in ancient israel, farmers brought offerings of wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates and olives to the temple in Jerusalem. "Food is a source of connection provided by God," says Ramona Rubin, a soft-spoken California-based environmental educator. "It's the manna that sustains. In that sense, the table is the altar." Rubin is trying to educate Jewish consumers about what she considers a serious recent threat to their health and their faith: the dangers of consuming genetically engineered food. The former cultural ecology student represents a growing number of people within the Jewish community who have religious objections to GE food.
Their concerns are driving an intense debate over what stance Jews should take.
"GE contradicts the spirit of creation. There are definite reasons for concern," she says.
Genetic engineering is the practice of altering the genetic blueprint of plants and animals to create new varieties of food and seeds. Genes from non-related species -- plant or animal -- are inserted into the original specimen's DNA to enhance its growth rate or some other characteristic or to reduce a crop's susceptibility to damage from frost or pests.
Within the Jewish community, genetic engineering and the issue of kashruth, whether or not something is kosher, was initially a great concern. Would something like a vegetable spliced with pig genes remain kosher? Although a number of mainstream groups in the U.S. and Canada, including the U.S.-based Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, the Cornell Kosher Food Initiative and the Kashruth Council of Canada, have since ruled that GE foods are indeed kosher because the genes are so small as to be "trivial," religious objections persist.
"In the Torah there's the idea of the sanctity of boundaries between species," Rubin says, referring to a passage in Leviticus that reads: "You shall not let your cattle mate with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed."
"We're supposed to protect these different types of creatures that have evolved," she says, "not dilute their genetic materials through random interaction."
Other theological objections arise from the Torah's commandments, or mitzvot, to take care of the natural world, respect its integrity and, ultimately, to refrain from playing God.
"The injunction at the beginning of Genesis where the world is given to Adam and he is told to subdue it -- in that sense it is our obligation to make the world a better place," says orthodox rabbi Jacob Traub from California. "The people involved in bioengineering probably feel they are making the world better -- they are taking corn that normally feeds four and feeding 400. Who's to say they're not doing God's work? On the other hand, we're possibly fooling around with Frankenstein."
Critics believe that GE crops could harm the environment by allowing random genetic pollution between altered and non-altered crops.
Recently, a genetically engineered strain of corn called StarLink, which has not been approved for human consumption, showed up in batches of Western Family Foods taco shells. These had to be pulled from store shelves. StarLink has also been found in Kraft taco shells sold under the Taco Bell name, and those made by Mission Foods in Texas.
While Canadian and U.S. federal laws do not require labelling of genetically engineered products, Rubin wants to develop an eco-kosher label based on the idea of "shmirat haguf," or safeguarding one's health, to help Jews and other consumers identify GE food.
"Labels would make a phenomenal difference in increasing consciousness," says David Kupfer, an environmental consultant and organic farmer who is also a member of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. "It's important to give people the option to consider (GE's) implications.'
Kupfer also thinks the StarLink scare helped underline how widespread genetically engineered food already is and how crucial the need is for labels.
But rabbi M. Levin, executive director of the Kashruth Council of Canada, says, "The Bible prohibits any type of natural mixing of species, such as direct breeding. But as long as it's done at the level of microscopic genes, there is no problem. Some people have raised concerns about the splicing of chicken genes into tomatoes, but as long as the tomato doesn't get up and start clucking, it's still kosher.'
Levin does say, however, that if scientific evidence shows that GE foods are directly harmful to humans, his opinion could change.
That's the concern of Reform rabbi Sydney Mintz, a rep from the Central Conference of American Rabbis. "Ethically, the balance lies between developing genetically engineered food and genetics as a science to help save the planet and knowing how this will individually impact our health," he says.
Mintz has actively pursued the discussion with other rabbis. "It is a Jewish mandate to save our brothers and sisters and heal the world. But we don't have enough information on how this will affect us."
His feelings are mirrored by rabbi Marc Israel of the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism in Washington, DC, which works on Jewish interests in public policy. "We recognize the potential benefits (of GE food) but have some grave environmental concerns that need to be weighed. Therefore," he says, "we encourage proceeding with great caution." *
From Metro/Silicon Valley, with research assistance by Stephen Wicary