Genetics, Jewish studies cross-fertilize at Stanford

Course combining two fields touches on dating practices, Jewish disease treatment and assisted reproduction.

Standford professors 370 (photo credit: Steve Castillo)
Standford professors 370
(photo credit: Steve Castillo)
Two Jewish Stanford University academics from the fields of Jewish studies and genetics are collaborating on a multidisciplinary course “reflecting the blinding pace of genetics research that began 10 years ago with the completion of the Human Genome Project.”
The course, “From Generation to Generation: The Genetics of Jewish Populations,” is jointly taught by Prof. Steve Weitzman, who specializes in Jewish culture and religion, and Prof. Noah Rosenberg, who specializes in biology.
The two will soon publish the results of their research in a special upcoming volume of the peer-reviewed journal Human Biology that Stanford is calling “the first interdisciplinary scholarly volume on Jewish genetics in the genome era.”
According to Weitzman, the course, which was offered in the fall, is “building bridges to genetics and biology [and] provides a new way of attracting interest in Jewish studies and advancing Jewish studies scholarship,” and has what he termed “broader implications for Jewish identity and how people connect themselves to others, both Jews and non- Jews, and to their past.”
“I wanted students to see that even in a scientific topic such as genetics there are questions that are very important that can only be addressed in light of history, in light of ethics, in light of the understanding of culture,” Weitzman noted.
Among the topics addressed in the course were the genetic heritage of the Samaritan people, genetic relations between various global Jewish populations and correlations between the data sets obtained through biblical archeological research and historic genetic records.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Weitzman noted that the “germ of the idea” for the course came from a biologist at the university married to a member of the Jewish Studies faculty.
“It was immediately exciting to me as a way to bridge between Jewish Studies and the sciences, which are so important at Stanford. What cemented the idea is that Noah Rosenberg, a geneticist, was so open to historical and anthropological approaches to the topic.”
“A lot of the research presented in the class was very new, five-years-old or even younger, and only possible because of the Human Genome Project and other advances in the field, and it is qualitatively different from research on the subject in previous decades,” Weitzman noted. “I thought it was important for scholars in the field of Jewish Studies to know about this research, which has potential implications for the understanding of Israelite and Jewish origins, the history migration, the history of ‘Jewish’ diseases, and contemporary social debates in Israel.”
Weitzman noted that he does not see Jewish studies as a “passive consumer” of this scholarship and that “it is important for Jewish Studies to engage genetics as a partner, to bring to bear on the subject the history of science, anthropological approaches to science, and other humanistic and social science approaches so that this new wave of scholarship is much more self-aware and historically conscious.”
Weitzman’s colleague Rosenberg, in a telephone conversation with the Post on Tuesday, noted that the course engendered a lot of interest. “We had students from a wide variety of disciplines in the course: biology, public policy, education, engineering, as well as Jewish studies, and even more surprising was the tremendous public interest in the course.”
The main lectures, which were open to the public, he said, “had more than 100 to 150 members of the public come to each lecture with a minimum of advertising.”
“One of the things that is interesting for me, as a scientist, is to learn about the cultural and historical context in which a lot of the questions of interest to genetics have been situated,” Rosenberg noted.
“So, for example, one of the lecturers was by an anthropologist who had studied the effect of modern reproductive technologies, such as in-vitro fertilization and egg donation on rabbinical discussions of the origins of Jewishness. So she talked about how a baby born via egg donation can be viewed as a Jew in Israel if either the surrogate mother is Jewish or if the egg comes from a Jewish woman. She discussed how this rabbinical ruling came about through the changes in the reproductive technology.”
Asked what he got out of his participation in the collaboration, Rosenberg stated that he thinks “we certainly gained a new appreciation of a lot of areas of scholarship that we didn’t know so much about previously, and that gives us insight into how we can frame some of the questions that we are asking about Jewish population relationships, Jewish population origins and the migrations of Jewish populations.”
One of his ambitions that he has been discussing with colleagues, he told the Post, is developing what he termed a “genetic map of worldwide Jewish connectedness that would explore all the various genetic connections between Jewish populations around the world and between Jewish and non-Jewish populations.”
There are many potential implications of this multidisciplinary approach, Weitzman noted. These include “many social issues ranging from the treatment of disease, to dating practices, to assisted reproduction.
People have begun to commercialize genetics testing and to invoke genetics research to weigh in on issues like who is a Jew.