The challenge is how to apply scientific research in practice in a morally acceptable manner. The Supreme Court of Jewish Law would always address religious legal questions at two levels in a manner similar to how the US supreme court deals with difficult cases.16,17 The first level was a general, theoretical legal analysis of the history of law and how the populace practiced the parameters of a law. The second level was a practical and particular approach, examining each situation according to the individual circumstances and developing the response according to the specific details and characteristics of that situation. Indeed, Jewish law places a much greater emphasis on the latter principle—each case must be evaluated individually on its merits and details.
We believe there is much merit in this type of analysis regarding the new biotechnologies being developed. First, we must ethically analyze the various procedures underlying the biotechnology. Does it involve harming animals? Does it violate basic principles of bioethics? Then, we should address these principles as they apply to a particular situation and recognize that all technologies, while morally neutral, have the potential to do both good and/or to do harm.
Translational biotechnology, in order to develop new therapies for disease, is the ultimate objective of science and is part of the Divine directive for human beings to partner with God. However, society must be careful of the outer limits of technology that may be unethical. Do the ethical outer limits of technology include non-medical procedures such as sex-selection, cosmetic changes (hair or eye color, height), or tampering with biological species to create new species, such as animals with human neurons, or monkeys with human genes that regulate human speech?
The general rule in Judaism is that gene editing for non-medical applications is ethically wrong and should not be routinely acceptable. In the case of gene-editing a human embryo, we believe it is moral and ethical to genetically edit not only an embryo carrying lethal genes (e.g. Tay–Sachs) but also in cases where the child would be born and burdened with serious health issues (e.g. cystic fibrosis).
The Torah states that its laws are created for people to live by, and so we should support medical and technological advances that promote the saving of lives. We should advocate that society commit significant government and private funding to basic research. This also includes supporting research for creative procedures that protect the weaker segments of the population in order to provide fair allocation of treatments. We advocate continuing to push the limits of scientific research, but at the same time, we must not allow the unethical, non-medical applications. In the realm of new biotechnology, the goal of partnering with God to save lives should be paramount. It is not what you can do but what you should do.