Thursday, March 17, 2011

Genetic Testing

This is the start of a new series in this blog, one which has been on my mind for quite some time, and one which has been on my mind for quite some time.  It seems to me that each topic I have chosen so far has something unique and special about it that makes it stand out as a paradigm for what i believe is a fresh "rationalist" approach to medical Halacha. 

The first topic we discussed, brain death, represents the difficulty one has when contemporary Halacha has to consider the medical knowledge that led to the Halachic precedents that are recorded in Chazal and earlier poskim.  We described how important it is to understand why the gemara said what it did regarding the determination of death, and what chazal's understanding of physiology was.

Our second topic, treating goyim on shabbos, represents the problems one encounters when Halacha seems to conflict with our basic moral sense of right and wrong.

The third topic, abortion, was a rationalist approach to a subject which had no clear Halachic consensus, and the decision making process that should be involved in dealing with something this unclear and complex.

This new thread, will deal with a Halachic topic that is unique for several reasons, which I plan on demonstrating during the writing of the series.

1)  This topic is unique, because the scientific knowledge in this area increases so quickly and so dramatically, that a Halachic treatment of the subject that may have been valid two years ago may be no longer valid.  I am going to argue, that not only is the knowledge that we accumulate quantitatively increased, but qualitatively as well.  Thus, not only do we know more "stuff", but the accumulated knowledge needs to fundamentally change the way the religious community deals with this subject responsibly and consistent with Halacha.

2) This topic is also unique because it forces us to consider fundamental Jewish concepts in ways that our great leaders of the past could not possibly have foreseen.  Concepts and ideas such as fate, predestination, divine guidance of wordly events ("hashgachah pratis"), hishtadlut, bitachon, and many other most fundamental concepts have to be reconsidered in light of the challenges of this wonderful new area of knowledge that science has given us.  It is my contention, that the approach one takes to genetic testing is highly dependent upon how one approaches the above mentioned concepts and their relative value in Judaism. The intersection of "Hashkafah" and "Halacha" is especially relevant when considering this topic.

The question then becomes, how much should scientific knowledge change the level of importance that we give to certain Torah values.  I know this sounds a bit heretical at first, but please give me a chance to explain exactly what I mean before you make any judgements.

3) This topic is also unique, in that a primary issue involved is the value of knowledge itself. Most Halacha revolves around actions.  Halacha usually forces one to consider such questions like, "what am I allowed to do?" or, "What am I obligated to do?"  However, when it comes to genetic testing, the question is very different. This is because one is asking, "what knowledge should I seek to find out?" or "Is it better to know some piece of information or not to know it?"  This is not the usual Halachic quandary, and it forces us to inquire into the fundamentals of the Jewish values of seeking knowledge and learning vs. faith and trust in God.

I must beg your patience as we work through this subject, as it will take me some time to develop my ideas.  Please forgive me, because I also have a "day job" ;-). So if I miss a few days, please be aware that it is not because I have given up on this enterprise.

My general plan will be as follows, though I may change it here and there as we progress through the subject.

First I plan on giving some background.  I will review the state of genetic testing in practical medicine today, and review the options, treatments available, and enough science that you will hopefully understand the basics.  I will then review the sources that the poskim bring from chazal and rishonim acharonim etc. that are used when discussing the subject.  Then we will discuss the various major contemporary poskim and how they dealt with (or deal with) these issues.  Then we will embark on our rationalist analysis, using the five principles of Rationalist Medical Halacha.