Is genetically modified food halachically acceptable?…ask the Rabbi

January 25, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi  Raymond Apple answers your questions.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Why should I obey the Jewish commandments if I don’t want to? Shouldn’t personal choice play a part in my religious observance?

A. “If I don’t want to” is highly subjective. Try a different context. Can I say, “Why should I obey the traffic laws if I don’t want to?” Regardless of your feelings we can presume you do not drive on the wrong side of the road because you know you will endanger yourself and others, the law will punish you, and your conscience will feel bad about it.

Your possibly rebellious feelings are not necessarily the only criterion. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a leading Israeli rosh yeshivah, says, “Conventional morality holds that anyone and everyone is entitled to do as he pleases provided that he steps on no one else’s toenails; that, as master of his self, he is free to mould his own destiny. Halachah is radically opposed to this attitude; it holds that even with respect to his own personality, man is more trustee than master…

“The whole of halachah is grounded in profound faith in man’s capacity to choose freely and to chart his own course. It is precisely this faith which makes the stress upon duty – the incessant call to respond to commands – possible. Halachah grants man less but believes in him more.”

The crucial element is that though the Divine command comes from above, man freely and voluntarily responds to it.


Q. Why do we need to make a b’rachah after going to the toilet?

A. The blessing is called “Asher Yatzar” and it praises God for giving human beings a body that works. It originates in the Talmud and is one of the most sublime of our liturgical creations.

It starts off by praising God “Who formed man in wisdom” – an acknowledgment that it is not only the creation of the human species in general which we owe to God, but the intricate complex of parts and functions. The Tur says, “The creation of man is of wondrous wisdom”. The Midrash comments that the blessing avers that if anything goes wrong with the body, it is impossible for a human being to conduct his or her life normally.

Rashi emphasises the concluding words which praise God “Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously” – a tribute to our God-given capacity for rehabilitation. When people take risks with their bodies they place their future in jeopardy and have no guarantee that the body will overcome the trauma they cause it.

The Tosafot commentary on the Talmud notes that God’s wisdom was displayed in the creation of mankind, in the creation of the body and soul, and in the fact that during the first week of history man was made last to show that he is the pinnacle of creation, not only able to live, breathe and function, but with the capacity to reason things out and to articulate the Divine wisdom.

(Part of this answer is based on Rabbi Asher Meir’s “Meaning in Mitzvot”).


Q. Is genetically modified food halachically acceptable?

A. Genetic modification first attempted to make plants able to resist certain types of insects or herbicides. Then it moved to improve foods like rice and give them greater nutritional value in the hope that consumers would benefit.

There were some who objected on the basis that this interfered with the way God created the world, but Jewish thinking would probably see this as man acting as a co-worker to God, and completing the Divine work of creation.

Others asked whether genetic modification infringes the Biblical prohibition of cross-breeding species, but GM is not making hybrid species but introducing submicroscopic genes that have been reworked over and over again so that their origins have long since become unidentifiable.

A further question is whether life or health might be adversely affected by genetic modification of foods. The answer must be that like all new developments this one needs constant monitoring for risk factors, but so far there does not appear to be any evidence of danger.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

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