I must admit that I was chagrined over the hullabaloo emanating from recent comments made by religious authorities over DNA testing and the status of ‘Jewishness’. What is ‘Jewishness’ and what is a ‘Jew’? Surely questions for the ages. Countless minds have pondered, debated and quarrelled over these questions, and a definitive answer is still hard to come by. But I believe that using DNA as a primary factor in determining who is or isn’t a Jew is a foolhardy mission that is surely bound to fail. While DNA analysis can explain many things, I do not believe that it is qualified to rule on religious matters. A DNA test can reveal ancestral history, give insight into physical conditions and health and provide a glimpse into our distant past. However, these are all limited in scope. Pinpointing geographic ancestors from generations ago does little in terms of determining who today is Jewish. Judaism is a vast tradition with countless aspects that supersede anything that can be deduced from a DNA sample. Oversimplifying our tradition to such a biological test harkens back to a time when our enemies tried to ‘other’ us by claiming that we were a different race or species all together. We should not follow their line of thinking.
In today’s world, it has become trendy to add labels and identifications onto oneself. One such person is U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who claimed a few months ago that her family once (albeit distantly) comprised of Jews. When she made this statement, the audience gave her a round of applause and she stood there beaming. Mind you, these Jewish ancestors existed hundreds of years ago and bear little influence on her life today. She was not raised Jewish, her household was not Jewish, she does not follow our customs or traditions. And, in fact, she is currently working against the Jewish community by siding with politicians like Representative Ilhan Omar and voicing support for people like Jeremy Corbyn. But, at that moment, she stood there in front of a group of Jews and claimed links to our community. I find such notions utterly repulsive. She, as many others have, made these comments purely for personal gain and nothing else. They assume that because a biological ancestor somewhere down the line possessed ‘Jewish blood’ that they are a member of the Jewish people. Again, I believe that looking for biological affirmation of Jewish identity is a dangerous and misguided approach. Jews are not biologically a race, despite what many anti-Semites have tried to convince the world of. Our forefathers and mothers came from pagan tribes. Avraham was not a biological Jew, nor was Sarah. Over the thousands of years of our existence, countless people joined us through conversion, adoption and intermarriage. Jews are found throughout the world and hail from all walks of life. The links that hold us together go far beyond any genetic links or DNA testing.
What makes a Jew a Jew? I believe that Jews are connected by a shared history, culture, religion and ethical code. Our history is deeply rooted in countless nations, our culture is a tapestry of many colors, our religion contains as many branches as a mighty tree and our ethics is the bedrock of our beings. These are the things that make us Jews, not blood. While genetic makeup may be important in determining things like who is a Cohen or a Levi, generally speaking it falls short when it comes to determining who is a Jew. Jews come from all walks of life, and our brothers and sisters have genetic make-up that represent all the nations of the world. Oversimplifying our identity to genetics is exactly what the Nazis wanted to do. We should not fall into this trap.
If we indulge the notion that Judaism is linked to biology, what can we say about ‘biological’ Jews such as Karl Marx? Marx had Jewish heritage, but ended up becoming a vicious anti-Semite who wanted to exterminate our people. Was Marx a Jew because he had Jewish ‘blood’? Or what about Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli who betrayed the nation and disseminated information about Israel’s nuclear program for all the world to see? He endangered the lives of all the Jews living in Israel, and then he converted to Christianity. Is he Jewish because of his magical blood? No. I say no to both examples. This is the folly of trying to use biology to judge Jewishness. Marx and Vanunu are not Jewish, irregardless of whatever their family history may show. Their actions betrayed the Jewish people. They shunned Jewish identity. They were not and are not Jews. The convert who joined our ranks moments ago is more Jewish than these so called ‘biological Jews’. The baby recently adopted into the faith holds more promise than these two ever had. We must distance ourselves from reducing our ancient heritage to simple genetics. Doing so vastly dilutes our multifaceted heritage.
Again, if we indulge this biological framework in determining membership into our tribe, it begs the question as to how much blood is enough to grant one such a status? One far off ancestor? Two grandparents? A cousin, twice removed, from the father’s side? Sound a tad ridiculous? It should, because it is. But if authorities rely on DNA tests in determining Jewish status, surely these sorts of questions will emerge. And such a mindset would tear us apart and cause great damage to many of us. While traditions such as ‘via the mother’ exist, there are other methods of becoming Jewish. Again, we are not bound solely by biology. We are not a race, but we are a people nonetheless. Those that seek validation solely through biology miss the mark when it comes to understanding what it truly means to be a Jew.