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When Judaism Meets Science

 

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When Judaism Meets Science

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Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

Judeology Explores “When Judaism Meets Science”

Monday, March 2, 2020 @ 04:03 PM
posted by Roger Price

Judeology is a website dedicated to sparking Judaism “through science, technology, and the arts.” Recently it posted a podcast about what happens when Judaism meets science. One of the things that is unique about this podcast is that the host, Yaakov Schefres, is not a rabbi but an aerospace engineer. Over the course of just over a half hour, Yaakov and I engage in a wide ranging discussion about the different approaches and techniques of religion and science with respect to the big questions of the day. We talk about faith in religion and confidence in science, as well as about the evolution of Judaism and self–correction in science. We also explore descriptions of the Biblical text as history, science, an ethical guide, and a community bond. Finally, we address some contemporary issues, including abortion, assisted fertility techniques, and artificial intelligence.


I hope you enjoy this discussion. Of course, if you want to learn more, the book “When Judaism Meets Science” is available at your local etailer.


For now, listen here: https://www.yaakovschefres.com/judeology/

Judaism and Reproductive Science: Be Fruitful and Multiply. But How?

Monday, February 17, 2020 @ 11:02 AM
posted by Roger Price

Guest Essay by Prof. William D. Petok

Assisted Reproductive Technology.
Credit: wikigramas.org

The Bible and Fertility

The Biblical imperative is clear. “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and tame it . . . .” (Gen. 1:28.) And God gives no description of how Adam and Eve are to do this. Again, after the flood, the same message comes from on high: “God then blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.’”(Gen. 9:1.) At least seven more times the commandment is given. This must be important!

Later in the text we are introduced to the problem of infertility. Sarah struggles and suggests that Abraham use the first known surrogate, Hagar, her handmaiden. After Ishmael is born Sarah conceives at the ripe age of 90. Tension between the two women increases and Hagar and Ishmael are cast out.

Infertility skips Isaac and Rebecca but plagues the next generation of the Matriarchs. “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing [children] to Jacob, Rachel came to envy her sister. She said to Jacob, “Let me have children; otherwise I am a dead woman.’” (Gen. 30:1.)

And finally, Elkahnah’s wife is stricken. Unfortunately, Elkhanah misses an opportunity to connect with his wife when he says “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8.) Then, “In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, ‘Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget Your servant, but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life.’” (1 Sam. 1:10-11.) Miraculously, as in earlier texts, she conceives, and a son is born.

Modern Fertility Strategies

Today, we are less likely to rely on divine intervention for fertility problems. Reproductive medicine has developed an array of strategies for both men and women who are unable to create children “the old-fashioned way.” The most complex of these are considered Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) and include In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) in which eggs and sperm join without other manipulation in a petri dish, Intrauterine Insemination (IUI), in which sperm is introduced to the uterus via a catheter, Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), in which a single sperm is injected into a single egg under the microscope, the use of donor sperm or eggs, and the use of a gestational carrier when a woman’s is unable to carry a pregnancy to term for medical reasons. More recently, pre-implantation genetic testing (PGT) allows the determination of genetic problems with an embryo before it is transferred to a uterus. The process involves removing several cells in order to test them. Finally, egg freezing allows a woman to freeze her eggs for later use or donation at a later time.

As an added benefit of these technologies, same sex couples who wish to have children to whom they have a genetic connection can employ one or more of the above methods and build their families.

When Judaism Meets Reproductive Science

What does Judaism, the religion that brought us “Be fruitful and multiply,” have to say about these methods which did not exist when the biblical authors created the texts above? Many religions approach the problem of infertility with some amount of overlap. Judaism says that procreation is a religious duty, that infertility is imposed by God and may be seen as a punishment for wrongdoing. In fact, all the major religions take the view that infertility is a punitive response from the deity. As with most religions, Judaism has denominations ranging from the most orthodox to the most liberal. And the range of opinions on what is acceptable is significant. Generally, the more strictly one adheres to Jewish law, the more restrictive are the options.

Judaism in its most conservative forms is fairly flexible when it comes to ART. IVF is acceptable, particularly when the sperm and egg come from the individuals who will carry to term and raise the infant. IUI is acceptable if the sperm comes from the husband of the woman who will carry the pregnancy.

Egg donation

There are rabbis who will reject the use of donor eggs while others allow it with the husband’s consent. A major concern, if the donor is Jewish, would be the “provenance” of the egg for future marriage of the child. Regardless of faith, it’s a bad idea to marry a half sibling. The genetic consequences could be problematic. In the most religious circles, a gentile donor is preferred, the assumption being that the child will only marry a Jew, thus removing concerns about gene lines and consanguinity. Many authorities would favor a full conversion to insure the Jewish heritage of the child.

Sperm Donation

The use of donor sperm from a Jewish donor is not allowed because it constitutes an adulterous relationship, at least metaphorically, because the donor creates a child with a woman who is not his wife. The child would then be considered a mamzer or bastard.

For men with male factor infertility, this option is removed. A non-Jewish donor, on the other hand, changes the equation. The child can’t unknowingly marry a half-sibling because in “proper” marriage arrangements there is only a Jewish option. If a donor is Jewish, accurate records must be kept to insure that the donor’s subsequent children are not potential marriage mates.

Seed Spilling

The issue of IUI, IVF, and ICSI are complicated by how the sperm and egg “get together.” Since these procedures all take place without intercourse, “spilling of seed,” or masturbation, is required. The original text from Genesis (38:9) and then again in Leviticus presents questions about emission of semen and raises similar questions about ritual purity. Jews who follow a strict interpretation of text will then have a problem with how sperm are obtained for the procedures above. Typically, a man provides a specimen for use by masturbating into a collection cup. But this violates the prohibition of spilling seed. In order to avoid the prohibition, special collection condoms have been created so the couple can have intercourse and the “seed is not spilt.” In the most observant situations, there is a small hole at the top of the condom, so it is “possible” for seed to escape into the vagina and it won’t be “wasted.” From a medical/scientific point of view these machinations are less than desirable, but acceptable.

Surrogacy

Some Jewish denominations allow surrogacy via gestational carrier. This a distinctly different form of surrogacy than the one Abraham employed. Today that would be referred to as “traditional surrogacy” in which the carrier is inseminated with the father’s sperm, carries the child to birth and the turns the infant over to the parents who will raise it. This practice is used far less today than 25 years ago because of advances in IVF which allow creation of a fetus outside the womb and subsequent transfer to a carrier. In the best case, the carrier would be an unmarried woman. However, some Halachic authorities raise the question of maternal identity. Is the carrier, who’s only contribution to the birth is her womb, a mother? It is possible to find Halachic authorities who make the case both for and against gestational surrogacy. Liberal Judaism, which has accepted patrilineal descent, finds gestational surrogacy acceptable.

Most gestational surrogacy arrangements today involve a woman who is done creating her own family. As with any pregnancy, one risk is future infertility due to complications of gestation or birth. Another reason for this guideline is that a woman who has her own children is more likely to turn over a child she has carried for someone else. Many carriers comment that they loved being pregnant and look forward to the process especially because they will be able to sleep through the night after the delivery!

Anonymity

While egg and sperm donors were initially required to be anonymous for reasons that don’t make sense today, there is a strong movement to create donor sibling registries. This allows donor conceived children to find their half-siblings, “diblings” in some circles, and obtain ongoing medical information about their donor which may impact them in the future. When donor sperm and later donor egg procedures became possible, no one could have predicted the impact of technology on reproduction. Today, with genetic testing from organizations such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com, it is almost impossible for a donor to remain anonymous. In the not too distant future, children who are not told about their donor conception could easily discover the “truth” when they take biology in middle school and bring home the DNA swab kit to learn about their own genetic makeup.

Egg Freezing

Egg freezing, a process in which a woman’s ovaries are stimulated in a controlled fashion to produce more eggs than are normal for one cycle, is gaining acceptance in the Orthodox community. The procedure allows eggs to be retrieved by needle aspiration while the woman is sedated. They are subsequently frozen and stored in cryopreservation tanks for later use. For an unmarried woman in her late 30’s, this is a significant development as it allows her to preserve some measure of fertility until she finds a mate. It is also significant for a woman who has a medical condition that requires treatment that can render her infertile, such as some treatments for cancer and other diseases. As striking a development as it sounds, it is an imperfect process. Not all frozen eggs will thaw properly and not all of those that do thaw will fertilize. Finally, not all those that fertilize will develop into embryos that can be transferred.

Genetic Testing

Preimplantation genetic testing (PGT) was developed to diagnose genetically transmittable disorders. The process involves removing a single cell from a day 3 embryo and studying the genetic makeup of that cell. While the process is taking place, the embryo is frozen for later use. At day 3, the eight cells that make up the embryo are undifferentiated. Removing one will not affect the subsequent development of the embryo. The information obtained can prevent the transfer of embryos with Tay-Sachs, Down’s syndrome, and other disorders. It could also be used for sex determination, something that Halachic and non-Halachic authorities consider frivolous.

Additional Resources

This brief overview of Judaism’s approach to ART is by no means exhaustive. The reader who wants a deeper dive into both the Jewish approach and the broader field of ART is referred to several books and websites listed below.

Grazi, Richard V. Overcoming Infertility: A guide for Jewish couples (Toby Press, 2005). An edited collection by an experienced reproductive endocrinologist with contributions from rabbinic and medical experts.

Finkelstein, Baruch and Finkelstein, Michal. (The Third Key: the Jewish couple’s guide to Fertility (Feldheim Publishers, 2005). Contains halachic explanations of ART and what is and is not permissible for the most observant.

Cardin, Nina Beth. Tears of Sorrow, Seeds of Hope. Jewish Lights Publishing, 1999. Written by a Reform rabbi, this book, subtitled “A Jewish Companion for Infertility and Pregnancy Loss,” contains spiritual resources for those coping with infertility and pregnancy loss.

Jewish Fertility Foundation. https://www.jewishfertilityfoundation.org.  Headquartered in Atlanta, this organization provides financial assistance, educational awareness and emotional support to Jewish people who have medical fertility challenges.

Uprooted. https://weareuprooted.org.  A Boston based organization that offers advocacy and ritual creation. Uprooted educates Jewish leaders in assisting families with fertility challenges and provides national communal support to those struggling to grow their families.

Puah. https://www.puahfertility.org. Headquartered in Israel and providing services in the United States, this organization describes itself as “fertility, medicine and halacha.” In addition to information and events, it offers lab supervision to insure rabbinic requirements that Jewish parentage is established.

A Time. https://www.atime.org.  Headquartered in Brooklyn, this organization is focused on religiously observant Jews dealing with infertility and family building challenges.

RESOLVE. https://resolve.org/ The national patient advocacy organization. RESOLVE provides free support groups in more than 200 communities and is the leading patient advocacy voice.

The Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology. https://www.sart.org.  SART provides unbiased information and sets standards for in vitro fertilization (IVF). Member clinics provide data on success rates which are validated and available online. The website contains a wealth of patient friendly information in print and video form.

The American Society for Reproductive Medicine. https://www.asrm.org.  ASRM is a multidisciplinary organization dedicated to the advancement of the science and practice of reproductive medicine. Its patient information page, https://www.reproductivefacts.org, contains significant information about the medical aspects of infertility and its treatment

************

William D. Petok, PhD, is a Clinical Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Thomas Jefferson University/Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Philadelphia, PA.

The views expressed by Prof. Petok are his own and not necessarily those of the Blogmaster. They are published in order to promote this blog’s mission to provide information and foster discussion about matters of faith and science. The Blogmaster thanks Prof. Petok for his contribution to this forum.

What if Cyrus Had Not Freed the Jews?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 @ 11:09 AM
posted by Roger Price

Over twenty-five centuries ago, Cyrus II, founder and ruler of the Persian Empire, freed the Jews who had been transported forcibly to Babylon and facilitated the reconstruction of their Temple in Jerusalem. Without the intervention of Cyrus, the Jewish People and Judaism as we know it (if that is not redundant) would not exist today. In short, no Cyrus, no Jews. So who was Cyrus, and why aren’t we celebrating his actions?

Cyrus was born into the royal family of the small state of Anshan, located in what is now southwest Iran. Not long after becoming king of Anshan around 559 BCE, Cyrus first conquered nearby Media (550 BCE) and then turned west to capture Lydia (546 BCE) in what is now western Turkey. Next, he shocked the world by toppling the previously dominant empire of Babylonia (539 BCE). Whether his victory after a multi-year siege of the capital Babylon was more the result of brilliant tactics, Babylonian palace treason or some other factor can be debated, but it is crystal clear that Cyrus emerged from Babylon triumphant. And with this victory, Cyrus became ruler of, among other lands, the territory bordering and east of the Mediterranean Sea to and surrounding the Jordan River. read more

Isaac Asimov, Two Foundations and the Jews

Friday, June 21, 2013 @ 09:06 AM
posted by Roger Price

 

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the renowned 20th century philosopher, understood that gaining “control of the world of space” is one of the main tasks of humankind.  The result of the conquest of space is “technical civilization.” But, Heschel argued, “(l)ife goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.” For Heschel, time, not space, “is the heart of existence.” (See Heschel, The SabbathIts Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Young 1951) at 3.)

Judaism, according to Heschel, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” (Id. at 8.)  Recognizing that a different sensitivity is involved in creating holiness in time, rather than space, he urged that we cultivate that sensitivity in order to achieve the goal of being, rather than having.

If Abraham saw Judaism as a religion of time, Isaac did not. Isaac Asimov, the renowned 20th century writer, had a rather cramped view of religion. Born into an orthodox Jewish family in Russia, he came to America in 1923 as a young child. As he related in his third autobiography (no misprint), however, his parents never made “any effort” to teach any religion to him, even to have him participate in a bar mitzvah ceremony. (Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir (Doubleday 1994) at 12.) Not surprisingly, throughout his adult life, Asimov was strictly non-observant with respect to any known religious practice. At the same time, Isaac Asimov never changed his name as did others to hide his Jewishness, always acknowledged that he was Jewish and seems to have absorbed some Jewish values if not Jewish practices or sense of peoplehood. (See Id. at 13, 15-18, 322.) read more

The Camel’s Nose and the Torah’s Tent

Wednesday, May 1, 2013 @ 08:05 AM
posted by Roger Price

The time is out of joint – O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right!

Nay, come, let’s go together.

                              Shakespeare, Hamlet, I, 5

For those who hold that the Bible, and particularly the Torah, is the Word of God, without flaw and inerrant, the last few hundred years have been very frustrating. The development of the Documentary Hypothesis, the idea that the Torah was a compilation of works from several discrete sources, was and, despite scholarly challenge, remains a formidable obstacle to the claim of unitary and divine authorship. But the Documentary Hypothesis is, for all its power and value, just that, a hypothesis. Similarly, the notion that much of the Torah text is pretext, i.e., a series of allegories designed to enhance the image of one or more Kings of Judah, is another provocative and persuasive concept, but again, just that, a concept.

Yet while some would dismiss such broad theories as too sweeping, and not definitive, small, stubborn little problems with the text cannot be so easily refuted and disregarded. One sign that the Torah is not the work of a single writer, much less a divine one, is the presence of anachronisms in the text.    read more

Let My People Know, Let My People Think: Why it Matters that the Bible is Fiction

Sunday, March 31, 2013 @ 12:03 PM
posted by Roger Price

In recent years, in certain circles, it has become fashionable to assert that the Bible is fiction, or that at least key segments of it are fictional. The assertion emanates from two camps. In one of these camps are those who have been described as new or militant atheists. Looking to recent developments primarily in cosmology and archeology, folks like Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Samuel Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens have created more than a cottage industry in their efforts to debunk the Bible.

But scientist and skeptics are not alone in their contention that the Bible is fiction. In another other camp are scholars of the Bible, including notable rabbis. For instance, during Passover week a dozen years ago, Conservative Rabbi and prolific author David Wolpe set off a firestorm when he spoke to his Los Angeles congregation about the lack of hard evidence for the Exodus story. According to a writer for the Los Angeles Times, after reviewing revolutionary discoveries in then current archeology, Rabbi Wolpe told them:  “The truth is that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” (A subsequent summary of Wolpe’s thinking may readily be found on the Internet in a piece he authored called Did the Exodus Really Happen? (“Did It?”).) read more

Ten Commandments from the Past, Ten Principles for the Present

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 @ 11:02 AM
posted by Roger Price

 

 

Credit: Cecil B. DeMille, Producer

The theophany at Sinai is one of the grandest and most compelling stories of all time, a story written for the silver screen – before there was a silver screen or any screen for that matter.  It is a story that is found in the weekly Torah portion (parashah) traditionally titled “Yitro” (Ex. 18:1-20:23). But it is a story that really deserves top billing.

The revelation of God to the people is one of the three core themes of traditional Jewish theology, along with creation and redemption. But it is more than even that.  It is a story whose influence over the course of the last three thousand years or so cannot be overstated.

The thirteen verses announced at Sinai, in the form of Ten Commandments, according to parashah Yitro, are embedded in our broader political community as the essence of morality and social order. They are symbolized by tablets that are physically enshrined in multiple locations, including at least two places in the courthouse of the highest court of our land. read more

The Curious Consensus of Jews on Abortion

Thursday, January 10, 2013 @ 10:01 AM
posted by Roger Price

That different Jews have disparate views is not news. What is news is when most Jews agree on a particular idea or approach. And so it is with the curious consensus of Jews on abortion.

In mid-2012, the Public Religion Research Institute (“PRRI”) published its findings from a 2012 survey of Jewish values (the “Jewish Values Survey”). The survey sought to measure the opinions of American Jews on a wide variety of political and economic issues, both domestic and foreign, as well as with respect to certain religious beliefs and practices. Some of those opinions were analyzed internally by Jewish denomination and externally by comparison to those of other faith or ethnic groups.

While Jews varied considerably in their views of a wide range of topics, on one – abortion – they were not only reasonably cohesive in their attitude, but strikingly different from other groups. Given the emphasis in the Jewish tradition on valuing life, on equating the preservation of one life with the preservation of a world and, conversely, the destruction of one life as the destruction of the world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5), this result, on its face, seems as anomalous as it is clear. read more

Eyes and Evolution: Why Do Some With Eyes See Not?

Saturday, November 17, 2012 @ 08:11 PM
posted by Roger Price

In the great satirical movie Duck Soup (first released 79 years ago to the date of this post),  Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), the financial underwriter of the nation of Freedonia, recruits Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) to be the insolvent country’s new president. The opposition then retains two spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx), to work for them. Toward the end of the film, in a bedroom scene with Teasdale, the spies both dress like Firefly in order to secure the combination to a safe.  After she gives the combination to one Firefly (the disguised Pinky), Mrs. Teasdale watches him leave the room, but suddenly another Firefly (the disguised Chicolini) appears. Teasdale confronts Chicolini who denies leaving and blusters “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” He knew that Teasdale had convincing evidence against him. She was, after all, an eye-witness. And yet, she did not understand.

Perhaps more than on any other of our senses, humans rely on sight. Our camera eyes allow massive amounts of information to enter our brain, first through the lens at the exterior of the eye, and then from the inverted image on the retina at the back of the eye by way of the optic nerve.  In the plains of Africa, our ancestors stood to gather information about their surroundings. Today we focus on ironically named smartphones, not so much to hear audio transmissions, but to stare at screens with text or other visual data.

So important is sight to us that over two-thirds of the sensory cells in our bodies are the light sensing cells in our eyes. So energy consuming is the human retina that it uses more oxygen per gram than does the brain.  (Shubin, Your Inner Fish (Pantheon Books 2008), at 150; Lane, Life Ascending (W. W. Norton 2009) at 175.) read more

The Cosmos, Oneness and Judaism: Are Pantheism and Panentheism Kosher for Jews?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 @ 06:06 PM
posted by Roger Price

The psalmist and the skeptic and the prophet and the professor look at the universe in which we find ourselves, see the same stars, feel the warmth of the same sun, hear thunder pealing from the same sky, understand the processes by which nature unfolds in spring, retreats in fall only to regenerate again the following year, and yet often draw different conclusions from the same observable data. So, for instance, in response to the emergence of humankind, a non-theist might merely record the evolutionary data or might, like cell biologist Ursula Goodenough, marvel at the improbability, the mystery, and the grandeur of our existence. (See, e.g., The Sacred Depths of Nature (Oxford University Press 2000).) The traditional Jewish believer, by contrast, might offer a prayer to the Supreme Being: Blessed are You, sovereign of the universe, who has fashioned us from the dust of the Earth in Your image and breathed our soul into us.

Is there another way, a way to attempt to understand one’s place in the cosmos that is consistent with current scientific knowledge, and yet recognizes the miracle of our presence without dependence on some supernatural being? Is there an approach to the cosmos which might be attractive to many, perhaps most, American Jews who do not believe in the traditional personal God who dominates the Torah, but nevertheless accept the existence of (and may even yearn for) some extraordinary power, force or spirit which pervades all that is? (See Post March 14, 2012) And, if so, is that path kosher? read more