A Jewish worshipper prays in front of an entrance to the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, on Tisha B'Av, a day of fasting and lament, in Jerusalem's Old City August 1, 2017. .
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
The Jews’ miraculous continuity is not without its casualties. While we have managed to stay intact as a cohesive people despite being scattered across the globe without a land of our own, millions have been lost along the way. Assimilation, the Inquisition, Bolshevism and a series of other travails experienced by the Jewish people throughout the ages have taken their toll.
But a new rabbinic ruling might open the way to using genetic testing to verify the Jewish ancestry of individuals who lack more conventional means of proving they are part of the tribe.
Rabbinic judges at the Eretz Hemdah Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies ruled recently that mitochondrial DNA – structures within cells which are determined through the mother – can be used to trace a person’s Jewish genetic connections.
Genealogy experts have discovered that 40% of all Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four Jewish women who left the Middle East over 1,000 years ago and settled in Europe.
A simple saliva test with a level of certainty of over 90% can tell you if you are related to one of these women. If you are, you are a member of the tribe. There is, however, no small amount of dissent among Orthodox rabbis regarding the acceptability of the test. We are, after all, dealing with Jews.
More fundamentalist rabbis claim that only methods specifically mentioned in the Talmud are admissible as evidence. Others claim that genetics can be an important tool. Still others are fearful that genetics will be used to rule more stringently against those who would otherwise be given the benefit of the doubt.
No one is claiming that one’s Jewishness can be revoked by using a genetic test. Judaism is no proponent of eugenics.
Even the most stringent Jewish authorities accept any convert willing to adhere to Orthodoxy, regardless of his or her race or color.
Outside the restrictive bounds of Orthodoxy, however, the development of genetics raises important questions, especially today with the return of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel: Perhaps we should be using our new knowledge to broaden the Jewish tent and bring more individuals with Jewish roots back into the Jewish fold? Perhaps genetic testing can allow the Jewish people to expand its definition of “who is a Jew?” to include those who were not necessarily born to a Jewish mother, but nevertheless have Jewish genes? Geneticists have known for close to a decade that Jews from diverse backgrounds have remarkably similar DNA makeups. A Jew from Hamburg and a Jew from Baghdad are related to each other as closely as are fourth or fifth cousins.
This means that two random Israelis off the streets of Tel Aviv have a genetic relationship that is ten times closer than the relationship between two random people off the streets of New York City.
Researchers such as Gil Atzmon, Harry Ostrer, Doron M.
Behar and Richard Villems found that Jewish communities from Europe, the Middle East and the Caucasus all have substantial genetic ancestry that traces back to the Levant.
Their work refutes claims made by anti-Zionist historians like Shlomo Sand that Jews have no common origin but are a miscellany of people from Europe and Central Asia.
The truth is that the Jewish people is not just a fictional construction, but a genetic reality. For those individuals whose ancestors got lost during the long years of exile and dispersion who are now considering “re-connecting,” genetics could be an important tool.
Judaism was not always based on matrilineal descent.
With the destruction of the Temple and exile, it became increasingly difficult to rely on patrilineal descent. The rabbis may have adopted matrilineal descent as a means of protecting the purity of the Jewish people during trying times – pogroms, oppression, wandering, assimilation – when it was not always clear who fathered a child.
Today our situation is radically different, and vastly improved. We are in control of our destiny.
Judaism evolved in the past to cope with changing times.
Perhaps the time has come once again to revise our conception of Jewish identity. Though the survival of the Jewish people throughout nearly two millennia of exile is miraculous, we have lost too many of our brothers and sisters along the way. Genetics could be a useful tool to help bring some of them back