Are scientists and farmers playing God when they create ways to improve the nutritional value of food, increase a product’s shelf life or prevent damage to a crop from weeds, drought or insects? Can something still be kosher if a non-kosher ingredient is added to it?
“Torah allows us to manipulate the ground for our benefit,” said Rabbi Yitzi Weiner during a Feb. 15 lecture sponsored by the Greater Washington Community Kollel. However, he said, “We have to be careful” not to tip the balance of nature. The Torah says never to separate a mother bird from her child as that could destroy a species, Weiner told about 25 people gathered at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Silver Spring.
While genetic engineering is a relatively new science, it is mentioned in Leviticus 19:19, which states, “You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; you shall not put on cloth from a mixture of two kinds of material.”
According to Weiner, who heads the Community Kollel of Sharon, Mass., it is a mitzvah, a good deed, to improve the health of another person, and creating a heartier species often does just that.
However, he said, “We have to be careful not to emulate God.” According to Jewish law, a person should walk in God’s path and emulate his acts of kindness. But on the other hand, no one should take over or manipulate God’s role, he said.
“Hashem rules the world. We are his stewards. We are stewards of the land,” Weiner said. “The Torah wants us to respect its natural laws.”
In modern day agriculture, this means that a farmer can mix an apple with an etrog in order to produce a “sturdier etrog that is more disease resistant,” Wiener said. Crossbreeding various kinds of apples to make a better apple is okay as all the genes come from the same species. But a farmer cannot graft or cross-breed two separate species, he said.
Taking this a step further, Weiner said most rabbis allow the eating of items made through cross-breeding as long as Jews did not create the new species. In Israel, farmers are not permitted to plant separate species “too close together.”
Weiner said it would be okay to eat salmon, which is kosher, that also has the genes of a sea snake, which is not kosher. This new salmon is bigger, will feed more people and is still kosher, he said.
Many rabbis agree that a genetically modified organism used as an ingredient in food is not prohibited and the food would still be considered kosher. What often is debated is whether the new product is natural and how significantly the kosher animal was altered – what if the animal no longer has split hooves or does not chew its cud or if the fish has no scales?
The Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington Vaad would treat salmon with fins and scales as kosher, despite genetic engineering involving a non-kosher species, said its president, Rabbi Dovid Rosenbaum.
During the hourlong lecture, Weiner also said that any food that has been genetically modified must be labeled as such. “It’s forbidden to deceive people,” he said.
When selling a barrel of apples, it would be forbidden to put a few nice apples at the top and then fill the rest of the barrel with rotten apples, thereby deceiving a potential buyer, he said.
During 2014, the Maryland General Assembly debated whether to mandate the labeling of genetically engineered food but never reached a consensus. The matter has not been reintroduced this year.