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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

‘Walking’ isn’t enough: The halakha has to start running

The word “halakha” (Jewish Law) stems from the root “to walk.” And indeed, for the past 2000 years since it began to expand (some would say supplant) biblical law, it has always moved forward – but at a snail’s pace. This is no longer sufficient, given the very fast pace and scope of technological progress. Indeed, the 21st century will most probably be the most challenging one since the 1st century CE when the Second Temple was destroyed, and the Rabbis had to “reinvent” Judaism.

The social and technological challenges are coming from every direction. A recent news item is a case in point: The FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration) has granted permission to a company (Upside Foods) to remove living cells from chickens and grow them in a strictly controlled lab environment to make a meat product that doesn’t entail slaughtering any animals. This is but one foodtech procedure being developed by several companies to bring “real meat” variants to the table without the unappetizing work of nurturing and then killing animals.

Will such new foods be considered kosher? I am not a rabbinic “posek” (Jewish Law decider) and won’t venture a clear answer, but I can suggest some paths to a “yes” decision. First, the early rabbis commented that God originally wanted humanity to be non-meat eaters but relented when He understood that the latter’s “carnivorous appetite” was too great an obstacle for humankind to overcome. Second, the Torah has several commandments prohibiting “tza’ar ba’aley cha’yim” (causing undue pain to animals). Third, the Torah also has a number of “pro-environmental” strictures (e.g., not cutting down trees in warfare unless absolutely necessary; letting the Land lie fallow every seventh year) – an issue highly relevant given the environmental degradation caused by raising farm animals (methane flatulence; deforestation to enable grazing). Fourth and finally, the Talmud specifically states that rennet (to make cheese) is “technically” kosher whether it comes from the stomach of a kosher or non-kosher animal, basically because the enzyme process obliterates the “animal” nature of the rennet – and if kosher, by this Talmudic logic “cell-grown meat” might be “pareve” (edible with other meat or milk foods).

Of course, none of this is a guarantee that foodtech meats will be given the halakhic imprimatur. However, at some point the rabbis will have to take into account the economic consequences of a negative ruling because in the future techmeat will be far cheaper than traditional meat – the latter possibly/probably even being banned by progressive nations (who today are banning circumcision, a far more problematic issue for Jews).

Another area of great halakhic difficulty is only now coming into view: the age of personal robots. Given the world’s aging population and lack of caretakers, the only realistic solution to elderly care is the home robot companion – in the almost full sense of that last word. But can an Orthodox Jew even talk to such a robot on the Sabbath, given that such human speech directly “moves” the robot’s circuitry? Even if yes, will a robot be allowed to act as a “shabbat goy” i.e., may the Jew ask the robot to do something that transgresses a shabbat prohibition? Today, such a question elicits a laugh or even strong eye-rolling, but rest assured that everyone in the future will have such non-human servants at home, just as we all have washing machines, refrigerators etc. today – something our great-grandparents would have found unimaginable.

Indeed, the age of IoT (Internet of Things) is already upon us and the halakha already has had to grapple with its effects, albeit at the moment only in very specific circumstances. For instance, shabbat observers know to book only in hotels that still have a real, physical key to get into their room – a dying breed with the electronic “card key” becoming de rigueur.
Other issues are no less confounding for Jewish Law, even if the halakha already “tasted the future.” When the next pandemic hits and we all have to stay home, can we form a “Zoom minyan” of ten congregants, each in their own abode? In short, how does the halakha define “presence”: is it a psychological phenomenon of feeling togetherness, or must it have physical closeness even if part of the ten are incapable of reading the prayer book (as happens when 8 or 9 Jews drag into the synagogue a non-practicing Jew or two in order to complete the “minyan” of 10)?

Will the halakha permit genetic engineering of babies to reduce the possibility of serious defects? To put it in more modern terms: are there any circumstances in which Jewish Law enables us to “play God”? True, saving a life (“piku’ach nefesh”) almost always takes precedence over other considerations – but what happens (as it eventually will) when gentech enables us to genetically manipulate the ovum or sperm, or even create human life almost ex nihilo? (An example: for parents whose genetic makeup don’t enable procreation the natural way.)

And then there’s the 22nd century’s 800-pound gorilla in the room: how will the halakha deal with observant Jews living permanently in outer space? Given how many commandments are connected to Earth, this general conundrum will leave Jewish Law with an astronomical number of challenges (pun intended). But let’s not jump too far ahead…

Foodtech, robotech (AI), gentech – these are but a few of the revolutionary technologies already driving up the pike. Indeed, here’s some final food for thought: perhaps as a result of these challenges, all future decisor rabbis will have to study in higher education in order to properly “Master” such complex issues? Some central halakhic poskim of the 20th and 21st centuries did so (America’s Prof. Rabbi Moshe Tendler z”l in biology and medical ethics; Israel’s Prof. Rav Avraham Steinberg – still going strong – in child neurology and also medical ethics).

For many Jews, Torah learning is the root of life, but modern life has a way of uprooting traditional practice. The halakha can no longer afford to merely “walk”; it now has to get up and running to keep its relevance as we all move into the fast-approaching future.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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