Steven Bayar

It’s in our genes

There’s nothing more tragic than being unable to protect one’s family from predators.

Years ago, during a time of religious strife in my town of Millburn/Short Hills, New Jersey, a local Christian pastor and I held a series of “conversations” hoping to calm the waters. We spoke about community and promised to share frank and open views.

He began his talk in synagogue saying (in paraphrase), “I can understand why you Jews will never forget the Holocaust, but you will never get past it until you can forgive.” Needless to say, it went downhill from there.

In his church I said, “I have learned a great lesson about the differences between Christianity and Judaism, for every person who died in the Holocaust was my father, my mother, my sisters and brothers, my wife and my children. Although I never knew them, they were my family. Yet, as Christians you accept no responsibility for Christian participation during the Holocaust, for you don’t see them as part of your community.”

Our concept of “peoplehood,” that all Jews are “responsible for one another” regardless of distance or familiarity, is foreign to Christians. That is why we redeem those we don’t know from countries where they are at risk. And that is part of the reason that those who don’t hold similar values view us with discomfort.

It started in the Torah, when Abraham’s nephew Lot is taken captive. Abraham wastes no time gathering his retainers to rescue him even though they were estranged. And it continues to the present, when we fought and lobbied to bring Jews out of the Former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Syria, and Iraq. Wherever and whenever Jews lived in persecution and danger, we became “as one” in our efforts to save them.

But this is much more than a shared value we possess. We have learned that there is a connection between DNA and genetics. Traumatic experiences like stress, famine, or war can influence the expression of our genes, thereby affecting our offspring.

Intergenerational trauma is believed to pass from one generation to the next through genetic changes to a person’s DNA after they experience trauma. Trauma can also cause cultural evolution, a society acquiring values based on shared experience.

In the rabbinic and medieval eras, it was common practice for Jews to be kidnapped and held for ransom. Jewish communities were constantly called upon to ransom Jewish captives. Maimonides considered “ransoming captives” to be one of the most important Mitzvot (commandments) in our tradition. Saving captives is part of our cultural genetic makeup.

That is partly why the events of October 7 and its aftermath have created such a drastic reaction — why we are so focused and even obsessed with freeing the hostages. Our genetic makeup requires us to protect our own from predators. And we will do anything to ensure it never happens again.

Unfortunately, that is why so many can’t understand why we care. They don’t understand community and are unconcerned about protecting the world from predation of their own.

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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