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Rabbi Avram I. Reisner: Grappling with Sticky Issues

Agbiotech Buzz Volume 2 Issue 4
April 30, 2002

Rabbi Avram Reisner has a natural appetite for thorny issues. So when the question was raised of whether genetic modifications to foods might make some kosher foods non-kosher, he tackled it.

"These are the sorts of things I take on-real sticky issues," he says. "This is what I do." His favorite topics usually have to do with the potential clashes of modern life and technologies with Conservative and Orthodox Jewish law. That includes not only genetically modified (GM) foods but also, for instance, partial birth abortions and whether prayer quorums can be assembled via telecommunications. "There is a need for Jewish law to adapt to features of modernity which are moving really fast."

Reisner hadn't started his rabbinical career thinking he would become an authority on applying Jewish law to science and technology. Long before becoming an adjunct professor at Baltimore Hebrew University and getting his Ph.D. in Rabbinical Jewish Law at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, he had actually dropped out of the science and math track after his freshman year in college. He was drawn to the humanities instead, he says, and was detached from science for about a decade.

His basic affinity for science remains, however, and is serving him well today-at the very least by helping him to ask the right questions. "As I found myself drifting towards these issues I had to start learning again," he says. "Now I have been involved in bioethics for 20 years."

Reisner addressed the GM food issue in 1997 as part of a written "responsum" of the Rabbinical Assembly Committee of Jewish Law and Standards entitled "Curious and Curiouser: Genetic Engineering of Nonhuman Life." One way of looking at the question is this: could a swine gene, inserted into a tomato, make the whole tomato non-kosher? On at least one level, no it can't, says Reisner. That's because an earlier Rabbinical decision made in the 1890's states that the non-kosher part of a kosher food must be visible to the naked eye.

This is known as the kashrut issue in Jewish law. A more relevant question regards what's called kilayim, the biblical prohibition against mixing species. According to strict kilayim rules, one cannot mix seeds of different agricultural species and plant different species together in the same field. It is also against the rule to crossbreed animals or graft plants. It is even against the rule to yoke a donkey and ox to the same plow. Among the reasons given later for the kilayim prohibitions are that the intermixing of species could be seen as an affront to God's natural creation of species.

Other parts of kilayim, however, are more liberal, allowing, for instance, offspring of two different varieties of cattle to be considered kosher as long as those two varieties of cattle are "pure" and kosher. There are also cases where a Jew can encourage a Gentile (non-Jewish person) to crossbreed species in his or her possession, and then use the Gentile's products.

In short, Reisner concludes that between kashrut and kilayim, there is plenty of room for kosher GM foods. He's also confident that the Jewish community will continue its traditional willingness to accept technological changes like GM foods.

"The Jewish community has as a whole been pretty supportive of forward-pushing science," says Reisner. "It kind of fits with the model of how the Jewish religion deals with the relation of humankind and nature."