Jews and Genes

The Genetic Future in Contemporary Jewish Thought

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Elliot N. Dorff, Laurie Zoloth
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    The Jewish Publication Society
    , March
     480 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This collection of essays seeks to enable Judaism “to speak authentically and intelligently” to new genetic research and development (xvii). Genetics is an important topic in contemporary Jewish thought for several reasons. Theologically, the Jewish scriptures mandate healing and saving lives. For this reason, there exists a long history and great number of Jewish physicians. And as made evident by genetic research, some diseases are more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews (of northern and eastern European descent) due to historical intermarriage within small Jewish communities that increased the likelihood of passing on recessive mutations. It is thus no surprise that Jewish leaders strongly support genetic research.

With authors that range from Orthodox to secular, and hail from both the United States and Israel, this book is able “to speak for all Jews” (xv). Informed by top scientists, but written for a nonscientist audience, the essays provide overviews and ethical reflections on four topics in new genetics. Part 1 explores the moral issues at stake in stem cell research, particularly the status of the embryo. Essays in this section analyze Judaism’s developmental view of human life: for the first forty days of gestation the embryo is seen as “simply liquid” or “like water”; from forty days until birth the fetus is seen as being “like the thigh of its mother.” Part 2 examines genetic mapping and its implications for Jewish identity. Here, authors ask whether Jewish identity is determined by one’s mother, one’s grandparent, or one’s entire genetic profile. Interestingly, this question has become especially important after the “Black Jews” (or Lemba) of South Africa, were tested for the Kohen modal haplotype in the 1990s. This group’s Jewishness had long been in doubt, but genetic testing has suggested a genetic link between the “priests” of this tribe and European Jewish male descendants of the Kohanim or priestly families of biblical times. Part 3 discuses the deep ambivalence towards genetic testing in Jewish ethics. While nineteenth-century testing and concepts of inheritable traits marked the Jewish body as non-Aryan and made possible the “scientific” rationale for Hitler’s Final Solution, genetic testing has also provided Ashkenazi Jewish couples preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) that has been used to prevent the passing on of genetic diseases. Part 4 on genetic intervention reveals the fluid boundaries that distinguish therapy from fetal enhancement. And if genetic intervention is used for enhancement, the authors ask, does this run the risk of creating two classes of humans, the enhanced and the unenhanced? Part 4 is followed by a short, final section on American religion and public policy, covering genetic issues in relation to the separation of church and state, the roles and responsibilities of scientists, and the theological underpinnings of American Judaism’s (sans Orthodox) strong liberal leanings and democratic politics.

The essays overall reflect a positive attitude towards new genetics. Health and potential cures and prevention of disease time and again outweigh fears of eugenics and the possibility of Jewish bodies and populations becoming marked as diseased. Notably, genetic testing is also presented as an alternative to intermarriage. The introduction to the book reads, “Marriage… involves serious and deep commitments to one’s family, people, and faith, and those are not easily maintained in a marriage with someone from another faith… biologically, we can now detect the genetic changes that produce diseases and do things to prevent passing many of those diseases on” (xv). Although this line of inquiry is not always explicit, preventing intermarriage is clearly an important motivation here.

All in all, this book uses simple language to explore fascinating subject matter on a new topic. It is recommended for anyone interested in religion and genetics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Megan Leverage is a Ph.D. student at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
December 28, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elliot N. Dorff is rector and Sol and Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and past chair of the Society of Jewish Ethics. He is the author or editor of numerous award-winning books, including Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics (JPS, 1998).

Laurie Zoloth is a professor of religious studies and on the Jewish studies faculty at Weinberg College and is a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, both at Northwestern University. She is the author or editor of six books, including The Ethics of Encounter: A Jewish Discussion of Social Justice. Mark S. Frankel is director of the Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights, and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.



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