A sheepish proposal: Will clones ensure continuity

No, Wilmut is not a master teacher of Hebrew, a charismatic rabbi or a brilliant community- center or summer-camp programmer.

He is an Edinburgh embryologist, the man responsible for an entirely unexpected breakthrough in animal cloning: Wilmut has cloned — a sheep, which (whom?) he has named Dolly.

Alas, early reports of the phenomenal breakthrough in Scotland do not tell us whether anyone has checked to see if underneath Dolly's woolly clothing there lurks a wolf. Or, since perhaps one ought not look a gift sheep in the underwear, whether Dolly may be a Trojan sheep.

But these dark possibilities aside, we must now anticipate that we will soon be able to clone specific people. Others will fret about the prospect that the Mafia will now be able to multiply its soldiers at will, that China will forbid natural procreation and simply breed specified numbers of people with characteristics such as docility, that suddenly the Lubavitch movement will include 10,000 clones of the rebbe — or 100,000 of his avid followers.

And why bother with "clones of"? Since the clone is presumably indistinguishable from the original, who can say which is the branch, which the root? Does the clone reproduce nature but not the effects of nurture, or do we get the whole package, down to detailed memory? And if we do not get the whole package, do we need to reveal that?

Back to Jewish continuity. Let our people be fruitful and multiply as they will. In the meanwhile, however, our central institutions can take compensatory measures. All we need decide is whom to clone.

Hmmm, whom to clone? Let us leave aside the very real possibility that we will be able to clone the dead, since that compounds the problem of choice beyond our humble capacities. Surely, in any case, there are sufficient paragons of Judaism-Jewishness among the living to solve our problem.

Indeed, just one would be sufficient, since as soon as we find the perfect Jew, we can clone him/her endlessly. Better yet, one of each gender.

So: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, secular? Or is it a mistake to reproduce the sterile divisions we know today? Perhaps the ideal Jew is transdenominational. Well then, let's look to personal predisposition: A rebel-iconoclast or a fastidious disciple? A Litvak or a Galitzianer? (If we can combine qualities, how about a yekke — that's a German Jew — and a Lubavitch Chassid, together presaging a Moshiach who comes on time?)

No, no, that isn't the way it works. You have to clone a specific person. You can have Philip Roth or Cynthia Ozick or whatever writer(s) you want. The trouble is, others may be planning to clone Howard Stern or Al Goldstein.

And then you've got another problem: What happens to the argument over patrilineal descent? Is a clone a descendant, or is the move horizontal rather than vertical? I feel, well, sheepish about this topic. It is too woolly and I have too much else to worry about today.

Come to think of it, if I could only quietly clone myself, I'd be very happy. I'd need, I think, at least three more me's. One could take my shirts to the laundry, do my taxes, catch up on correspondence. A second could show up at all the meetings I'm supposed to attend. (Or maybe, in fairness, that would be a rotational assignment — as long as the original me is not part of the rotation.) The third clone would specialize in dieting and hair regrowth.

And I? What I'd like to do is read books and write them. But what I'd most likely end up doing would be managing the other three. And, since they are me, I know how impossible a job that would be.

Best to forget the whole thing, even if "let nature take its course" may soon be rendered meaningless. Unless Dolly bolts.