Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 6 January 2007 / 16 Tevet 5767

Me, Myself and I: Cloning People

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman - www.rabbiullman.com
The Color of HeavenArtscroll

From: Many readers in many places
Dear Rabbi,

What is the Jewish perspective on cloning people?

Dear Readers,

Before discussing the Jewish perspective, I’d like to briefly explain what cloning is and how it is done. Cloning is the reproduction of an organism whereby all the genes of the clone are identical to the original organism, unlike normal male/female reproduction where the genes are a fusion of both parents. Cloning is not necessarily unnatural — bacteria, algae and some yeasts, as well as dandelions and aspen trees reproduce by cloning. In fact, human identical twins, that originate from the division of a single fertilized egg, are genetically identical and are another example of cloning in nature.

A recent breakthrough in the area of artificial or induced cloning occurred in 1996 with the introduction of “Dolly”, the first animal cloned from an adult mammal. A skin cell from one sheep, containing a nucleus with a full set of genes, was fused with an unfertilized egg of another sheep whose nucleus was removed (somewhat like a donut). The result, an egg from sheep #2 with the genes entirely from sheep #1, began dividing and was placed in sheep #3. The embryo developed normally, and Dolly, an exact replica of sheep #1 was “born”. Amazing! (Who says counting sheep puts one to sleep!)

The fact that Dolly, a large mammal, was cloned from a fully-grown adult animal raises probing and interesting ethical and legal questions from a Jewish perspective about the prospect of cloning. Is it right to play G-d? Does a clone have a soul? Is my clone me, my twin or my child? [The latter question has halachic ramifications regarding the laws of inheritance, levirate marriage (yibum) and more.]

Regarding the question of whether man has the right to play G-d, as in many instances of genetic engineering, some claim that it is wrong to play G-d. The Jewish perspective, however, is that since man was created in the image of G-d regarding intelligence, morality and free will, he is intended to be G-d’s partner in creation. To that end, G-d intentionally left the world incomplete in order to involve man in its betterment and refinement. Therefore sickness, poverty and other suffering need not be accepted passively. On the contrary, it is G-d’s will that man intervene to improve the world.

From the Jewish perspective then, not only is it not wrong to play G-d, but we are actually supposed to play G-d to the extent that doing so will benefit and improve the world and humanity. Given man’s license as partner with G-d to create and innovate, if and when human cloning occurs, the highest rabbinical authorities will have to examine the benefits and detriments of cloning to determine whether it would be acceptable ethically and according to Jewish Law.

Does a clone have a soul?

Some opinions answer in the negative, comparing a clone to a golem(a human-like being), such as the well-known golem made by the Maharal of Prague. Before refuting this comparison let’s examine the idea of creating a golem as it appears in our traditional sources.

The Talmud refers to Sefer Yetzira (Book of Creating), attributed to our patriarch Avraham, which teaches that different combinations of the 32 Channels of Wisdom, the 10 Sefirot (Divine Attributes), and the 22 Hebrew letters can be used to create beings, just as G-d did in creating the universe. The Talmud relates that Rava used Sefer Yetzira to create a person. Similarly Rav Chanina and Rav Oshiya would study Sefer Yetzira every Friday to create a calf which they would eat for their Shabbat meal. Sefer Yetzira is an accepted part of the Jewish tradition and was studied by such luminaries as Rav Hai Gaon, Ramban, the Arizal, and the Gaon from Vilna.

The Maharal, a great Jewish 16th century thinker, allegedly created a golem to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitism. Some say that G-d’s name was written on the golem’s forehead, while others claim that the golem was activated or de-activated by adding or removing the alef from the word emet on his forehead (Hebrew for “truth” and without the alef means “dead”). The golem was left in the attic of the Maharhal’s synagogue and recent accounts tell of Nazi soldiers fleeing in horror after having broken into the attic.

We find a question in the Responsa about whether a golem is human and may be included in a minyan, and the answer is “no”. The golem has no internal organs or blood, and therefore it is not forbidden to “kill” a golem, just as the Maharal de-activated his golem. Furthermore, a golem cannot speak, which, according to Judaism, indicates that it has no (human) soul.

A clone, on the contrary, is created biologically, has normal body functions (like a pumping heart and circulating blood), most likely has the power of speech, and therefore presumably has a human soul, just like me.

Is my clone me, my twin or my child?

A clone is genetically identical to the gene donor, unlike normal male/female reproduction where the genes are a fusion of both parents. Therefore my clone, while sharing my genes (we wear the same size), is really the result of the fusion of my parents’ genes. In this way my clone cannot be considered me; rather he would be more like my identical twin, just as in nature identical twins share the same genetic material. However, since my clone was created from my genes, from my body, and later gestated and birthed by my wife, perhaps he is to be considered my child.

This question of whether my clone is my twin or my child has halachic ramifications regarding inheritance. If my clone is my twin, he will not inherit together with my other children, his "siblings". However, if he is my son he will inherit. This will also apply to the mitzvah of yibum. There is a mitzvah that when one’s brother dies without children he marries the widow (if they both agree) in order to perpetuate his brother’s line, or do the mitzvah of chalitza and doesn’t marry her (which is what is done today). If his clone is a twin, the clone will have to perform yibum or chalitza (after waiting for his bar mitzvah!). If the clone is a son, he exempts his mother from the mitzvah altogether, even if his father had other brothers, since his father had a child.

This also raises the question of who is the clone’s mother. For example, in a case where a woman is cloned, having her genes inserted in another woman’s egg which is then gestated and birthed by a third woman (similar to the case of "Dolly"), there are four possible mothers: woman #1, the mother of the cloned woman (who is the original source of the genes); woman #2, the gene donor; woman #3, the egg donor; and woman #4, the gestation donor.

Since Judaism follows matrilineal descent, the question of who is the clone’s mother will have bearing (sorry) on whether the clone is Jewish. Whether genetic or physical birth factors (or both) are what determine if the child is Jewish is a discussion for another forum, and please do not draw any conclusions from this article.

This week’s article concludes a longer-than-average length treatment of a subject in this particular forum. However, I think we have not heard the final word regarding cloning. In the meantime I’d like to share a thought-provoking and somewhat humorous email we received from a reader in reaction to this topic, which addresses the question if it’s okay to "play G-d":

Dear Rabbi,

I mean no disrespect when I say that there is a potential problem with cloning man toward becoming self-sufficient and losing the very dependence he has cherished in the past with G-d. This story illustrates a problem in its infancy:

One day a group of scientists came before the Almighty and said that they had all the knowledge and ability to create man, and they said, "We no longer have any need for You since we have arrived in our own time to match anything You have done in the past concerning the making of a human. We can take your place because we have the ability to duplicate your power and knowledge." Scientifically they had the knowledge to clone a human so they were feeling pretty self-sufficient.

They went on to say that they would do this with their own test tubes and equipment to make humans perfect and the only thing left would be to take some dirt and commence with the exercise. The Almighty said, "Hold on a moment; get your own dirt."

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