Jewish law may not ban cloning, but its still not kosher

NEW YORK — When it comes to cloning, Jews across the religious spectrum agree that it defies Jewish and scientific sensibilities — if not Jewish law.

"If cloning was the way we were supposed to be fertile and replenish the earth, as the Bible says, who needs Eve?" says Rosalie Ber, an international lecturer on bioethics and head of the Medical Education Department at Haifa's Technion — Israeli Institute of Technology.

But if Eve were created from Adam's rib, Ber noted, then she was, in a way, "the first clone."

If that were true, Genesis alone would refute the claims of the group Clonaid, which recently generated headlines with its unsubstantiated contention that its scientists have cloned babies for couples in the United States and Holland.

The group is linked to a religious sect called the Raelians that believe space aliens created life on Earth. The group's head says he had this insight in 1973 after encountering a 4-foot-tall extra-terrestrial called "Yahweh Elohim," Hebrew names for God.

Jewish experts on bioethics and halachah, or Jewish law, maintain that such stories are science fiction.

Yet these experts say the cloning claims raise important questions for Jewish law and thought.

"Cloning is really a media hype," says Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, a leading author on Judaism and bioethics and director of the Jewish Theological Seminary's Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies.

Wolpe and others doubt scientists will successfully clone humans any time soon. But while Jewish texts don't address such a possibility, "there is no real prohibition against it" in Jewish law, he says.

Nowhere do the Talmud or other authorities address the issue of engineering perfect replicas of human beings, Wolpe says, but Jewish law is clear about human eggs, the source of potential clones.

"Jewish law says embryos have no halachic position outside the mother's womb," Wolpe says. "There is no halachic ambiguity about that."

At the same time, many experts agree that "therapeutic cloning" — stem-cell research for clinical purposes — is not just kosher, it's crucial.

In Judaism, "we have a very simplistic approach. Pikuach nefesh," or saving a soul, "takes precedence over all other concerns," says Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a professor of biology at Yeshiva University in New York.

But Tendler, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of America's bioethics committee, also fears that the media commotion about human cloning is producing a "smokescreen" that clouds a deeper issue.

Tendler is a proponent of such genetic engineering as stem-cell research, which he believes could save lives.

Cloning has long stirred the imagination, Ber says.

In 1997, Scottish scientists produced the first mammalian clone, a Dorset sheep named Dolly, after 225 failed attempts. "The first 225 produced monsters," Tendler maintains. "Who would be interested in cloning a human being?"

In the years since, scientists have found that Dolly suffers from premature aging because the nucleus that produced her was taken from the tissue of an adult sheep.

Dolly stands as a frightening counterpoint to the beauty of natural conception and evolution, Ber says.

In the case of Ashkenazi Jews, she says, the genetic abnormality Tay-Sachs is an example of too much intermarriage within an extended family.

"But if an Ashkenazi marries a Sephardi, there is no danger,'' she says.