Rabbi Cohen’s Sermon – Yom Kippur Morning 5774 – Judaism: Race, Religion or Culture

Matt, my husband, takes great pride in being a Cohain. This connection to the ancient priesthood has been passed on to him since he was born. As a Cohain, he was taught he could never go to a funeral unless it is for one of the six closest relatives: father, mother, brother, wife, child and unmarried sister. And even then, he could never return to the cemetery just to visit. The only funeral he has attended, unfortunately, was that of his father, Bernie Cohen, of blessed memory. Even for his grandfather, Matt sat outside the synagogue and outside the cemetery gates with his male cousins until the family returned to the home for shiva.

This lineage, passed on from father to son has been shared for thousands of years – from the time of Aaron, Moses’ brother, who became the High Priest and from whom the priestly clan was established. Careful rules were set out in order to maintain a sense of purity as it is the Cohanim who were responsible for the spiritual care of the entire people of Israel. They were the ones who accepted the offerings from the people and then placed them on the altar to be designated for God. It was the High Priest, who on this day of Yom Kippur, made expiation on behalf of the people and went into the Holy of Holies where he recited God’s name, the only time of the year this was done. It was the Cohanim who needed to maintain a level of purity for the holy work they were in charge of and it was passed on for generations from father to son.

Generation after generation, families, such as ours, have been proud of this lineage and there was no question for it was always tradition. Today, with advances in technology we can ask the question then, is this lineage of the Cohanim seen through genetic markers and therefore, can we ask, is Judaism a race or a religion?

Over seventy years ago this question was posed by a man who sought to destroy the Jewish people based on connections to not only Judaism as a religion, but Judaism as a race. From the propaganda describing what a Jew looks like, nose, eyes, and hair, to the call to eliminate what Hitler called the Jewish race from the world population. Registering Jews based on familial lines, not asking if they were still practicing the religion, but based on identity through bloodlines. Following the Holocaust, there was a cry not call Judaism a race but rather, only that it is a religion, that we wanted to release the notion of connections through bloodlines and focus on the practice of Judaism.

Advancements in science, which I am not going to profess to be a professional at today, have shown us that Jews scattered all around the world do in fact share a common ancestry. Starting with those who are Cohanim, there is a genetic marker found in about 50% of men studied for this marker that does not seem to exist outside of this group. And from a recent survey, the first of its kind to use a genome-wide scanning device, compared Jewish communities from around the world and surprisingly found that there is a tremendous amount of genetic similarities between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.

Jewish communities from Europe, Spain and the Middle East have substantial genetic ancestry and show that Jewish communities descend from a population that lived in the Middle East up to 3,000 years ago. Dr. Atzmon and Dr. Ostrer, two leading geneticists, suggest that through their study Iraqi and Iranian Jews separated from other Jewish communities about 2,500 years ago – right at the time of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzer and the first exile of the Jews to Babylon are very closely related to each other genetically. The study continues to suggest that many members of any Jewish community are related to one another as closely as fourth or fifth cousins! So when we play Jewish geography, we’re really playing a game of linking relatives one to the other on a level we did not know was possible.

And there is a growing desire for us to know more about our genetic makeup and the tools for learning continue to develop.

At the last Central Conference of American Rabbis Conference, the company, 23andMe made a significant presentation. This presentation by Anne Wojcicki (wo-ji-ski), founder and CEO for 23andMe brought us into a conversation of building bridges between ancient times and a modern world.

Genetic testing or genome mapping has become more available to everyone. Where the initial cost to sequence the first human genome was three billion dollars only 10 years ago, you can now get a genetic test kit for $99 and the cost is just going to continue to go down.

We are starting to look at genetics as a way of not only mapping out physical traits and identity. Genetic mapping is redefining Jewish Identity, Jewish Community, and Jewish Health. With regard to Jewish identity, all of us sitting in this room would say that we are either Jewish or connected to Judaism because of our loved one. Sometimes we ask the question: Do we define Judaism based on our parents’ religion? For example, like myself who my father was Catholic and my Mom is Jewish, what does that make me? Traditionally, because my Mom was born Jewish, I am automatically Jewish. And yes, as Reform Jews, we say, our children are 100% Jewish no matter which parent is born or has chosen Judaism and because the parents have chosen to raise the child as a Jew. The answer to the question of who is a Jew, continues to be developed as we are able to trace our ancestral history through our genetic makeup. By more and more people participating in genetic mapping we are able to pinpoint where our ancestors came from throughout the world. My results show that I am 99.8% European and 0.1% Asian. 45.7% Ashkenazi, makes sense as my Dad was born Catholic; 9% French, 8.2% non-specific Northern European; 5.2% Balkan; and 3.7% non-specific Eastern European.

There are those who do the test and discover that while they were never raised as Jews, they have a small percentage of Ashkenazi genes. Even in our own congregation, there is an example of some who became Jewish later in life, yet after taking the test, one who thought he had no Jewish genes, has 1.1% Ashkenazi genes. Another couple of Jews by choice have 25.7% and 17.6% Ashkenazi genes because they found out that there was a Jewish relative in the mix.

There is a growing excitement about these studies today, almost to the point of it being the new thing to find that you are part Jewish. Even in Poland, there is a revival of those who are curious to know if they have any Jewish blood.

This begs the question, what do we as a community do when someone comes in and says, ‘through genetic testing, I’ve found that I have Jewish blood and must therefore be Jewish. Now what do I do?’ Is having any percentage of Ashkenazi blood enough to say someone is a Jew or is it more about someone’s actions that makes them Jewish?

This is the question of how we define our Jewish community today. We recognize that it is not like it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago. How amazing for all of us to be sitting here together over these High Holy Days. Yes, I wish it were more often that we were all together, filling this space. But even if someone does not come into TBS that often throughout the year, does that mean he or she is any less a part of the community as the one who comes every day? Of course not. And we’re even redefining Jewish community through technology. Those of you who are watching our services being streamed today, you too are as much a part of our community as those sitting in the room. We are redefining community all the time.

And then the issue of health: understanding our genetic makeup can significantly impact our lives. Many of us, but I would argue, not enough of us, have been tested for genetic disease such as Tay Sachs, Crohns, and Gauchers when we got married and before having children. We’ve all heard about the recent story with Angelina Joelie, who, after finding out that she carried the BRCA gene, made the radical choice to undergo a double mastectomy and reconstruction in order to hopefully prevent breast cancer. While her story is not unique, because of her public stature, Angelina saved lives, including a woman in our own congregation. After reading the story in Time magazine, one of our TBS family members decided to do a breast self-exam, even though her recent mammogram was only six months prior. During that exam, she found a small lump and unfortunately discovered that it was in fact cancer. But because of early detection and an amazing team of doctors and a loving family and friend support network, she will overcome this disease and is truly a significant influence in many others’ lives.

It is believed that every person has the right to access and understand our personal genetic history. Genetic information can transform personalized medicine and empower us to live a longer and healthier life. And the more data that is compiled and shared can lead to greater medical advances.

There are 19 diseases that are seen as the most significant amongst the Jewish population. This came about because of our ancestors living in closed communities and literally cousins marrying cousins. Our gene pool was limited. But today, as we have moved to living in larger communities, have intermarried and hence shared our genetics through various populations. Even amongst a small sample from our own congregation, about 40% of those who are born Jewish show less than a 50% Ashkenazi line because there was intermarriage within their family. I want to stress that it is even more important today to be tested not only for those diseases that affect the Jewish population but all diseases. We don’t always know our full ancestral history. As much as we think we might know our background, there is always a surprise in there. Someone could be part African or Asian and not even know it. And genetic history comes with that information. And once we have that information, what we learn about ourselves might have implications for others. There is a community affect when we understand our genetic makeup. And the State of Israel understands this better than any other country as they offer free genetic testing for everyone.

Between our wanting to know where we came from, our ancestral lines and what our health genome map looks like, we still have a larger question looming: are we as Jews a race or religion? Is this testing opening a discussion about trying to determine race? Researchers who are examining all of this genetic testing are strongly suggesting that we not use the term race, but rather, what we are seeking is ancestral lineage. Finding out what continent we came from is not determining race, rather it is determining bio-geographical ancestry.

“David Goldstein, tells in his book, Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History, the story of many communities around the world with long lost ties to their Jewish heritage. One such group is the roughly 7,000 individuals who call themselves B’nei Menashe, in northeastern India. They trace their lineage back to ancient Israel as one of the original 12 tribes. They have followed such Jewish-like rituals as a festival of unleavened bread and circumcision. Many formally converted to Judaism in the 1970’s and several hundred migrated to Israel. One researcher tried to get them to do DNA testing to prove their Jewishness, but most resisted. The ones who did, carried no evidence of direct descent. Some commentators took the opportunity to use this as proof of their illegitimacy, but, luckily, the Sephardic rabbinate recognized them as Jews anyway. Goldstein comments that, ‘This is a perfect example of when we are best served by ignoring DNA-if living, breathing people want to embrace Judaism, genetics should have nothing to say about it one way or the other.” (Rabbi Mychal Copeland)

For years, we’ve defined ourselves based on generational history, association, conversion, marriage, behavior, action and intent. We all stood at Sinai together, those who left Egypt – Israelite and Egyptian who chose to go with, those who were yet to be born and those who would later choose to be connected to the Jewish people. And yes, this genetic discovery is very exciting on so many levels, however, it is not the only way we define who we are as a community. We are more complicated than our genes, and they themselves are very complicated on their own.

We see today how there are those trying to define who is a Jew and who is not. And even amongst Jews, who have rights and who do not. We especially see this in Israel as the fight for religious equality continues through the Progressive movement, recognizing non-Orthodox rabbis and equal financial support for non-Orthodox communities; to women and men who seek to pray together at Israel’s holiest site, the Western Wall. There we still find Jew yelling and spitting on Jew and refusing to allow the other’s voice to be heard in prayer.

Who are we as a community and who defines who we are as Jews? Is it our genealogy; is it the traditions passed down one generation to the next? Will Matt’s status of Cohain change if the genetic test comes back inconclusive or not showing the one common gene? Is it measured by our intent and our actions? There is no one way to define who is a Jew or fully comprehend whether we are a race, religion or a culture. But what we do know is that today, we are ALL sitting here together. We are all a part of this community and have chosen to come here today on this Day of Atonement as we are judged in the collective by God. Together we recite the words of Ashamnu, the prayer seeking forgiveness. And one that we call special attention to is the one we sometimes translate as xenophobia – the action in which we might make someone feel like they don’t belong. But we do all belong and we should treat one another as such, especially as we all choose to join together as a part of this community. However, we sit here as a community which includes those who may not be Jewish by religion, but you are none the less a part of our community. For many of you have chosen to pray together, study together, and raise our children Jewish together. You are a part of this community Jewish or not.

Rashi reminds us that at Sinai we were all ‘k’ish echad b’lev echad!’ like one person with one heart. While our lives are being more and more revealed as we learn more about our genetics and our ancestral history, what remains the foundation and the most important is that, as a community, as a congregational family, we are all one and with one heart and therefore, we are blessed. May we continue to bless others and hopefully bring healing to our world even as we learn more about who we are and where we came from – for we all stood at Sinai and we all stand here today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

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