Is Judaism a Genetic Identity?


With the new availability of DNA research many people are finding that they have some Jewish ancestry. I’ve gotten quite a few emails asking, “Am I Jewish?” And some stating, “I just found out I’m Jewish.” It isn’t that simple. Recently Rabbi Milder of Beth Emek wrote a useful post to help clarify Jewish identity as it relates to DNA.

Genetic Judaism

Is there a Jewish gene?

It seems that tracing one’s genetic ancestry is all in vogue. You can even watch famous people discover their family history on reality tv.

The phenomenon has increased what used to be a rare occurrence, i.e. people coming to the conclusion that they are Jewish, because of some aspect of their personal ancestry.

Indeed, many people can reasonably say that they have Jewish ancestry, because their genetic profile has so much in common with Jews, particularly Ashkenazic Jews.
That may provide some insight into one’s family history, but it doesn’t make one Jewish.

Think about the following scenario: You discover a diary of your great-great-grandparent, stating that s/he had been born a Jew, but converted to Christianity. No one in your family has thought of themselves as Jewish in five generations.

Would that fact of family history make you a Jew?

That the information comes from a DNA test does not change the calculus.

One might argue halachically, on the basis of one’s maternal line, that one has a claim to Jewishness even though no one in the family has been Jewish for five generations.

The Reform movement does not accept the halachic standard of maternal lineage. If a person’s parents are Christian, one cannot claim to be Jewish.

The State of Israel does not accept the halachic standard of maternal lineage, either, as demonstrated by the famous case of Brother Daniel, who converted to Christianity, then sought to claim Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. The Israel Supreme Court said that maternal Jewishness alone was not the determining factor in one’s claim to being Jewish.

The traditional practice of Judaism, from the Middle Ages on, regarding those seeking to return to an identity as a Jew is to require a ritual of reaffirmation, similar to conversion.

Then, there is the evidence of DNA testing itself. There may be common ancestry among Jewish men, but not so much among Jewish women. Apparently, Jewish men who migrated to Europe in the Roman period tended to marry local women.

In other words, most of those who can identify Jewish ancestry are able to do so through their paternal line, not their maternal line.

One of the fallacies of popular science is that biology is identity.

But we are not Jews simply because there once was a Jew in our past. Jewishness is a social construct. It must be passed affirmatively from parent to child, or chosen willingly through conversion.

Those with Jewish ancestry may have discovered something fascinating about their family’s past, as have many of us. That doesn’t determine who they are now, in this life.

It may, however, invite consideration of what Judaism is.

Biology is not destiny, but past may be prologue.

Rabbi Larry Milder