Monday, March 31, 2008

DNA, Genetic Testing and Who is a Jew?

Did you ever wonder if you are related to Abraham, the first Jew? The science of DNA and genetic testing may soon provide an answer. A recent article in Reform Judaism magazine discusses Jon Entine's new book: Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People. Entine assembled the genetic research and he shows that the majority of Jews throughout the world share common DNA. We can now trace our genes back to the Middle East 4,000 years ago to Abraham, the first Jew. It is an amazing and striking discovery. Science now offers evidence that the Jews spread throughout the world are all one people.

Tracing the DNA of all Jews is one way of answering the question: Who is a Jew? Some say that Judaism is determined by birth and the religious status of your mother, as in traditional Jewish law. Others claim that Judaism is more of a choice, an affiliation that we make in a free society that allows us to determine our own religious identity. Today, genetics adds another perspective to the debate.

The finding that all Jews share common genes has great potential to create unity among Jews throughout the world. In his book, Entine demonstrates the authenticity of the Bene Israel, a group of brown skinned people in India. Their DNA proves that they are Jews, sharing the same genes with their pale Ashkenazi cousins. Likewise, the Black Lemba Tribe of Africa has claimed for over a century that they are Jewish. They were tested and proven to come from the Middle East just like the rest of us.

The Falashas, the black Jews of Ethopia, are another interesting case. They claim ancestry to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In the 1980s, many Ethiopian Jews moved to Israel. However, DNA testing suggests that they do not share the same genes as the rest of world Jewry. This is in line with scholarly research which states that in the 5th or 6th century, a large number of Ethopians, including royalty, converted to Judaism. They have remained faithful Jews for over 1,500 years.

The DNA research reminds us that Jews are not only pale with dark hair and brown eyes. We are related to Jews who are Africans, Indians, Europeons and Middle Easterners. By embracing the new genetic findings, we learn to accept Jews of every color and stripe, which is good for the Jewish people as a whole.

Genetic research into the question of “who is a Jew” also has the potential to create divisiveness and even suffering for the Jewish people. The Nazis used eugenics to seek to create a master Aryan race. An easily accessible DNA test to see if someone is Jewish could be used to single out Jews for persecution.

Whenever you set up standards for Judaism, and define who exactly is a Jew, you create the possibility of excluding others. Whether your criteria is DNA, skin color or belief, all ways of defining Judaism create division within the Jewish people.

Part of my job as a rabbi is to help shape the question of who is a Jew. I do not advocate for including everyone within the Jewish people. For example, Jews for Jesus are not Jews in my eyes. However, as a Reform rabbi, I follow our movement’s example of inclusion. To me, a Jew is a person with either a Jewish mother or father or who converted, and who calls themselves a Jew. It is not enough in our world just to have the genetic background. A person must identify themselves as Jewish to be a part of our people.

I include all converts as full Jews. I welcome gay and lesbian Jews as members of the community, along with Jews of every skin color. And to me, an interfaith couple that chooses to raise Jewish children is a Jewish family.

After learning about the new book, I was excited at the prospect of being able to trace my DNA back to Abraham. If a test was available to see if my genes go back 4,000 years to the Middle East, I probably would take it out of curiosity. I also see the dangers of creating a genetic basis for Judaism, since it can lead to exclusion or even persecution. Our task today is not to focus on Jewish authenticity and who is really Jewish. Rather, we should spend our time helping our fellow Jews to be more Jewish, to pray more, to learn more and to feel closer to one another. As a rabbi, I participate in the debate of who is a Jew. But I see my job as being inclusive and welcoming, in order to strengthen our people for generations to come.

To read more about genetic testing and Jewish identity in the recent issue of Reform Judaism magazine: CLICK HERE


Gingerman said...

My wife considers herself a Jew. Her mother is Jewish; all of her maternal grandparents as far back as anyone can count, were Jewish. The Nazis thought they were Jewish. It seems Israel does not. She was told that because her father isn't, she isn't. Very selective heh?

Anjee said...

A real thought provoking blog thankyou