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Thread: What does it mean to be genetically Jewish?

  1. #1
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    What does it mean to be genetically Jewish?

    What does it mean to be genetically Jewish? (The Guardian Thu 13 Jun 2019)
    DNA tests have been used in Israel to verify a person’s Jewishness. This brings a bigger question: what does it mean to be genetically Jewish? And can you prove religious identity scientifically?

    ...

    In February of this year, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, reported that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the peak religious authority in the country, had been requesting DNA tests to confirm Jewishness before issuing some marriage licenses.

    ...

    But according to Yosef Carmel, an Orthodox rabbi and co-head of Eretz Hemdah, a Jerusalem-based institute that trains rabbinical judges for the Rabbinate, this is a misunderstanding of how the DNA testing is being used. He explained that the Rabbinate are not using a generalized Jewish ancestry test, but one that screens for a specific variant on the mitochondrial DNA – DNA that is passed down through the mother – that can be found almost exclusively in Ashkenazi Jews.

    A number of years ago Carmel consulted genetic experts who informed him that if someone bears this specific mitochondrial DNA marker, there is a 90 to 99% chance that this person is of Ashkenazi ancestry. This was enough to convince him to pass a religious ruling in 2017 that states that this specific DNA test can be used to confirm Jewishness if all other avenues have been exhausted, which now constitutes the theological justification for the genetic testing.

    For David Goldstein, professor of medical research in genetics at Columbia University whose 2008 book, Jacob’s Legacy: A Genetic View of Jewish History, outlines a decade’s worth of research into Jewish population genetics, translating scientific insights about small genetic variants in the DNA to normative judgments about religious or ethnic identity is not only problematic, but misunderstands what the science actually signals.

    “When we say that there is a signal of Jewish ancestry, it’s a highly specific statistical analysis done over a population,” he said. “To think that you can use these type of analyses to make any substantive claims about politics or religion or questions of identity, I think that it’s frankly ridiculous.”

    But others would disagree. As DNA sequencing becomes more sophisticated, the ability to identify genetic differences between human populations has improved. Geneticists can now locate variations in the DNA so acutely as to differentiate populations living on opposite sides of a mountain range.
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  3. #2
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    I believe this might be the Haaretz article mentioned in the Guardian article.
    Israeli Rabbinate Accused of Using DNA Testing to Prove Jewishness (Haaretz Feb 04, 2019)
    A 2006 study showed that 40 percent of all Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four Jewish women who lived more than 1,000 years ago. That study concluded that if someone bears specific mitochondrial DNA markers, there is a 90 to 99 percent chance he or she is descended from one of those women.

    This seems to be the original study which is the basis of the Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA test mentioned in Haaretz.

    The Matrilineal Ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: Portrait of a Recent Founder Event

    Abstract
    Both the extent and location of the maternal ancestral deme from which the Ashkenazi Jewry arose remain obscure. Here, using complete sequences of the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), we show that close to one-half of Ashkenazi Jews, estimated at 8,000,000 people, can be traced back to only 4 women carrying distinct mtDNAs that are virtually absent in other populations, with the important exception of low frequencies among non-Ashkenazi Jews. We conclude that four founding mtDNAs, likely of Near Eastern ancestry, underwent major expansion(s) in Europe within the past millennium.
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    Quote Originally Posted by pmokeefe View Post
    This seems to be the original study which is the basis of the Ashkenazi mitochondrial DNA test mentioned in Haaretz.

    The Matrilineal Ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: Portrait of a Recent Founder Event

    Abstract
    Both the extent and location of the maternal ancestral deme from which the Ashkenazi Jewry arose remain obscure. Here, using complete sequences of the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), we show that close to one-half of Ashkenazi Jews, estimated at 8,000,000 people, can be traced back to only 4 women carrying distinct mtDNAs that are virtually absent in other populations, with the important exception of low frequencies among non-Ashkenazi Jews. We conclude that four founding mtDNAs, likely of Near Eastern ancestry, underwent major expansion(s) in Europe within the past millennium.
    I can't give an explanation why, but call me a skeptic on this one.

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    The ultra-Orthodox want a monopoly on deciding who is Jewish or who is not.

    It's always been fluid. In the time of the Bible it went down the paternal line, and since the 19th century children have been born to one Jewish and one unconverted gentile parent who have been raised Jewish. The Reform movement both here and in the US accept patrilineal descent, so do the Karaites, whereas the Orthodox go by the maternal line.

    Take Adam Levine. He was raised Jewish by two parents who identified themselves as Jewish. However, his mother's mother was a Christian of Anglo-Scottish background. The other three grandparents were Ashkenazi with some Sephardic way back. The Orthodox would not consider him a Jew even though he identifies as such and is 75% Ashkenazi.

    My father, as far as I can ascertain, is matrilineally Jewish. However, he was raised secular (albeit christened for cultural reasons) and does not consider himself Jewish. Most seculars and Reform Jews would argue that Adam Levine has more of a case for calling himself Jewish, whereas the Orthodox would say that my father is a full-blown Jew and ought to start observing the commandments.

    It's ridiculous.
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    I do not know the details of how this test is used.

    Rules of using genetic test to confirm or not confirm jewishness is a hot political question in Israel.

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    I used to brag out loud about my wife being Jewish, but she told me to shut up about it because many of the Russians who heard me are pretty damned anti-Semitic. It was a startling revelation, because I wasn't raised like that. I'm Christian, and I was always taught that we owe everything to the Jews, without whom there would be no Christian faith.

    I like what my parents taught me.
     


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    The only distinct case I'm aware of, where any kind of "genetic" test was requested, was a simple paternity test. A young woman was born in unclear circumstances. By her paperwork, there was doubt that her alleged father was her biological father, based on whom she was going to go on the Birth Right trip. The media then spun this into a "Jewish DNA" test.
    הִנְנִי֩ מֵבִ֨יא אוֹתָ֜ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ צָפ֗וֹן

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    Quote Originally Posted by rms2 View Post
    I used to brag out loud about my wife being Jewish, but she told me to shut up about it because many of the Russians who heard me are pretty damned anti-Semitic. It was a startling revelation, because I wasn't raised like that. I'm Christian, and I was always taught that we owe everything to the Jews, without whom there would be no Christian faith.

    I like what my parents taught me.
    Sounds like what your parents taught it is the exception. For most of Jewish history under Christianity, being Jewish was considered a negative thing and being called a Jew was an insult. Of course, Christianity is not unique in this regard.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mildlycurly View Post
    The ultra-Orthodox want a monopoly on deciding who is Jewish or who is not.

    It's always been fluid. In the time of the Bible it went down the paternal line, and since the 19th century children have been born to one Jewish and one unconverted gentile parent who have been raised Jewish. The Reform movement both here and in the US accept patrilineal descent, so do the Karaites, whereas the Orthodox go by the maternal line.

    Take Adam Levine. He was raised Jewish by two parents who identified themselves as Jewish. However, his mother's mother was a Christian of Anglo-Scottish background. The other three grandparents were Ashkenazi with some Sephardic way back. The Orthodox would not consider him a Jew even though he identifies as such and is 75% Ashkenazi.

    My father, as far as I can ascertain, is matrilineally Jewish. However, he was raised secular (albeit christened for cultural reasons) and does not consider himself Jewish. Most seculars and Reform Jews would argue that Adam Levine has more of a case for calling himself Jewish, whereas the Orthodox would say that my father is a full-blown Jew and ought to start observing the commandments.

    It's ridiculous.
    It's not ridiculous, it's complicated. And it has to do with thousands of years of tradition aimed at retaining a cohesive Jewish community.

    Considering that you are 1% Ashkenazi (and presumably your dad is around 2-3%) unless it could be 100% established that your dad's direct maternal ancestor was Jewish, I doubt any Orthodox Jews would consider him halakhically Jewish. I don't agree with many aspects of the Ultra-Orthodox stance on the issue, but it's an issue that carries a lot of historical and cultural baggage and weight.

    And what you describe as "since the 19th century" is an exception. The vast, vast majority of children born to one Jewish parent and one unconverted non-Jewish parent have not been raised Jewish, and those that were most often did not marry Jews and their descendants most often did not a retain a Jewish identity. This has been a very serious issue for the Jewish world.

    Karaite patrilineal descent is completely different from that of Reform. Karaites are extremely traditional and they don't recognize matrilineal descent. Reform Judaism recognizes either. Reform Judaism has also made optional or removed the vast majority of religious aspects that actually define Judaism. It's essentially an assimilationist movement.

    I say this when half of my extended family is Reform and half is Orthodox (while I was raised Conservative). The difference between the two sides of my family, the strengths of their respective Jewish identities, their knowledge of Judaism, and their connection to Judaism is pretty astounding.
    Last edited by jonahst; 08-12-2019 at 06:46 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jonahst View Post
    It's not ridiculous, it's complicated. And it has to do with thousands of years of tradition aimed at retaining a cohesive Jewish community.

    Considering that you are 1% Ashkenazi (and presumably your dad is around 2-3%) unless it could be 100% established that your dad's direct maternal ancestor was Jewish, I doubt any Orthodox Jews would consider him halakhically Jewish. I don't agree with many aspects of the Ultra-Orthodox stance on the issue, but it's an issue that carries a lot of historical and cultural baggage and weight.
    That group could be virtually extinct but they themselves haven't figured it out yet. How many Ultra-Orthodox have that unbroken matrilineal line?

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