The scientific advances in the field of genetic engineering are tremendously exciting; yet at the same time, in terms of ethics, challenging and frightening. It is a basic teaching of Judaism that all of nature is to be harnessed for the benefit of man. The idea of manipulating our genes and DNA to improve the health of human beings, in theory, at least, present no moral dilemmas; in fact, these therapies embody the highest of values, pikuach nefesh , the saving of lives. Unfortunately, all too often the technological advances and increased knowledge outpace the practical use of that information. Thus, of what benefit is genetic screening for certain types of diseases if we have yet to discover the cure for them? On the other hand, while screening in such a situation may cause untold psychological grief, what if it can serve as a basis for a cure in the future?
In addition to enhancing our understanding of our physical make-up, genetic research is transforming the field of moral behaviour. "Do not lie with a male as you would with a woman, since this is a disgusting perversion" (18:22). Yet, hasn't study after study shown that a small but significant percentage of the population is born with a predisposition towards homosexuality? Scientists have isolated genes that predispose man to violence, alcohol, thievery and a host of other moral indiscretions. Thus, man is not responsible for his actions. After all, if it is in the genes, you cannot blame the perpetrator. He was coerced into evil by biology.
Denying these genetic facts is not only scientifically untenable, but to my mind, misses the point entirely. Science may have discovered that people have predispositions for certain (im)moral behaviors. However, predisposition does not mean predetermination. The most basic of beliefs in Judaism is the doctrine of free choice. Without this basis, the entire notion of commandments--or that of reward and punishment--becomes irrelevant. We cannot be commanded to do something over which we have no control, and to be punished for flaws in our genetic code is patently unfair. Belief in G-d means belief in the ability to choose to act, morally or otherwise. Although Judaism teaches that everybody was created with a yetzer hara , an evil inclination, Judaism also maintains that we can--nay, must--overcome our inclination to sin. While the yetzer hara operates in all spheres of life and attacks everybody, each person has a particular yetzer hara that is most challenging for them. It may be a desire to gossip or commit sexual immorality, a lust for money or a substance abuse problem, excessive eating or pursuit of power, any or all of the above.
However, Judaism has taught that, instead of refusing to acknowledge our yetzer hara , we must channel it for positive purposes. In fact, without a yetzer hara , man would not build, nor procreate, nor accomplish anything beneficial to mankind as a whole.
While we may have always thought of the yetzer hara specifically as a moral phenomenon, science teaches us that the yetzer hara is also part of our genetic code. It has physiological traits. Our rabbis have always maintained that mitzvoth and aveirot , sins, should be viewed as representing both a healthy and a sick body. Aveirot are thus latent in our genes; with our moral 'genetic engineering', we can keep them latent. By discovering to which moral areas of weakness we are predisposed, we can begin early treatment. Thus, one who has a predisposition for excessive pursuit of wealth could be taught the values of tzedaka at a very early age, with an emphasis on those aspects of our tradition that point out that all of our possessions are only on loan from G-d.
Science is on the verge of fully understanding the genetic code; "the fountain of youth" is no longer science fiction. We Jews were given our own code, our Torah, which is "our life and length of our days" ( Siddur ). Let us observe it to the best of our ability.