In these times of alarming disregard for scientific data (we’re talking to you, climate change deniers), let’s hear it for science, specifically the astonishing gains made in the field of genetics and genetic testing.
Our three-part Past Lives series highlights the extraordinary resources now readily available to anyone curious about their family ancestry. Easy access to family records on the internet and the mapping of the human genome allows us to peer into our genetic past to learn more about who we are. And we can do both kinds of research from the comfort of our own homes.
For Jews, this has been a blessing for the most part. Unlike those Americans descended from Western European populations who can turn to comprehensive written archives, such as baptismal and marriage records, most Ashkenazi Jews — like African Americans and Hispanic Americans — lack the paper trail to trace their ancestry back further than a few generations.
Now, with the evolution of genetic testing, we can pinpoint to a remarkable degree of precision the composition of our ethnicity and where we came from. And all it takes is a simple cheek swab.
For some, discovering Jewish roots opens the door to new connections and layers of spiritual meaning.
As our stories show, this technology is about more than percentages and places on the map. For some, discovering the very existence of Jewish roots is a personal marvel, opening the door to new connections and layers of spiritual meaning.
However, as with any technology, ethical concerns run rampant.
Are we now as a global kehillah to rely on DNA test results as a proving ground for belonging to the Jewish people? What about those who convert to Judaism and might hail from different backgrounds? When their DNA pie chart comes back with zero percent Jewishness, does that mean they are any less Jewish?
Though matrilineal descent long ago enshrined a genetic aspect to Judaism, have we not seen enough of eugenics, racism, white nationalism and hate-fueled violence to check a rush to embrace anything that smacks of genetic purity?
These concerns have come to the forefront in Israel, where for the past two years the Chief Rabbinate has been using genetic testing to confirm the “Jewishness” of immigrants from the former Soviet Union seeking marriage licenses, in cases where the applicants don’t have sufficient documentation of their status. Dozens of young couples, and their close relatives, have been humiliated in this way, and the practice is now being challenged before Israel’s High Court, brought there by the largely immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu party.
Scientific discoveries often involve thorny ethical questions. They must be faced openly.