Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Genetics and Jewishness

There seems to be a morbid fascination by many to try and claim Jews are a race. The fact that most of those doing this are right wing neo-Nazi extremists should give a hint as to their motives, yet we continuously see the same canards being brought up. “Jews are a race”, “You can be half-Jewish”, “You can be ethnically Jewish but a Christian/Muslim/(insert religion of choice here)”. More recently people have tried to bring genetics into this debate. Since specific genome markers have been found, surely you can trace Jewishness genetically?

So lets first discuss who is a Jew according to Jews. According to the Torah we learn from Devarim, Chapter 7:
בג וְלֹא תִתְחַתֵּן, בָּם: בִּתְּךָ לֹא-תִתֵּן לִבְנוֹ, וּבִתּוֹ לֹא-תִקַּח לִבְנֶךָ. 3 neither shalt thou make marriages with them: thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.
ד כִּי-יָסִיר אֶת-בִּנְךָ מֵאַחֲרַי, וְעָבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים; וְחָרָה אַף-יְהוָה בָּכֶם, וְהִשְׁמִידְךָ מַהֵר. 4 For he will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods; so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and He will destroy thee quickly.
(Text copied from Mechon-Mamre)

This bit of Torah is used to teach the following: Verse 3 is the explicit commandment against intermarriage. Verse 4 that only the children of a jwish woman are Jewish (For he will turn away thy son from following Me, that they may serve other gods;) In other words- there is not a concern about the non-Jewish mother turning the children away since they are not Jewish to start with.

So we have our first definition of who is a Jew: Somebody that has a Jewish mother.

The second definition is that of someone who has a legitimate conversion. We see this through the conversion of Ruth as told in the Megillat Rut. And from her speech to Naomi, the Chachamim derived our laws of conversion.

Is there a third definition? No- thats it. Two ways to be Jewish- have a Jewish mother or a valid conversion. What constitutes a valid conversion varies according to who you ask, with the Orthodox conversion being the only one thta would be considered valid by all, the others lacking in essential qualities by the Orthodox definition.

So now lets go back to the whole debate around genetics: does the having of a genetic haplotype that is unique to Jews prove you are Jewish, especially if there is one carried only by woman thus proving matrilineal descent? The answer, as far as I can see, would be no. Obviously a male, or non-gender specific gene could not be used as evidence of Jewishness as it does not prove matrilineal ancestry and thus it does not prove Jewishness. The question about a matrilineal only gene would seem to be more difficult to resolve. Here we would have evidence that the person does have unbroken descent in their matrilineal line. Now, i haven’t read any poskim on this, so this is my own thoughts (if anyone reading this does know of any teshuvot on this question from Orthodox Halachic sources, please let me know, I would love to read them- and in Hebrew is fine if they are not available in English). In my mind this would not constitute sufficient proof of Jewishness. Here is my reason:

We see in discussions over repentance that for three generations a sin is seen in the descendants, but in the fourth, the people are so far from the original sin that for them it cannot be counted as a sin and they cannot repent the sin. For them, it is a normal way of life and ingrained into them- it cannot be deemed a sin for them since they would never have known any other life- prior to that generation, the people could be expected to have some knowledge of their previous lifestyle and be able to repent but failed to do so (since we do not have guilt without knowledge, this assumes they had some knowledge of previous conduct). So it would seem for people who had ancestors that in the distant past were Jewish. For three generations their descendants would have been deemed to have sufficent Jewish ancestry to count as Jews- but beyond that anything would be so far in the past as to be something unrelated to them.

There si a nother dimension: we do not know the status of the person that was Jewish in the past. Let us say that they were a mamzer, and married a non-Jew because they could not find someone Jewish to marry. In this case their children would be mamzerim and unable to marry a normal Jew without that status. Here, deeming the person Jewish would be to their disadvantage! As we are told “The Torah is a tree of life, and its ways are sweet.” Thus if there is a way to relieve hardship, we should use it. IN this case, by taking the approach that the person is not Jewish, if they convert they are no longer mamzerim, but full fledged members of Bnei Yisrael, and their children are able to marry anyone, even the Kohen Gadol should the Temple be standing and the Kohanim carrying out the avodah (and may that happen speedily in our days!)

In summary: Genetics are interesting, they go to show that the worldwide Jewish family is one, and that we have a common ancestry. But genetics are not halachah: treat them with interest, enjoy the blow they deal to the anti-Semites who try to claim that Ashkenazi are not real Jews, that different Jewish poplulation groups around the world are just independent manifestations and not the “real Jews”. Just remember, the halachah is not science but the words of Hashem, and words that remain the same regardless of what mankind brings into the world.


February 6, 2009 Posted by | Other Torah, Torah | Leave a comment