews were cheating by eating meat on Friday? One former Jew came under special scrutiny — on Friday evening some spies watched through his window and saw him kill and clean a chicken. They thought they had caught him, but then he sprinkled some water on the chicken and intoned the words “Once a chicken, now a fish!”

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