Friday, November 4, 2011

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

In the daf yomi this week, the Gemara - in the middle of a discussion about the impurity of animals, and the different components of their bodies - turned to a fascinating conversation about the diversity of the animals of creation, and the phenomenon of animals that are the product of cross-breeding:

When R. Akiva read this verse he used to say: 'How manifold are Thy works, O Lord!' (Tehilim 104:24).   Thou hast creatures that live in the sea and Thou hast creatures that live upon the dry land; if those of the sea were to come up upon the dry land they would straightway die, and if those of the dry land were to go down into the sea they would straightway die... How manifold are Thy works, O Lord!'...

Rav Huna ben Torta said: I once went to a gathering (or 'a forest') and saw a snake wrapped round a toad; after some days there came forth an 'arod  (a poisonous reptile) from between them. When I came before R. Simeon the pious, [and related this to him,] he said to me: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: They have produced a new creature which I had not created into my world, I too will bring upon them a creature which I had not created in my world [and which causes much damage and suffering].

(Hullin 127a)

R. Akiva's statement is quizzical.   Why is God's greatness manifest in the limited capacity of a sea creature to live on the earth and vice-versa?  Would it not show greater power of God had God created sea-creatures so they could also live on the land?  The point seems to be, that there is a beauty in the diversity.  There is a beauty in the fact that not all things are the same.  That there are some creatures that are only sea creatures, and some animals that are only land animals.    Beyond that, there is a rightness, a fittingness, to the fact that creatures are adapted to their specific environment.   There is a beauty to the order of the world - a world in which there is a place for everything and everything is in its place.

This then leads to the counter example of Rav Huna ben Torta.  Rav Huna witnessed what could happen when someone tries to tamper with the ordered world that God has created.  When animals that were not mean to crossbreed are crossbred, disorder and danger will result.   We must keep God's world with the order with which it was created.

This theme echoes the first chapter of Breishit that we just read recently.  God created plants, trees, and animals, li'minah, "to their kind".  The implication of the verse is that the distinctions between the different species of plants and animals should be preserved, that they should remain "to their kind."    The later Torah prohibition of kilayim, the cross-breeding animals and plants and the wearing of shatnez - a combination of wool (from the animal world) and linen (from the plant world) - are apparently a concretization of this principle.  Such is the opinion of many modern scholars (see, for example, Mary Douglas' book, Purity and Danger) and such, certainly, is the opinion of Ramban:

The reason for [the prohibition of] kilayim is that God has created different species in the world, among all living things - plants, and animals - and has given them the ability to reproduce, so that these species should continue to exist as long as God desires that the world continues to exist.  And God decreed that this ability should be "according to their kind" - and that they should never change, as it says regarding all of them, "to their kind."... One who cross-breeds two different species, changes and weakens the forces of Creation, acting as if he things that God had not done a good enough job completing the world, and he - this person! - wants to "help" God in God's creation, to add some new creation...

(Ramban, Commentary to Torah, VaYikra 19:19)

There is a problem with this approach, however.  Ramban's words, taken literally, indicate that it is not our job to improve the world.  But isn't a major teaching of our tradition that it is exactly our job to do so?  It is true that the Torah states that God placed Adam in the garden "to work it and to protect it" - not to change it.  But God also commanded the first humans, in the opening chapter of Breishit - to "fill the Earth and subdue it"!   In fact, there are those who, in interpreting the verse "For on that (seventh) day God rested from all his work which God had created to make" interpret the last infinitive phrase "to make" to refer to humans - God has created the world, and it is now our responsibility to continue to make it.   Indeed, no one has every suggested that Judaism favors anything like a Quietist theology.   We are not only commanded to rest on Shabbat, we are also told, or perhaps commanded, that "six days you shall work".   The famous debate between Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus regarding the need for Brit Milah makes this point explicitly.  God gave us wheat, not bread.  God gave us the human, we are to work to make him - ourselves -better.  (Tanchuma, Tazria, 8).  The real question is - when has the "subduing" gone too far?  When must it give way to "protecting"?

These questions have a contemporary relevance when one thinks about new technologies such as genetic engineering and cloning.  Is this "subduing" or is this violating the ordering of God's world?  Is this continuing creation, or is this saying to God that we need to do God one better?  Although genetic engineering is not prohibited in the Torah, those who speak about following Torah values and not just Torah law, should apply those values to this case.  Or perhaps not.  For - as we mentioned above - there are other values at stake, saving lives and healing disease chief among them.  Maybe the potential for such benefit should outweigh.

One way to look at this is through the lens of "saying to God that the creation needs improvement." Certainly some who are involved in the field may be arrogant or feel God-like, being able to manipulate nature to such a degree, but that danger is present in every field.   Should we not have surgeons, because some may, in their life-saving roles, feel God-like and arrogant?  

The better way to evaluate this is to look at the result.  If the result is beneficial, then we are doing our job of working with God's world to make it better.   If the result is destructive, then we have gone too far.  The problem is that it is often hard to predict what the result will be, or often there will be both positive and negative outcomes.  Should we pursue such a path or not?

The passage quoted above from Hullin indicates that, at least when it comes to tampering with the basic categories of nature (more of an issue for genetic engineering than for cloning), we should not pursue such a path.    However, there is another Gemara.  In Pesachim (54a) we read the following:

It was taught, R. Yossi said: Two things He decided to create on the eve of the Sabbath, but they were not created until the termination of the Sabbath, and at the termination of the Sabbath the Holy One, blessed be He, inspired Adam with knowledge of a kind similar to Divine [knowledge], and he procured two stones and rubbed them on each other, and fire issued from them; he [Adam] also took two [heterogeneous] animals and crossed them, and from them came forth the mule.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: The mule came into existence in the days of Anah, for it is said, This is the Anah who found the mules in the wilderness. Those who interpret symbolically used to say: Anah was unfit (the child of an incestuous relationship), therefore he brought unfit [animals] into the world.

Here we see the two approaches juxtaposed.  Rav Shimon ben Gamliel reflects the approach of Hullin - such cross-breeding was wrong, and the result is a bad thing.  Rebbe Yossi, however, sees it as part of God's plan, and a product of human intelligence and creativity.  Like fire, which was fundamental in the creating of early human society, the mule was a tremendous boon to humankind as a hearty beast of burden.  This is the role of human beings, to partner with God, to create something from nothing.  To make fire from stones, and a mule from a horse and a donkey.

So what's the resolution?  Is there a way to bring these two approaches together?  Maharal in his work Be'er HaGolah (Be'er 2) discusses this possibility.   Siding with the approach of R. Yossi, and seeing the mule as a boon to society, asks why the Jews were commanded against cross-breeding.  Don't we see the good that can result?  He answers: the way of the Torah is distinct from the way of completing (!) the world.  What does this mean?  Why would the Torah prevent us - at least Jews - from completing the world in this way? 

The answer may be, that there are two competing values here.  Yes, the world needs completion, but there are dangers when we tamper too much with the basic building blocks of creation.  We cannot engage in such behavior completely unrestrained.  How do we fulfill both "subdue it" and "protect it" - by recognizing that when manipulate it at such a fundamental level, that there are dangers that we must be cautious of.  By Jews keeping the mitzvah of kilayim, this concern is kept alive and this value is - hopefully - attended to.  The mitzvah of kilayim doesn't address non-Jews, and it doesn't address genetic engineering.      But it reminds us that sometimes tampering can be disruptive and destructive.  So as we proceed into this brave new world, we do so with the responsibility that comes with knowing that while we are commanded to subdue the Earth, to improve the world, to save lives and to heal disease, we are also commanded to protect it, to be aware that our creations are not good in themselves - even fire can be destructive! - and that we must create, but we must do so responsibly.

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