In the coming November elections, foodies across the nation will be staying up late to watch for the results of a ballot initiative in California. Voters in the Golden State will be deciding on Proposition 37, an initiative which, if passed, would require any food item containing genetically-modified plant or animal material to be labelled as such. This has national implications, both because California is the leading agricultural producer of the country, and because state legislation in California could ultimately lead to a similar federal mandate down the road.
What exactly is genetically modified food, often referred to as GMOs (genetically modified organisms)? GMOs are any food which have had specific and localized changes to their DNA performed at the level of molecular biology. As the technology to produce such foods has developed over the last 40 years, the usage of GMOs has spread throughout the world. Were you to walk into your local supermarket today, over 75% of all the non-organic processed foods would contain at least one genetically modified ingredient.
One of the reasons credited for the relatively quick uptake of the technology in the US agricultural market was the ruling twenty years ago by the FDA that GMO foods are “generally regarded as safe” and as such don’t require specific long-term testing. In other words, GMO food is just like regular food. The California ballot initiative represents a backlash against the FDA ruling. It is a grassroots effort by consumers to declare that GMOs are fundamentally different from what humans have been eating for thousands of years and that consumers should have a right to know when a product was made using this technology.
What is at stake in this conversation goes deeper than the food that we put in our mouths and bodies. This debate raises the question of the fundamental the human role in creation. Should we be bothered when scientists splice fish DNA into tomatoes to make them more resistant to cold weather? Or should that be a source of collective human pride and excitement about the possibilities of science and the mind?
One approach to understanding this issue from a Jewish perspective is through the lens of the mitzvah of kilayim, the prohibition against improper mixtures (of agriculture, animals, and types of cloth). Historically, the rabbis have been of different minds as to the reasoning behind this particular mitzvah. Other than Rashi’s take (he understands kilayim as a classic hok, a law which has no rationale), we can delineate two major positions regarding the underlying principle of the mitzvah.
Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch reads the passages of kilayim in conjunction with the creation story of Genesis I. There, the creation and propagation of both plants and animals is completed l’minayhu, “according to its kind”: that is, a ginkgo tree will produce a ginkgo and not a cedar; a dog will birth a dog, and not a cat. Rabbi Hirsch sees kilayim as a directive for humans to endeavor to support the natural world to continue in this manner by not causing an “unnatural pairing of species”, as he calls it. For Rabbi Hirsch, combining two discrete and separate types of plants or animals would be an aberration which strikes at the very heart of creation itself. It would be intrinsically unnatural and a violation of the principles of kilayim as well as the order established during ma’aseh bereshit.
Fascinatingly, the Ramban, some 600 years earlier, came to the same conclusion. He also believes that God very much intended for distinct species to exist, and that one who violates kilayim and brings these species together improperly “changes and negates the act of creation.” This claim very much echoes the fear of Rabbi Hirsch. However, the Ramban goes a step further and adds that “it is as though [one who violates kilayim] thinks that God did not complete His world sufficiently, and he wishes to assist creation by adding creatures to it.” Here, the Ramban introduces a new idea into our discussion: humility. The Ramban warns us against playing God. He castigates one who attempts to mix the building blocks of creation as one who does not know his place in the world – one who is not sufficiently humble before God, the True Creator.
These, then, are two rabbinic approaches to the mitzvah of kilayim: a sense that there is a natural order in the world which God wants us to help perpetuate, and a more character-driven issue of humility, the notion that our engagement in this type of project oversteps our boundaries as humans.
However, before we close the case on this debate, we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that Judaism is not univocal on this particular issue. Consider, for instance, another aspect of the creation story: Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” This verse is often understood as an invitation to humankind to use the natural world to our benefit. It encourages us to see ourselves at the top of the food-chain of life and act as such. This concept seems to run counter to the “humility” theme that the Ramban espouses.
Similarly, recall the famous midrash in which Rabbi Akiva discusses with Turnus Rufus the works of man versus the works of God. Rabbi Akiva presents loaves of bread and stalks of wheat, and asks, “These [the stalks of wheat] are the deeds of God, and these [the baked rolls] are the deeds of humans. Are these [baked rolls] not more beautiful?” Here, Rabbi Akiva’s rhetorical question declares clearly that the highest form of creativity occurs when humanity takes the elements of creation and transforms them for its own use.
When trying to articulate just what the Jewish view on GMOs might be, no one approach is dominant. Perhaps we must adopt a self-image that Rav Soloveitchik once proposed in an essay: we should see ourselves as possessing a “majestic humility.” Yes, we are the only ones who can take what God has created and, indeed, improve upon it, like in the story of Rabbi Akiva. Yes, claims the Genesis story, we have the right and the power to do so. But the values of kilayim step in and warn us to use this power wisely and carefully. Just because we can, does not mean that we should. Every advance in technology, every potential for human gain, must be weighed thoughtfully. How does this technology help us lead healthier, happier lives? Will this technology make us more God-fearing, more awe-inspired? The debate around GMOs provides us with a moment to ask ourselves some of these deeper questions relating to the role of technology in our lives today. Be grateful for that, and take advantage.