Genetic research can open book on Jewish identity — for good and bad
Father William Sanchez wears a Star of David pendant on the same chain as his crucifix, and he keeps a menorah in his parish office. After a DNA test confirmed his Sephardic roots, the Albuquerque priest has been actively reconciling this discovery with his Catholic beliefs.
“Knowledge of my Jewish ancestry has provoked me to question things, yes,” Sanchez says in the book, “Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People” by Jon Entine (Grand Central, 2007).
Looking back over his childhood in New Mexico, Sanchez now recognizes the Jewish signs: his parents shunning pork, spinning tops during Christmas and covering the mirrors at home if someone in the family died.
For Crypto-Jews like Sanchez, DNA testing services can confirm or disprove suspicions about a hidden Jewish family history, uncover unknown genetic disease risks or inspire greater exploration of Judaism. For small populations in Africa and Asia, genetic research has shed light on claims of Jewish ancestry and provided a better understanding of Jewish migration over thousands of years.
But critics fear that Jewish genetic research also opens a Pandora’s box. The discovery of a shared genetic marker among men who claim to be descended from Kohanim grew into wild, exaggerated claims in the media that geneticists had confirmed the story of Aaron. Some have decried research exploring a genetic basis for Ashkenazi intelligence as politically incorrect and racist, since all humans are 99.9 percent similar.
Entine, who will be speaking at Adat Chaverim and Brandeis-Bardin this weekend, believes exploring that .1 percent is worth getting researchers riled up.
An American Enterprise Institute fellow and former NBC news producer, Entine is no stranger to controversy. He tackled the topic of race in sports with “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It” (PublicAffairs Books, 1999), which was lauded by Scientific American as a “well-researched, relatively thorough and lucidly written case.”
After “Taboo” was published, Entine learned his sister had breast cancer. As a teenager, he had lost his mother, grandmother and aunt to cancer over a period of three years. The family assumed it was a coincidence at the time, but recent genetic testing revealed the BRCA2 genetic mutation contributed to his sister’s cancer.
Since Entine has a young daughter, he decided to undergo testing, which confirmed he carries the mutation. The experience inspired him to research the link between Jews and DNA.
The result is “Abraham’s Children,” a survey of Jewish genetic research paired with a chronicle of Jewish history that explores the thorny question: “Who is a Jew?”
Entine writes that Jewishness is a function of religion and ancestry, shaped by faith, politics and culture. Given the Jewish community’s historically insular nature, most Jews also share genetic markers, which speaks to common ancestors.
This commonality inspired research in the 1990s that found the Cohen Modal Haplotype, a set of six identical genetic markers shared among Ashkenazic and Sephardic Kohanim, passed from father to son on the Y chromosome, which doesn’t change much over time and may have originated with a common ancestor. While the genetic markers alone do not prove the existence of Aaron, they can be seen to confirm a biblical tradition.
The haplotype, however, is also not unique to Jews — Kurds, Armenians, southern and central Italians share these same markers but to a lesser extent.
Researcher tracing Jewish genes meets the Kohanim of Africa [VIDEO]
Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his new book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.
For many people, genetics research conjures up frightening notions of racial or religious superiority — or the possibility of genetic discrimination. David B. Goldstein isn’t worried about either of these things.
“I take the view that there isn’t anything to be afraid of in our genetic makeups. So I really think that it’s interesting, fascinating even, sometimes important, but there isn’t anything scary lurking there,” said Goldstein, a professor of molecular genetics and the director of Duke University’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy’s Center for Population Genomics &Pharmacogenetics.
Goldstein, 44, even applies his open-research policy to a scientific study a few years ago that linked genetic diseases to intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews. He calls that work “speculative,” but he doesn’t rule out research into the issue.
“That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be really careful in how you present what’s been done,” he said. “I think you do, and I think we’ve seen mistakes in how work is presented. I think it’s really reckless to overstate results. But I don’t think there are any areas that are unwise to investigate, because I’m just not afraid of what we’re going to find.”
In “Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History,” recently published by Yale University Press, Goldstein uses the latest genetic methods — including genetic mapping and advanced DNA testing — to illuminate compelling issues in Jewish history like the biblical priesthood, the Lost Tribes, Jewish migration, and Jewish genetic diseases.
Goldstein’s most startling finding: There are enough Y chromosome similarities among many who call themselves descendants of the Cohanim, the biblical priestly caste, to argue for genetic Cohen continuity.
He and his colleagues tested these similarities by comparing the Y chromosomes of Cohanim with the chromosomes of other Jews. Sure enough, the majority of the self-identified Cohanim, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi Jews, had the same type of Y chromosome. Further testing by Goldstein and friends leads him to estimate that the Cohanim were founded before the Roman era — and perhaps before the Babylonian conquest in the sixth century B.C.E.
Even Goldstein was blown away.
“The apparent continuity of the Cohen Y chromosome was an out-and-out stunner; I would have never predicted that to be the case,” he said.
He also finds genetic evidence for the idea that the Lemba tribe in Africa might have some Jewish origins, a finding that the media simplified by saying he had shown the Lemba are one of Judaism’s 10 Lost Tribes.
In the section on the Lemba, and indeed throughout the book, Goldstein is careful about his conclusions. For him, the research is more about shedding light on themes of Jewish history, such as exile and Diaspora. As he puts it in the book, “What makes a people a people? What binds them together through time? What alienates them from some and aligns them to others?”
As admirable as the book’s scholarship is its readability. Goldstein’s jargon-free writing and sense of humor courts readers who are not hard-core scientists. At different points in the book, he calls himself a “lousy mathematician” and as “having a bit of the gambler in my genes,” and, in the section about the alleged link between genetic diseases and intelligence, he writes, “Now we geneticists have a genuine kerfuffle on our hands.”
Don’t be misled — Goldstein’s book isn’t “Jewish Genetics for Dummies.” But he has taken cutting-edge science and made it accessible to the general reader willing to make an effort.
It wasn’t easy, admitted Goldstein, whose academic work focuses on medical genetics — specifically, why some people control HIV better than other people and why some people respond better to some medicines than other people.
“I started writing this just about 10 years ago. The discussions of the science were dreadful, incomprehensible. And so I just tried it again and again until I found ways that worked and that people didn’t complain about when I showed it to them.”
Part of the motivation for the book, Goldstein says, stems from guilt he feels because he remained in graduate school at Stanford and didn’t go to Israel when the 1991 Gulf War broke out.
“I did feel like I should do something. And I think doing some work eventually at least gave me some kind of connection to read about Jewish history as part of my job, and that definitely made me feel better. I guess I finally got over it and started going to Israel regularly, which I still do.”
He’s frank about the limitations of genetic history. “[G]enetics can never, however, replace, or even compete with, the painstaking work of archaeology, philology, linguistics, paleobotany and the many other disciplines that have helped resurrect some of the lost stories of human history,” Goldstein writes.
Understandably, though, he’s proud that his research has yielded some insight into some vexing issues, and shares the notion that what he is doing on some issues — say, the Cohanim — borders on the fantastic.
“The continuity of the Cohen paternal line is an astounding thing,” he said. “And it’s a little tiny bit of history that genetics tells you about.”
Peter Ephross’ articles and reviews have appeared in the Village Voice, the Forward and Publishers Weekly, among other publications.
VIDEO: Duke professor searches for ‘kohanim’ genetic marker
Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his news book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.
This week’s Torah portion discusses one of the most bizarre and indecipherable rituals in the Torah: parah aduma, which is the ritual of purifying a person who has come into contact with a dead body. During the ritual of parah aduma, the Kohen slaughters a red cow that has never born a yoke and then burns the carcass along with cedar, hyssop and a crimson substance until it has been reduced to ashes. The ashes are then mixed with water and sprinkled on the person who has come in contact with death, thus rendering him pure.
This strange ritual, which in some aspects seems almost pagan, can be interpreted and understood metaphorically as a cathartic, therapeutic process, one meant to help a mourner overcome grief. Each physical step in the parah aduma ritual also works as a symbol that taps into the subconscious, intangible experience of death.
To begin the ritual, the first requirement is the red cow.
The living red cow embodies an abstraction: literally and symbolically. The cow stands in for the life force vanquished; it represents vitality, procreation and energy, as does its red color, a color associated with blood, the medium of life. Because the cow has never born a yoke, its death is untimely — it has not yet contributed to or affected the world. The parallel for a person would be a death that occurs without fulfilling one’s goals and or realizing one’s potential.
The substances burned with the cow also have symbolic meaning. In biblical times, cedar and hyssop stood for the two poles of the social gamut: the wealthiest and the poorest, the mightiest and the weakest. Turning all these elements to ashes suggests that no one can escape death. The burning of cedar and hyssop together with the parah aduma symbolizes utter destruction, the extermination of the entire gamut of existence. The cedar and hyssop also suggest that death is both a physical and a social phenomenon. This message assists the mourner in coming to terms with grief, indicating that along with the physical loss, there has been a loss of social bonds, of human connection. The symbolism of the parah aduma ritual reflects the complexity of the mourner’s feelings of loss. Through the ritual, the mourner’s need to grieve is acknowledged.
Grief can breed devastating results when not addressed appropriately. A mourner might question the purpose of his life and the worthiness of his actions; he can slip into the mode of thinking typified in phrases such as "My life is meaningless" and "I am nothing."
From there the road can be very short to suicidal tendencies and even to violent criminal acts against others, because the logical correlative to "I am nothing" is "you are nothing." Once life is meaningless, whatever damage a person causes to others is insignificant. In fact, such injury to others can, sadly, serve a cathartic purpose; as a person subjects another to anger and violence, he renders the other person as helpless and ineffective as he feels himself.
This negative disposition that results from death and loss is the reason for the mourner’s impurity for seven days. The impurity is a spiritual one that calls the mourner’s attention to the dangers, the precariousness, of his situation. But, simultaneously, the condition of impurity and separation allows the mourner an opportunity to express and experience his emotions and to heal.
On the third day of this healing process, the mourner is brought to the priest, and he returns on the seventh day for a second session. In the Torah’s description of these meetings between mourner and priest, a surprising but subtle linguistic shift occurs. The remainder of the red cow, which was initially referred to as "ashes" (efer in Hebrew), is now referred to as dust (afar in Hebrew). While only one letter has changed in the text, the symbolic meaning of the two words is completely different. The word "afar" in reference to death, transports us directly to the verse: "for you are dust and to dust you shall return." The word dust reminds the mourner that life is ephemeral and that death is inevitable. It also reminds him of the cycle of life: in the words of Rabbi Akiva, "Those living will die, those who were not born yet will be born."
Finally, the parah aduma ritual emphasizes and expands on this cyclical notion in a way clearly evident to ancient Israelites who lived in an agrarian society. While nothing can grow in ashes, dust can definitely serve as a fertile soil. A seed, buried in the dust, will resurrect as a plant.
Similarly, the mourner is encouraged to summon all his energy and to come back to life with energy and vitality. This concept is symbolized by the last step in the process, the pouring of fresh, living water, mayim hayyim, on the parah aduma’s dust. The positive power of life, contained in the water, will overcome the destructive power of death. Even though the loss that comes with a death will not be forgotten, life will be resumed with an emphasis on the positive experiences of the past and on the abundance and richness of the life we have lived and will live.
Haim Ovadia, rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Doing the Dirty Work
Rabbi Safra roasted the meat. Raba salted the fish.
According to the Talmud, this is what these two great sages did every Friday afternoon, in preparation for Shabbat. The Talmud regards this information as noteworthy because, although both sages certainly had others in their households who could have done this work, they insisted on doing it themselves. “It is greater to do the mitzvah with one’s own hands than to delegate it to others” was the motto by which Rabbi Safra and Raba lived. And they apparently applied this motto without discrimination. It pertained to messy or smelly mitzvot just as it did to mitzvot that did not get one’s hands and clothing dirty. A mitzvah is a mitzvah.
I remember reading journalist Ari Goldman’s book, “Finding God at Harvard.” He recounts, at one point, an oft-repeated request that his mother would make during the years of his childhood: “Do a mitzvah Ari, and take out the garbage.” Goldman notes with joy and wonder the way that we elevate the most mundane, physically dirty activity to the level of sacred act.
This important perspective on the irrelevance of esthetic pleasantness to the performance of mitzvah is critical to our religious vision. It is the premise that inspires the wonderful “Mitzvah Days,” sponsored by synagogues and federations everywhere, which include cleaning up polluted beaches and scraping graffiti off the walls of playgrounds. It is the understanding that animated some of my all-time favorite people to go out every single Saturday night on the “midnight run” — a tour of several New York City subway terminals, at which they distributed sandwiches, blankets and conversation to the city’s homeless.
I suspect that the source of this idea is to be found in the portion we read this Shabbat. It begins with the command to clear the ashes off the altar at the beginning of each Temple workday. “And the kohen shall don his linen garments and remove the ashes which the fire had produced, and he shall place them next to the altar.” After he’s done that, he is to remove them from the Temple altogether. This must have been a messy job. Yet the Torah ordains that it must specifically be done by a kohen, and by a kohen who must specifically wear white clothing, to boot. It seems an unavoidable conclusion that the Torah was here going out of it way to establish this point — that mitzvah and esthetic pleasantness having little to do with each other.
It is interesting to note that the daily clearing of the ashes became a highly prized assignment within the world of the Temple. The Mishna attests to the competition that attended the privilege of performing this task. The Torah succeeded in implanting its ethic. We should not be surprised about how strongly the Torah and Talmud make this point. After all, the world is not such a clean, sweet-smelling place. If we’re going to succeed at all in “fixing” it, we have to get dirty and understand that getting dirty is a mitzvah.
Like most counter-intuitive religious insights, this one, too, requires daily reinforcement. Let me suggest something that I intend to try, and perhaps you’d like to try, too. With a little reflection, I bet I could compose a kavannah (statement of religious purpose) that I could recite before doing the family’s laundry, or before washing the dinner dishes. Are these not tasks through which I express love for my family, and gratitude to God for having blessed me with them? Couldn’t a similar kavannah be composed for the act of changing a diaper? Surely, one could be recited before kashering the oven for Passover.
If our tradition has it right, these daily reinforcements could change the way we see the world. They could help us to see mitzvot everywhere we look. They could help us to look out each day, and to not see a world that’s a big mess, but to see a world that is waiting for a few more people to roll up their sleeves and get dirty.
Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.