"Born Again: Faith and Yearning in the Cloning Controversy"

by Laurie Zoloth


When the New York Times Sunday Edition announced the first successful efforts at the cloning of an adult mammal, it opened the popular imagination to the moral and ethical complexities of a mesmerizing debate about the limits of the human capacity for creativity. Ethicists, theologians and moral philosophers found themselves participants in a public discourse marked by a passionate interest in the immediate implications of the science in both the personal sphere and, not tangentially, the marketplace — the experiment's process was revealed only after the patent was obtained, the details given in the Business Section.

At the heart of the cloning controversy is the endless fascination that human persons have in replication, both a narcissistic and a messianic impulse. Cloning the self intrigues precisely because it offers an answer to the inevitability of alterity, estrangement, and death. As such, it reflects the deepest of yearnings: for redemption and resurrection into a better, purer, and transformed self, a self given a second chance at an embodied human journey.

This chapter was conceived as a part of a larger conversation, a chance to reflect on the theological and ethical implications for personhood, citizenship, and social policy of such new reproductive technology. In this conversation, I want to offer the particularities of one non-inclusive claim within the Jewish tradition of bioethics, the curious corridor voice of feminist Jewish ethics. I want to speak this to you, as reader of this work, within the methods of traditional Jewish ethics: narratives, matters of detail, and disagreement. At stake is such a conversation is the particularity of the theological contribution to the public discourse, a discourse that was immediately, universally, and joyfully seized upon by us all: a week of spectacular attention to our field, a sort of bioethicist WPA. What we knew, collectively as observers, experts and commentators, was that this news was spiritually central to our shaken notions of modernity, moreover, we agreed, it was high time to think through how this science deconstructs notions of love, intimacy, and the faithful union traditionally at the core of the human experience of being in a family.

I am going to suggest that our first reflections were partial: in this chapter, I want to pull the discourse to a darker place. It is the job of the ethicist, perhaps especially the Jewish ethicist, to worry, to make trouble, especially about the meaning of the vulnerable self and the state. I want to suggest both that the theologically trained bioethicist have unique contributions to make to the reflections on cloning, and also that we have as yet gotten it wrong in our replies. While we are called by the media to be asked about theology, we needed to raise questions more about the work of the love of each other, with the most serious and rigorous intent, and to remind in our frail and stubborn creatureliness, of finality.

The scholarly response to the cloning debate, after we had all has the chance to be called by the press, and see our friends on Nightline, was to turn to the NBAC to reflect and codify our positions. In doing this, Rabbi Elliott Dorff and Rabbi Moshe Tendler, two of our most gifted halachic authorities articulated the Jewish position on this ethical dilemma. I am not going to raise objections to the halachic or theological reasoning of my colleagues in Jewish bioethics. As usual, Dorff and Tendler has provided us with a consistent, familiar, reliable account of the Jewish texts on healing that have lead us to frame our view of reproductive technology. But I think that while they are on the right track of these texts, they are in the wrong country of discourse, a category mistake. So I want to, in this chapter, "walk off" in another direction, remembering always that the root of the word halachah is to walk a road. I want to argue that we need to be walking and thinking and arguing in the terrain of death, and our staggering mesmerizing panic at our own mortality.

And because we are afraid of death, we turn from what we must do to face it, and fill our souls with the yearning for every better rebirth (hence Americans and our fetish of the new). Birth, in its messy, uncontrollable tumult is the closest moment we have to every facing our own death of course. The Jewish rabbinic tradition requires women to reenact this by the ritual immersion and the public recitation of the prayer of rescue, both acknowledgements not only of the obvious risk involved in physical childbirth, (a fact rather cheerily forgotten in all of the cloning debates) but also of the fact the birth of a child re-states the ending of the self. It is the entrance into the room of your life of the he-who-will-hold-you-as-you-lay-dying.

In reflecting on this, I come, not to the texts of infertility or healing. I turn to the book of Job, the book of loss and to the persistent rabbinic phrase that occurs in the commentary on the book, variants on:

"Women brought death into the world."

The plain meaning of the text is a reference to the Gan Edan story, but the implication is more profound. It is women who bring birth into the world and by so doing, bring the aching inevitability of loss, the fragile infant who we will both love and who will replace us, but who may die, and in so doing threaten the very order of the air, the earth. With love, and relationality, comes this child whose name may well be Cain, death in the world. It is a chance we take with love, and procreation left in the hands of women.

And yet: second chances. If the process can be controlled, made perfect, the death taken out of it, the loss and the chance made safe by science, then it is a 'technique,' we can debate it like we speak of TPA and streptokinase, we can even sell it, promising outcomes, ads can appear in the Sunday paper. Our local IVF clinic promises "a baby, guaranteed."

Missing Persons

It is my contention, then the cloning controversy reaches so deeply into the popular imagination because it is not about birth, it is about rather the fear of mortality that lurks always at the corners of birth and fecundity. Job of course, hearing about the death of his children re-links this for us linguistically:

"Naked I was born out of my mother's womb,

And naked shall I return there."

It is not about infertility, which can be more easily managed with other means. It is surely not about children. Here is the clue. If we meant to talk about children we would have to speak about the time it takes to explain spelling or how best to wipe the table clean after the chalk is on it, or rocking the sick eight- year-old to sleep after croup steals her breath. If cloning were about children, we would need to be thinking about the 100,000 children in foster care in America, and the way that race, illness, or oddity makes children unadoptable, untakeable. We would remember that every act is a public one, and that each of those unclaimed children is ours. We might have to think aloud on Nightline about why we somehow cannot provide universal access to health care for the children we produce. Or why infant mortality, in those untechnical births of the poor is higher in my city than in many developing countries. Or why we are mesmerized by the "way-coolness" of the scientific arts that assist impregnation, like ICSI, (gendered the male act), and why we can barely fund infant nutrition (gendered the female act).

Cloning is about the imaged self reborn past death, into the future, a life lived in the imagined thenness, rather than the broken an exilic nowness of the present. In fact, many of the cloning moral parables begin with the case of the family whose only beloved child is dying. For Jews, this has played out in a potentiated, particular, post-Shoah narrative, cloning as a way to redeem the Holocaust, a kind of Passion and a resurrection of the lost dead.

In fact, Tendler and others justify a possible positive use of cloning for saving the genetic material of the last member of a Holocaust survivor family, which was the identical rational drove the first surrogacy case, Baby M. It is the yearning for the genetic, scientific fix for history itself.

The Gender Wars

But it is the link between women and death and fecundity that animates much of the cloning talk, a talk that is also about the profound ways that the gender wars have played out in modernity, and the yearning for men to order and control how it is that women are closer to the mystery of reproduction of the self. At the heart of the controversy is a discussion in which the object of the gaze is on the body of the imagined child, through the women, in which the woman becomes a kind of device (replaceable if we could) for the production of, or rather the spacial housing for the product of conception. Am I being too harsh? I think not — there was not one woman scientist involved in the presentation of the cloning event, the scientist were male, and the discourse and linguistic turn was deeply gendered as male. The implications of the act all revolved around the construction of the embryo. The issues of motherhood, i.e. what was the pregnancy like, or the birth, who was it exactly that nursed that clone, and who did the clone love, whose warm, breathing body did she turn to in the night — all of this was absent. What mattered was not the chanciness, vulnerability, or heart-stopping loss inherent, really, in all pregnancies, but the outcome, the product, hence the marketplace interest in the work.

The only women who was mentioned by name, in fact was Dolly Parton, in a casual sexist slur, and she only made it into the discourse because of the allusion to her breasts, in a sniggering, adolescent boy nomenclature. The way that the name framed the discourse was significant — here we subliminally heard, every time the name is mentioned, the message that a women's body, her breast, the very way that women uniquely, and irreplaceably nurture real human babies is a joke.

In a 1997 speech at the American Association of Bioethics, bioethicists John Robertson and George Annas launched a hot debate entitled "Who is the Mother?" Annas argued that the mother of the individual was the adult from who it was cloned, but Robertson thought not, that it was the mother of the adult from whom it was cloned. Neither seemed to consider as a candidate the women, still needed to carry the child to term, from whose actual body the child would be nurture and would emerge, onto whose belly it would be laid.

But Jewish textual tradition is clear. We tend to forget in the disputes around matrilineal descent what a feminist stand it was to consider the mother as central to the being of the child, rather than the property assertion of the father.

Power Itself as Suspect

Jewish tradition is also cautionary about the use of the specific body for the greater good. Several scholars have cited the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9) as the tale that warns us away from science. But it is not the odd enough text that ought to alert us, it is the midrash.

"When a person fell, the work went on, but when a brick fell, all wept."

In making meaning of the texts, the rabbinic move was to point to justice issue, a critical reminder for us about the way that power and its uses, allies and objects is at stake in the development of new technology that allows for transformative acts. Both towers to Heaven, and massive shipbuilding projects take place against a society that is lost, and which profits not a bit from the effort. In fact it is the rabbinic penchant for critique that locates even Noah, master technocrat and ship's contractor, as complexly lacking, in his total inability to struggle to fight for his community, to even ask the justice question, to think only of his family, the crew on his own boat. Power is often suspect in the rabbinic tradition, the Roman move, as opposed to study. Even if technology is mobilized, the body cannot be ignored and used for the project without rebuke. It is the nature of the exilic community to be uneasy about power, living as outsiders, tangentially, contingency. (Genesis 2:15)

Can it be used, however, if it is really wonderful? Dorff and others traditionally point out the nature of the mandate to heal, but let me argue that technical manipulations of exactly this sort, even the redemptive and salivatic acts, must be carried out in the midst of a redemptive community that bears both the responsibility and the meaning of each gesture of power. For an example, I have used the golem texts in other work. As early as the Talmud, the rabbis took note of how very useful it would be to have a person that they could make:

Rava said: If the righteous wished, they could create a world, for it is written, "Your inequities have been a barrier between you and your God." For Rava created a man and sent him to R. Zeira. The rabbi spoke to him but he did not answer. Then he said:" You are from the pietists: return to dust."

Of course we can do this, they are saying confidently in the second century, there are some technical flaws, but still. The text is subversive, however. Your power is limited by justice issues, a man created by not quite, not having the really Jewish thing intact, the ability to answer back, a recapitulation of Noah's failure to argue with God for his society, the sign of something gone astray morally, an inequity that is the barrier.

Throughout the brutalizing medieval and early modern period, the Golem tales flourish, the yearning remains. Could we make an enhanced Jew, a Jew without death, a Jew who could save us? Cynthia Ozick's work, the Perlmutter novels, is of course centered on this. But the move always ends in chaos. It is because it is a sophisticated kind of idolatry, more the making of the calf to keep us from death, than the creator. It fails because there need to be always three in the room of creation of a child, the rabbis remind us, a relationship, of the other to the other, and of each to Godself. It is, as Emmanuel Levinas reminds, likened to the three in every ethical gesture, the ethics that for Levinas, is always, always before freedom.

The Role of Theological Ethics

Is it too late for theological ethics? If we would strongly recommend against such a technology, what would be the effect of the theological voice on the deliberations of policy? How does a theological discourse on the nature of the right act, or on human flourishing affect the power ideologies of commodification, autonomy, and rights such a science implies?

Here are notes toward an answer:

  1. Robertson and others have argued that cloning, rather than being essentially different, is merely a continuation of advanced reproductive technology (ART). Since we now use this technology to offer all kinds of persons the "right" of reproduction, why stop now? This is arguing up the slippery slope. It is true enough that one cannot justify the technology by pre-existing technology, but it is worse still to justify it when the entire enterprise of ART is the oddest of mixes of unrestrained desire, the unfettered marketplace and the seduction of experimental technology.

    It would seen to me that it is well past time to reflect rigorously on the entire process of 'making' babies and of the problems of the marketplace as regulator of the process. It is true that cloning is not a deviation from the most basic assumptions of ART which is the essential construction of infertility as a (dis)ease, an illness with a cure, a (dis)order of the mechanics or chemistry of the human self. In this formulation, the correct response is the one that we are accustomed to having to all disease: that a cure is necessary and lies firmly in the hands of the medical expert. We study earnestly the little diagrams of cells that tell you how they did it, the methodical details. But such a construction is not simple. It needs specific overt and covert philosophical truth claims to support its direction. It justifies, of course, the establishment of a marketplace of competitive and complex expertise, an increasingly desperate and yearning public, and a central moral appeal to autonomous desire as a trumping concern in ethical reasoning. Everyday the newspaper brings us new variety in the ways we can make babies. Yesterday the front page of the NYT: For only 2,710 dollars you can buy a pre-made embryo, a pre-birth adoption. And these are the "facts" that frame the narrative for us.

  2. We say, as theologians, that it is not by might, but by spirit that the world is held together, but we do not teach or act in such a way that we mean it. Part of the power of cloning derives from our own love, real love, of our own physical bodies, very little cell. Other wise, why would noted theologians (for example, on the very panel at which this paper was presented), me included, eat bran flacks and be found running at dawn, theologians who are concerned with their own bodies, panting down the street to save the flesh. This ironic stance is needed in the cloning debates. We need to speak of the goal of the agonistic human life: it is to move toward what the classic texts tell us is refinement of imperfection, not the a priori obliteration of imperfection. In this, we could serve to remind of something else: of the blinding power of human love, that sees and knows, right through the brokenness.
  3. Carl Dejerassi, interviewed recently noted:

    "In a few years, in advanced countries, sexual activity, and the reproduction of healthy children will be entirely managed and distinct. This will just be what is possible, although it will come with a lot of ethical baggage."

    We love that ethical baggage! Ethicists must be, in that scenario, customs inspectors at the border: rooting around and unpacking the baggage brought by the act of the scientists, unfolding the starched shirts, looking for the contraband, noting and recording carefully what is borne across our social borders in the name of a necessary, scientific voyage. And somewhere, for something, we have to summon up enough prophetic remembrance to say 'no' like we mean it, to hold a partisan position without terror at our own toughness. Otherwise, why call oneself an ethicist?

    The range of theological and philosophical commitments and communities that are represented in the field of bioethics offers an opportunity for a robust exchange of views from diverse epistemological stances. Much more work needs to be done. We need to reflect on the meaning of not only the performance gesture of cloning, but the act of the imagination that surrounds the act in the popular culture. In what way does the anticipation of this act in movies and literature frame our narrative of the actual event? And there is more: what of the absurdity of the injustice of health care, the way that it is actually the poorest women of color, not the New York Times columnist who writes about it, who is actually far more likely to become infertile, and then to have no access to even the most basic health care? What of the worry that Jews, persons of color, lesbians and gays, the Deaf community, would never be reproduced and then would be instantly seen as defective merchandise?

    Cloning long represented the "bright line" of reproductive technology. When bioethicists spoke of the dangers of earlier reproductive progressive advances, we often rather panically noted that the end of such work might be a cloned human person — only to be told calmly by scientists of the technological impossibility of this problem. Hence, cloning represents both the problem of our ability to set limits on a scientific discourse that is not our own, and the most extreme example of the cascade of reproductive technology, a technology largely unregulated, undersupervised and wildly lucrative for the practitioners. Speaking of cloning offers a new imperative for serious ethical reflection on the nature of the human moral gesture in science itself. Such speech is of central importance in a thoughtful consideration of, not only cloning, but of our collective human future.

    But setting limits, standing at the borders of desire is what Jewish ethics is largely about — the term of art for this being "erecting a fence around the Torah." A commanded life doesn't allow for every single autonomous want to be sated, not that cheeseburger, not that lust, not that action on that day, not that harvest on Shabbat despite your hunger, not that answer to your need and it does so without apology. All reproduction is a kind of hunger, the other hunger that compels the creaturely self to work and struggle in the world. The hunger of the infertile is ravenous, desperate, and frankly fed by the complexities of research, finances, and the special passion for creation that is difficult to turn from.

  4. Justice as equalness is not fully possible, not in the realm of death, not in the country of this debate. And it is in the arena of the family that we are intended to learn this. We need to make tangible that which is not seen in the cloning debate. What is transparent, in fact, what disappears from the discourse nearly entirely is the actuality of the embodied relationship to the specified Other with a cause and concern, and with creaturely imperfections just like our own. And this is the deepest ethical danger — that in our progressively creative and procreative forward push, we will lope too easily into commodified, desiccated possession rather than love as the organizing principle of family formation.

    But if we focus on families, and the making, not of babies, but of relationships in the world created by complex negotiation among loving adults, then we have an ethical dilemma of a different nature. I talked about the enormity of love and anxiety that is mobilized by the erotic passions and the physical facticity of the newly born. At stake will be how it is to love like that, not the chosen one, not the close-as-can-be replica, but the surprising stranger who will live at your side. This creature that emerges from your creaturely self, a complete surprise (ask any parent, or any teenager, for that matter). It is a stranger to whom you as parent would (and as ethicist Tom Murray reminds us, do) give your life. And it is a very hard stranger to love, coming yowling, needy, hungry, hands out, naked, speechless, not always the cutie-pie. It is where we learn to care, with love, for sweat, and feces, and urine and to love the other, and, hopefully, know that they will love us back when we become strangers in old age, our bodies vulnerable in exactly these animal ways. The act of parenting is the act of encounter with the other who is both not-you and of-you, your future and your responsibility, your obligation and your joy. In this way, we all learn to have the stranger, not the copy, live by your side as though out of your side.

    Children are in large part about yearning. Like the women of the Bible teach us, Sarah and Channah, the answer to the yearning is faith, and that has its costs — one loses one child in these stories. Channah's prayer is the first prayer, the rabbis remind us. But the answer is always unexpectedly freighted. The whole point of "making babies" is not the production, it is the careful rearing of persons, the promise to have bonds of love that extend far beyond the initial ask and answer of the marketplace.

  5. Parenting, the creation of children into a relationship has little in common with the search for perfection. The job of parenting, it occurs to me, is to prepare ones children to face death well, and to do this by the stake of one's very life. Of course we hate to think about it. But I want to end as I began here, by speaking about the death of children. A story, with many details that I want you to face:

    Several years ago, I was called to help at a difficult taharah. I was a member of the Chevra Kadisha-the holy friends — the volunteer Jewish burial society that ritually cleanses and dresses the bodies of the dead for a traditional burial. The small group of women were already at the funeral home, but they had gotten into trouble, and I left work and drove over. It was the afternoon before Pesach, four hours to the Seder. The trouble was terrible trouble. The person who had died was a four-year-old girl, killed in a stupid senseless traffic accident as she run joyfully toward her father. None of us had ever done the ritual cleansing of a child before, and no one had every seen so very much blood. Everywhere we touched, the little baby body bled. Her hair was covered with blood, her fingernails. The work of the Chevra is to purify, but first we had to clean the tragedy off, and not parenthetically, we had to save everything that was darkened with blood to bury with her. Then we said what Jews say at that moment, which are verses of the Song of Songs, we put the earth brought in little bags from Jerusalem for this purpose on her eyes and her womb, her vagina, and we dressed her in the shrouds, and since they are only made for adult women, we had to roll up the sleeves. There are dozens of enacted details for the mitzvah to be proper. And at that last moment, she was perfectly and transcendent beautiful, lost, and so dead.
    Her mother came in to see her, and when she saw how the methodical work of the commanded act, the work of mitzvah, had given her dignity, and her sweet beauty back, she kissed her, and prayed, and promised her that she would see her when the Messiah came. Later, she turned firmly to us — I need you now to work to change the world — she said — to do tikkun olam, so that the Messiah will come soon, so I will see my M-again —, her faith blazing before me, the sheer fire of this, like the little flame we lit and left on the wood coffin in the coming darkness. We all had to leave, and make Passover, the story that begins with the death of the babies of the Jews, and ends with the free people. Ethics precedes freedom. And in the years after, she kept in touch, urging me to study hard, to work for projects in her daughter's name, it is the way that Jews answer death, with the passionate search for justice. It is the not the body, it is world reborn that her daughter needs.

    I am not so certain. I understand the urge for second chances, the love of the particular little face. Whenever I hear people argue for cloning on the basis of the dead child theory of meaning, I think of M-- and I remember how I wanted to hold her like Elisha holds the young child in the Biblical text, throw myself upon her, breath her back, knit her cells back into life.

    But it is at this very moment, like her mother, that we need to look at death in its terrible beautiful white face and think of justice. As the resolute, obligated, doubtful bearers of the stories of grace and loss, we need to worry, not about playing God, or the towers we can make, nor of how we can outwit the nakedness that we are born into, but about the slow work of repair that falls to us, bewildered, freed slaves holding the Law in our hands, meaning, not in the narrow place, but on the vast plain of the possible, set free with much to do.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

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is director of Bioethics at the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University, and a scholar in the Jewish Talmud and ancient rabbinic texts.