The Interface of Science and Ethics

Student-Run Conference Wrestles with Halachic and Ethical Implications of New Medical Technologies

On Sunday, December 10, the YU Student Medical Ethics Society (MES) held its 11th annual conference, “Breaking Down the Firewall: A Jewish Perspective to Future Technologies in Medicine,” sponsored by Rabbi Dovid and Mrs. Anita Fuld and the Community Synagogue of Monsey, in honor of Rabbi Moshe Tendler. Rabbi Tendler is The Rabbi Isaac and Bella Tendler Professor of Jewish Medical Ethics, professor of biology and a rosh yeshiva in YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (REITS). He is also the rabbi of the Community Synagogue of Monsey, and considered a leading expert on medical ethics as it pertains to Jewish law.

Tendler at podium
Rabbi Tendler addresses the audience as Dr. Berman and Rabbi Glasser listen.

About 200 people, including students from the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy/Yeshiva University High School for Boys and Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls, attended the conference’s three plenary sessions.

In his remarks opening the conference, Rabbi Yaakov Glasser, The David Mitzner Dean of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future, spoke fondly of being in Rabbi Tendler’s course on medical ethics 20 years ago and coming away with a lifelong respect for how “his incredible combination of scholarship and talent, of conviction and principles, helped us navigate the challenges of the day and find a pathway forward,” the same approach to the subject of medicine and ethics, he noted, that the MES conference has taken for 11 years.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, also offered his congratulations, saying that it is “always an honor to be in the presence or Rabbi Tendler,” and went on to speak about both the dangers and the gifts presented by scientific advances. “Yeshiva University represents a unique opportunity,” he said, “to both celebrate these new technologies and contextualize them, and we are best prepared to appreciate that human innovation is a glorious gift from God while simultaneous recognizing that it doesn’t turn us into God. We must place these developments within the context of our values to best know how to incorporate them into our lives.”

Rabbi Tendler, in thanking both Dr. Berman and Rabbi Glasser, as well as the organizers of the conference and the members of his synagogue, articulated a principle that has guided him in his studies of science and morality, and which he recommended to everyone in the room: “Without knowing the outside world, the world that we have to live within, it is impossible to understand Torah; but equally so, without knowing Torah, it doesn’t pay to understand the outside world.”

The first session, “The Anti-Aging Revolution,” featured Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, professor of emergency medicine and professor in the division of education and bioethics, at YU-affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the conference chairman and mentor to the MES, and Dr. Ana Maria Cuervo, professor and co-director of the Einstein Institute for Aging Research and a member of the Einstein Liver Research Center and Cancer Center.

Cuervo gave a presentation on the techniques being used to treat the effects of aging and increase human longevity. The objective of her research, Cuervo said, is to identify the aging mechanisms, both genetic and somatic, that can be manipulated to create a longer life with improved quality. This fits into the the overall goal of all anti-aging research, she explained, “to make people’s lives more like the lives of centenarians, who seem to have the biological mechanisms to flatten out the declines that come with aging and extend life’s quality. By knowing the molecular bases of aging, we can build tools and interventions that achieve our goals.”

Reichman offered a biblical perspective on aging, noting the declining longevity caused by the Flood, and how Maimonides speculated that a reversal of aging may be in the offing in a future Messianic Age. “Perhaps in the research we will hear about is this coming reversal of our aging,” he observed.

The second session, “Playing the Creator with CRISPR,” featured Dr. Neville Sanjana, assistant professor of biology at New York University and a core faculty member and assistant investigator of the New York Genome Center, and Rabbi Dr. J. David Bleich, professor of Talmud and RIETS rosh yeshiva. Dr. Edward Burns, executive dean of the YU-affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine, moderated their discussion.

As Sanjana explained, CRISPR is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a process only recently discovered in bacteria in which a bacterium, attacked by a virus, snips out and saves part of the virus’ DNA so that it can activate its immune response if the virus attacks again. The cutting action of CRISPR, he explained, can be programmed to target specific locations on any genome and either add in or cut out genes as needed. In some cases, a malfunctioning gene might be replaced with a healthy copy, such as for something like Tay-Sachs, a genetic disorder that progressively destroys nerve cells and affects the Jewish community.

The ethical question around CRISPR, according to Bleich, is not if man has the right to play God and intervene in the natural order. “In fact, man not only has the right to ‘play God’ but has the divine mandate to do so in order to complete the work that God began. The question is about the limitations.”

Sanjana agreed that it is important to be mindful of the ethical challenges but that it is equally important “to remember the many remarkable cures that have come about since the start of our recombining DNA and be mindful of its benefits.”

The third session, “Ethics of Neurotechnologies,” featured a conversation between Rabbi Ozer Glickman, RIETS rosh yeshiva, and Dr. Matthew Liao, director of the Center for Bioethics at New York University and editor-in-chief of the “Journal of Moral Philosophy.” They examined the relationship between neuroscience (along with artificial intelligence and the manipulation of big data), philosophy and ethics.

Liao pointed to brain research that showed that many cherished notions about human nature, such as rational behavior, are belied by the biology of the brain, because humans act on autopilot much of the time and do not necessarily follow the rational or ethical modes of decision-making that we believe make us distinctive as a species. People seem to respond well to prompts that impact their decision-making in a subtle way, Liao noted, such as posted calorie counts in restaurants and salads made available at the front of a buffet line.

Elisheva Nemetz and Gav Sturm, co-presidents of the MES, were extremely pleased with how this year’s conference turned out. “We chose the word ‘firewall’ deliberately,” said Nemetz. “A firewall is a part of a computer network designed to block unauthorized access. For us, the ‘firewall’ is a metaphor for the stigma and ignorance around recent technologies and that by ‘breaking down the firewall,’ we can approach these groundbreaking and earth-shattering technologies with informed scientific and Jewish perspectives.”

Sturm, who joined the MES two years ago, said that “the work that we have done has been the highlight of my communal life at YU. This year’s conference topic resonates with me personally because it touches on the work I am doing as a part-time research assistant studying human aging. Artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, anti-aging therapies—these fascinate me, and I was overjoyed to be able to bring them to the larger community with the MES team.”

Nemetz agreed. “This conference,” she said, “where we bring together the intricacies of science and medicine and Torah values, is the perfect of expression of what being at YU is all about.”