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Does a clone have a soul?

Does a clone have a soul? God creates human who have souls, but when people create people, do they have a soul? Where do they go when they die? If a clone is not considered to possess a soul, would it be permitted to clone a human being for merely its spare parts? Is Cloning permitted according to the Halacha?

A. Some years ago, the Israeli Chief Rabbi Lau offered an opinion on cloning. The Chief Rabbi said that although there is no specific prohibition in Jewish Law to utilize artificial genetics to reproduce a human being, it is entirely against basic Jewish conceptions to do so. “The Torah gave a specific dispensation for doctors to use their knowledge to cure, and even to lengthen life, but the formation of new life goes way beyond that. We have no permission to enter the domain of the Creator on questions of life and death.” He said that he does not know of one rabbi who permits genetic engineering in this manner.

The Chief Rabbi’s comments, although provocative, makes one wonder: Is the Halacha as obvious as the Chief Rabbi thinks? Perhaps the matter is not as simple as Rabbi Lau.

The process of cloning is not “creating” new life ex nihilo, for the DNA is already there. Uncovering the secrets of the DNA code, while an impressive scientific achievement, does not necessarily make a person a creator. Let us bear in mind that from the beginning of humanity, God has implanted within the human consciousness the ability to create something from something by way of procreation.

Believe it or not, the question of cloning does have its antecedents in the Talmud, the Kabbala and even in the Responsa literature. One of the more controversial mystical works of the ancient Judaic world, is the Sefer Yetsira — the Book of Creation. This ancient 2nd century work describes God’s creation of the world by means of the ten cosmic numbers (sefirot) and the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Kabblalists believe that the arrangement of the Hebrew letters and holy names discussed in Sefer Yetsirah may be used by initiates to create a golem, or humanoid creature.

One of the more apocryphal stories of The Talmud relates how a 4th century Rava purportedly created a man through the Sefer Yetzirah and sent him to Rabbi Zeira. The latter tried speaking to him and when there was no response, he declared: “You are a product of our colleague. Return to your dust!” (Sanhedrin 65b). This is not the only anecdote; there are other stories from Jewish folklore that resemble the golem created by Rava.

The most famous Golem of all was the golem said to be created by Rabbi Yehuda Lowe (a.k.a. the Maharal of Prague). There are so many legends about the golem that a special statue was made in his memory which can still be seen standing in the city of Prague. Despite having written dozens of tracts on Jewish thought, he never expounded upon the golem legend.

Many religious-minded people worry that as human beings are usurping God’s exclusive role as the Creator. Cloning is perceived as a technology that could threaten to break down the ties that bind families biologically and spiritually together. To be certain, there are dangerous problems cloning poses, e.g., will cloning introduce a new breed of human being that will be condemned to slavery or be used solely for his “spare parts”?

Certainly the Halacha would regard cloning for the use of organ transplants as unethical and forbidden or the creation of a new underclass of clones would certainly be evil. Certainly, the Golem stories can serve as sobering reminder for human beings to be mindful of cloning poses great potential for abuse. Cloning is nothing that we should “clown” around with (pardon the pun).

The question of “usurping God’s role in creation” is an old topic that Jewish thinkers have grappled with for many centuries. In the Christian world people use to believe that plagues were “divine visitations” whose purpose was to purify the soul of man. Physicians were frequently the target of religious critics who felt that human beings should place their trust in God alone. As late as 1885, when a virulent outbreak of smallpox occurred in Montreal, the plague was controlled among those affected in the Protestant community, but the Catholic community suffered greatly because they opposed compulsory vaccination on theological grounds.

Outbreaks of cholera and other infectious diseases drew similar reactions in European countries. Likewise, the condom was banned by Pope Leo XII in 1826 as an effective safeguard against syphilis; chloroform was also banned because it circumvented the biblical curse,” I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children (Gen 3:16). Similar attitudes may be heard today among those who oppose helping AIDS victims receive proper health care.

The Jewish attitude has opposed such biblical fatalism. God gave human beings the capacity to be God-like. Knowledge per se is not forbidden, it all depends on what we do with this knowledge that counts. The “original sin” according to most Jewish commentators wasn’t as Francis Bacon and others presumed to be “the use of technology.” Knowledge per se is neutral and may be used for any kind of purpose. Electricity for an example can greatly enhance everyone’s life, yet it can also on occasion destroy life. There is nothing that human beings haven’t invented that hasn’t had its negative impact on people’s lives.

Some Christian literalists find the idea cloning a child repugnant because God didn’t intend for human beings to procreate in this way. Years ago, there was a similar debate in the Jewish community regarding the issue of in vitro fertilization. Immanuel Jacobowitz, the Chief Rabbi of Brittan, in 1970 wrote,” The generation of human life in test tubes or (referring to the use of a host mother) “to use another person as an “incubator” and then take from her the child she carried and delivered for a fee” was denounced as “a revolting degradation of maternity and an affront to human dignity.” Yet, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, gave qualified approval to this procedure. It would seem to me that the cloning issue does raises some of the same moral issues, but a there is a precedent in the vitro fertilization that would indicate the question of how one is conceived whether it be in vitro, or whether it be cloning—such an offspring possesses all the rights of status in Judaism.

Those who oppose cloning on theological grounds, need to consider how cloning can improve the quality of human life. Imagine you’re a mother, and you’ve just heard your doctor tell you that your only child, a five-year-old girl, has been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. In the course of the few years—with occasional but painful blood marrow transfusions, you may add some years to her painful life as you will slowly watch her die.

Then your doctor offers you back her life. It will be a simple procedure. The genetic material from one of her liver cells—screened of the leukemia defect–will be fused into one of your own unfertilized egg cells. Inside your womb, then, you can raise another daughter, identical to the first. With no risk of complications or rejection, your first daughter will receive a life-saving bone marrow transplant from her new sister, a younger twin. With the help of modern technology, this new child will save the life of her new sister.

If one person in a couple were infertile, or if there were a high probability that he or she would pass a debilitating genetic condition to an offspring, cloning could provide a way to have a child.

This new technology may go a long way in curing many diseases such as Huntington’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, or a common type of colon cancer. In the final analysis, scientists, physicians, ethicists, theologians and community leaders will have to work together in creating laws that will restrict the abuse of this new technology. At last scientists can now search for new and effective ways in curing diseases long before the symptoms appear, possibly leading to effective early treatments. And long term, once scientists have found a way to deliver healthy genes to the cells that need them, these diseases might be cured. Members of the religious community should be praising the God for expanding the frontier of human knowledge.

“You have endowed human beings with knowledge and infuse humankind with understanding. O grant us knowledge, understanding, and discernment. Blessed are You, O Lord, who bestows knowledge upon humankind.” — Siddur

Rabbi Dr. Michael Samuel