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Mapping the genome of the soul

The festival of Chanukah warns that light can become darkness

As you’ve surely heard by now, a Chinese geneticist announced last week that he successfully engineered the world’s first genetically modified babies.

If true, imagine the possibilities: a world free from congenital scourges like cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, and hemophilia, all thanks to the advances of science. What a marvelous gift to mankind that would be.

Wouldn’t it?

As with many ethical questions, the answer is not so simple.

Since the story broke last week, biologists and bioethicists have been chiming in from every precinct and with every point of view. Some condemned the procedure as reckless and irresponsible because of the lack of prior experimentation and oversight. Some worry about the possibility of unintended consequences, eliminating one problem only to create who-knows-what manner of others.

These objections find no ethical problem with genetic engineering per se, only with the premature implementation of procedures not yet adequately vetted. Accordingly, NPR reported that “many scientists have now become convinced that it may be ethical someday to edit human embryos to prevent genetic disorders.”


This kind of moral relativism is as disturbing as the science itself. Slippery-slope has become a cliché in any debate over ethics for good reason: the blurring of moral boundaries poses a real and perennial danger to the integrity of civil society.

What begins as altruist medical research can easily mutate into designer babies and a hierarchical culture mirroring the dystopian vision of Brave New World. As nuclear energy, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and digital technology have taught us, the greatest boons to the advancement of civilization simultaneously loom as the gravest peril.

Largely unnoticed, however, is the ironic timing of the announcement, which made headlines virtually on the eve of Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights.

Chanukah commemorates the cultural battle between the egocentric ideology of Greece and the ethical discipline of Judaism, the antipathy between form and content. In its worship of external beauty, elegance, and sophistication, Greek aestheticism threatened to corrupt the soul of mankind in ways far more insidious than the self-indulgent paganism of any culture that had come before.

Art, architecture, drama, and sophistry -- these were the hallmarks of the refined worldview introduced by the thinkers of Greek society. On the surface, their “enlightened” outlook was a quantum leap forward for humanistic values and ideas. But those self-same Greeks pushed their philosophy to the extreme. Substituting aesthetics for theology, they literally idolized the body and mind of man, condemning to death children who displayed the least physical deformity or showed signs of mental impairment. Their veneration of physical and intellectual beauty eviscerated the core of their humanity.


Cold rationality quickly turns dialectic into depravity and syllogism into savagery. The eugenistics of the past who promoted forced sterilization, like the progressives today who advocate for euthanasia, arrogantly claim the moral high ground as defenders of human dignity and social justice. But history teaches that when human beings play G-d, they rapidly descend below the level of animals.

We accomplish little by artificially engineering the perfection of our bodies or striving to develop the cleverness of our minds. Rather, it is the perpetual struggle to elevate our spirit in the quest toward moral and ethical purity that allows the spark of our humanity to shine bright.

The perverse intellectual enlightenment of Greece pushed the world to the brink of moral darkness. By exploiting aesthetic ideals to erase ethical boundaries from human society, Greek ideology threatened to utterly extinguish the light of the human soul.

But just when there seemed no hope, a tiny band of heroes rose up from the depths of shadow, rallied the spirit of their people, and rekindled the dying light of spiritual aspiration. The glitter of self-serving enlightenment faded before the divine radiance of mankind’s eternal spirit.

This is the message of Chanukah: as darkness deepens, the more dramatically smaller lights can make a difference, like a trillion individual stars together transforming the heavens into a canopy of luminescence. The light of moral wisdom requires only a few torchbearers to inspire the rest of humanity to take back the night.

Published in Jewish World Review

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