Cloning in the Eyes of God:
The Argument that Cloning is Not Prohibited by Jewish Law

By Sharona Hoffman, LL.M. candidate 1999

On December 16, 1998, South Korean scientists announced that they had cloned a human cell from an infertile woman. After creating a four cell embryo, they discontinued the experiment because of its legal and ethical implications. The announcement, however, intensified debate regarding cloning, a debate which often includes religious and theological arguments.

Critics have asserted that cloning constitutes a forbidden form of "playing God." In a highly publicized response to the birth of Dolly, the cloned sheep, in 1997, the Vatican called for a total ban on the cloning of human beings, and Pope John Paul II denounced the procedure as a "dangerous experiment" that could undermine human dignity.

Not all religious leaders, however, would condemn cloning as contrary to divine will. Several Jewish thinkers have argued that cloning, in appropriate circumstances, could be an acceptable reproductive and medical option.

Michael Broyde, Associate Director of the Law and Religion Program at Emory University, who, in 1997 served as the Director of the Beth Din of America, a Jewish law court, has written that cloning is essentially a form of assisted reproduction, much like artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood, and should be made available to infertile couples when it becomes technologically feasible. In the Jewish tradition the commandment to procreate is rooted both in the Biblical injunction of "be fruitful and multiply" and in rabbinic literature. The obligation to reproduce, however, is limited to men, since women are free to choose not to endanger their lives by bearing children. Professor Broyde concludes that if the genetic donor for a cloned child is a man, he would have the status of a father in Jewish law and would fulfill the duty to have children.

Other Jewish ethicists point out that cloning could have benefits that go beyond a solution to infertility. For example, parents who are both carriers of a genetic disease such as Tay-Sachs could avoid the risk of having an affected child through reproduction by cloning, using genetic material from only one of the parents. The child would then be a carrier, but would not actually develop the disease.

According to some rabbis, it would even be acceptable to produce a child specifically in order to save a relative whose life is threatened by leukemia and who cannot find an appropriate bone-marrow donor. The baby would be cloned from the patient to ensure a tissue match, and, says Rabbi Moshe David Tendler, a professor of Jewish medical ethics at Yeshiva University, he or she "would be doubly loved - for itself and for the fact that it saved" another's life.

Several Jewish ethicists have argued that cloning does not constitute "playing God" since divine creation entails creating "something out of nothing" and cloning is the creation of "something out of something." Unlike Catholicism, which warns against any tampering with nature, Judaism considers it a mitzvah, or a righteous deed, to manipulate nature for the benefit of humanity. Thus, these Jewish scholars have concluded that cloning is allowable, and perhaps even religiously mandated, if it has clear medical benefits that outweigh its costs and risks.

Even those who support cloning in theory, however, acknowledge that it would be highly problematic in practice at this time. Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, is concerned that cloned human beings would find it difficult to establish their own identity and to have their independence and individuality respected. He further raises the possibilities that human clones will be created solely for the purpose of harvesting their organs for transplantation, after which their remains will be discarded, and of horrifying genetic "mistakes" before the cloning technology is perfected. Rabbi Moshe Tendler is worried about the effect of cloning on traditional precepts such as honoring one's parents and inheritance laws. While Rabbi Dorff believes that human cloning should be regulated to prevent egregious abuses, but not banned, Rabbi Tendler suggests that cloning should be eschewed at present, since its ramifications are not yet fully understood.

As cloning grows closer to becoming a realistic reproductive option, more and more voices will undoubtedly join the debate which it has generated. While many have expressed vehement opposition to cloning on religious and ethical grounds, compelling arguments can be made that cloning is permissible under Jewish law and philosophy. It is only by careful consideration of all aspects of the debate that society will be able to formulate a responsible approach to this emerging technology.