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Can Science Save Our Souls?

From genetically engineering a holy cow to hacking the brain to override free will, theology and technology are intersecting in interesting ways

Liel Leibovitz
August 13, 2015
Photo Credit: (Detail) Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
Franz Marc, "The World Cow" (1913)Photo Credit: (Detail) Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
Photo Credit: (Detail) Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
Franz Marc, "The World Cow" (1913)Photo Credit: (Detail) Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Would you pay $18 to help produce an immaculate cow? If so, Jerusalem’s Temple Institute, dedicated to doing “all in our limited power to bring about the building of the Holy Temple in our time,” has just the crowdfunding campaign for you: Launched earlier this month, it hopes to raise $125,000 in order to implant the frozen embryos of Red Angus cattle—a hardy breed popular everywhere from Australia to the American West—in Israeli cows, introducing the animals to the Holy Land in the hope that the herd soon produces an unblemished red heifer.

Such a creature—a Parah Aduma—plays a significant part in the ancient Jewish ritual of purification. The Mishnah devotes an entire treatise to the mystical animal, explaining precisely how it ought to be slaughtered—hyssop and silkworms play a central part—in order for its ashes to be mixed with spring water and sprinkled on the priest, making him spiritually clean. Should she materialize—not exactly a certainty, as the Mishnah teaches us mankind was only blessed with seven such animals throughout history, the first having been spotted by Moses himself—the red heifer would take us a few cloven-hoofed steps closer to redemption, making it a little bit easier to rebuild the Temple. And even though the project remains burdened by existential complications—the heifer, we’re told, can only be slaughtered by someone who is already pure, which, lacking the ashes of a previous heifer, sets in motion one hell of a theological chicken-and-egg cycle—hundreds of supporters have pledged tens of thousands of dollars to hasten the birth, heralded by high tech, of the blessed beast.

It’s easy to mock such aspirations as wild-eyed or bizarre, but proponents of the holy cow may be onto something big. Having applied our ingenuity to address the ailments that afflict our bodies, why not use the same tools to save our souls?

If the question sounds ridiculous, consider the evidence: At our finest universities and hospitals, doctors and scientists are exploring treatments that trickle past the traditional upkeep of the dumb fleshy machine and edge closer to tinkering with the sacred orb of the self. Morbidly obese patients, for example, can now elect to partake in clinical trials that administer deep brain stimulation, or a series of small electrical shocks to specific areas of the brain, to curb their appetites. And the pioneers of the nascent field of bioelectronic medicine are already testing small devices, implanted on patients’ nerves, to override the brain’s orders and cure, with some luck, anything from rheumatoid arthritis to chronic depression. These are momentous achievements, but they raise a host of ethical questions. If a chip, say, could monitor and counteract the deleterious effects of our vices, might we still speak of free will the same way we have for millennia? If a smart monitoring system, lodged somewhere in our nervous system, could spring to action whenever our cholesterol levels spike past the permissible, say, what’s to stop us from indulging in that second or third Big Mac, knowing that our nano centurions will step in and reverse the worst of it? Why, if watched over by machines of loving grace, would we ever choose to be held accountable for our actions?

These are not just questions for physicians to address; religious thinkers ought to lean in as well and grapple with the future of faith in the digital age. If we understand religion to be both a divinely inspired or authored belief system and a social construct designed to govern individual and communal conduct and promote behaviors we deem virtuous—piety, kindness, humility—we should prepare for the possibility of a near-future in which a slew of undesirable behaviors could be eradicated with a light electrical pulse.

The debates such profound innovations are likely to stir are fascinating, but they’re hardly new. Judaism has been having them since at least Genesis, which tells us of the premature death of Enoch, Noah’s great-grandfather. This righteous man, Rashi explains, was whisked off the earth by the Lord after 365 years—a mere afternoon in Old Testament terms—because he would make the wicked repent so readily that he deprived them, in essence, of their free will. Installed at God’s side, Enoch, according to various sources, became the angel Metatron, Chancellor of Heaven, divine scribe, and patron of scientific progress.

Is Enoch’s story, then, an invitation to transcend our earthly form and aspire, by means of research and innovation, to be more godlike and cure frail bodies and troubled minds and inflamed souls? Or is it a cautionary tale warning us that any attempt to short-circuit our freedom to choose good from evil is likely to end poorly? The answer may be harder to come by than a celestial cow, but few theological problems are more pressing.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.