Cloning debate: Wheres God

Forget about counting sheep. The woolly beast named Dolly raises enough pressing questions about faith, immortality and the nature of self to last an insomniac's lifetime.

Created by scientists in Scotland and unveiled to the world last week, Dolly — the first carbon-copy mammal and currently the world's most famous sheep — has generated a host of theological and moral concerns.

Across denominational lines, there appears to be consensus among Jewish thinkers that the next logical step in the controversial feat — the possibility of cloning human beings — constitutes a morally unjustifiable intrusion into the realm of the Divine.

Some see cloning as a modern-day Tower of Babel, an attempt by people to raise themselves to the level of God through human achievement.

"Where is God in all of this, and is there room for God in all of this?" said Dr. Michael Thaler, a UCSF pediatrics professor who is teaching a San Francisco State University history course on race and genetics.

Others compare cloning to the tragic Jewish tale of the soulless golem, the artificial human being created of clay and magic.

Still others ponder the potential of reproducing an Adolf Hitler.

"I don't think we have to worry about Hitler. There are plenty of living and breathing anti-Semites right now," said Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman, a bioethicist and chair of Jewish studies at SFSU. "Hitler was just one man who made extraordinary evil choices."

What actually made Hitler's actions possible, she noted, was the generations of anti-Semitism that allowed ordinary Germans to carry out his will with vigor.

Rabbi Kassel Abelson, chairman of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, voiced other ethical concerns.

"How does the clone relate to the original subject? Who is responsible for the clone? These areas need thought, exploration and careful consideration."

After learning that Oregon researchers had cloned two rhesus monkeys from embryos — the first cloned primates and the closest step yet to humans — President Clinton on Tuesday announced a ban on federal money for research into human cloning.

"Any discovery that touches upon human creation is not simply a matter of scientific inquiry," he told the nation. "It is a matter of morality and spirituality as well."

From a biblical perspective, rabbis are particularly troubled by the notion of a human made in one's own image rather than the image of God, as stated in the Book of Genesis.

"If you begin to manufacture people, that flies in the face of the very value system that is inherent in the text," said Rabbi Richard Address, director of the Reform movement's committee on bioethics. "It flies in the face of the mystery of human existence, what makes you you."

The scientific breakthrough also sounds a particularly disturbing note for Jews, given Nazi Germany's pursuit of a society of superior beings.

"Can you really do this in a Jewishly sanctioned framework in light of the Holocaust, where you had genetic experimentation on human beings carried out in that context?" Address said.

As far as the possibility raised in "The Boys from Brazil," a 1978 movie about clones of Hitler, Zoloth-Dorfman said there is little to fear.

It is currently impossible to replicate DNA from the dead, though this obstacle may be moot in the future.

The nature vs. nurture debate adds another dimension to the question of cloning. Would a person with Hitler's genetic code but with different life experiences become a Hitler? No one knows.

In Zoloth-Dorfman's view, however, it's less important to prevent the birth of a single evil person than to ensure that the masses think clearly about the ethics and morality in their daily lives.

Many ethicists believe that the practice of cloning humans would fly directly in the face of lessons derived from the Holocaust.

Robert Pollack, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia University, believes that cloning humans would stand as a violation of medical ethics standards adopted at an international conference in Nuremberg in the 1940s.

In the wake of the Holocaust and the horrible medical experiments performed on its victims, physicians gathered at that symbolic site to formulate a set of guiding principles on issues surrounding human experimentation.

They agreed that no experimentation should be performed without full disclosure and voluntary participation. Moreover, the volunteer must be free to withdraw at any time.

Pollack believes that cloning violates that standard: "I don't see how" a cloned person "can withdraw without committing suicide," he said.

Cloning isn't without precedent in Jewish tradition. Eve was essentially cloned from Adam's rib, said Thaler. But in that biblical account the creator is God, he added, not a human.

Among the many troubling issues surrounding cloning, he noted the inherent challenge to the need for two parents joined in holy wedlock.

"It eliminates the need for a father," said Thaler, who is also former president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California.

Zoloth-Dorfman said the current debate on cloning focuses on the egg and its genetic material as a commodity — instead of focusing on the woman who creates the egg.

"She is invisible," said the associate professor of social ethics and Jewish studies.

Zoloth-Dorfman prefers to put the issue of cloning into human terms — parents, children, relationships, infertility and love.

Within Jewish debate, she added, rabbis and other ethicists must decide which framework within Jewish law (halachah) will be used to respond to the morality of cloning.

"Should infertility be primarily understood as a disease…in that case, Jewish law indicates a very vigorous approach to curing disease," said Zoloth-Dorfman, who is teaching a course on Jewish ethics and morality. "But if we think of it as a social problem…the halachah might be different."

Regardless, she believes Judaism will answer with a "complicated no" to cloning. "I would expect we would need to spend a lot of time arguing."

Rabbi Moshe Tendler, an Orthodox professor of Jewish medical ethics at Yeshiva University in New York, agrees — and sees many dangers in the new technology.

"The real problem is whenever man has shown mastery over man, it has always meant the enslavement of man," Tendler told the New York Times.

Some of the more ghastly scenarios batted about include the possibility of cloning donor bodies that could be harvested for bodily organs, as well as the creation of a sort of technoslave culture.

Another theological query, Thaler noted, would be whether a clone has a soul.

Like the question of how many angels fit on the head of a pin, that is unanswerable.

Despite a frantic waving of red flags in the wake of the cloning breakthrough, the reality is that human cloning may be impossible to stop. The biotechnology, scientists say, is relatively simple.

"In science, the one rule is that what can be done will be done," Tendler said.

That is why Jewish theologians and medical ethicists see a pressing need to weigh in on the cloning debate as it begins to be shaped.

Their hope is that society will think twice about trying to play the role of God and focus instead on less morally objectionable applications of the scientific knowledge.

"Technology by definition is neutral," Address said. "What we do with it and how we choose to use it will determine whether it's a blessing or a curse."

Regardless of such thoughts, not every Jewish leader is reacting with horror to Dolly's creation.

"Call me when they get to people," said Rabbi Jacob Traub of Adath Israel, an Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco.

Traub said he has no problem with the cloning of animals as a means to expand the food supply.

Though he doesn't doubt that the technology to clone humans will exist within the next decade or two, Traub considers the topic unnecessary to debate so far.

"Right now, it's too hypothetical."