Jewish Thought

Human Nature & Jewish Thought
Alan L. Mittleman
Princeton University Press, 2015

Jews and Genes: The Genetic Future in Contemporary Jewish Thought
Edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Laurie Zoloth
Jewish Publication Society, 2015

One of the popular ways to dismiss plans for healing and transforming the world is to assert that the distortions we see in the contemporary world are an inevitable outcome of a fixed human nature. In his careful examination of Jewish thought, Alan Mittleman insists on the centrality of moral personhood not constrained by any set of conditions external to the process of ethical reflection and intuition. Not only are reductionist programs incoherent, he argues, they are also absurd. He argues for real freedom and transcendence but simultaneously insists on our human limitations: “We are holy—and capable of unimaginable evil.” Holding both, he suggests, is one of the great strengths of the Jewish tradition.

Some genetic diseases are more prevalent among Ashkenazic Jews than among the general population, largely because Jews were always a small population and historically predominantly married only other Jews. Elliot N. Dorff and Laurie Zoloth discuss how, as a result, “representatives of all Jewish denominations have enthusiastically endorsed embryonic stem cell research, genetic testing for diseases, and if possible, the development of genetic cures.” Yet work with genetic changes raises important ethical issues and the possibility of human arrogance seeking to transform nature with potentially unpredictable consequences. Dorff and Zoloth have brought together articles from an impressive array of scholars and ethical thinkers who grapple with some of the most difficult issues. Though much of the discussion is refracted through the frame of Jewish law, at least some of the authors are aware of the way that the capitalist marketplace, rather than ethical concerns, may already be driving genetic research and pushing for a wider use of genetic interventions than any health concerns may mandate.


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