I have never submitted my DNA for analysis of my ethnic identity, and I am determined not to do so. I suspect that the findings would be unsurprising: My family has been traced back to each ancestor’s immigration to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe, all as Jews.
This week, though, we read about an older lineage, dating back to Abraham and Sarah, biblical ancestors whose historicity cannot be attested. For millennia, Jews have seen themselves as descendants of those first men and women who set off from hearth and home to serve one God.[i] We who live the Covenant of Abraham and Sarah today are their descendants, whether or not our genealogy could be traced back to them, and even if such people never lived. The patriarchal/matriarchal “history” is true, whether it happened or not.
I have often pointed to my own skin color and asked, “Does anybody believe that this pigmentation is naturally occurring in the middle east?” My question is as facile as it is rhetorical, and is meant to illustrate that each Jew – including those like me, with a “purely Jewish” known lineage; and those unlike me, people who entered the Covenant in their own lifetimes – enjoys an equal claim as an heir of our Jewish heritage. Even though the origin of skin pigmentations is more complex than I let on,[ii] a careful study of Jewish history indicates periods of significant conversion and/or intermarriage that brought people of diverse origins into the Covenant.[iii]
Modern rabbis face the “Jewish lineage” issue frequently. With some regularity, people present themselves to us as Jews on the basis of a DNA test, despite having never known that some of their ancestors were Jewish. Christians with an ancestor who might have been Jewish at the onset of the Spanish Inquisition may come to us understanding themselves to be conversos, Jews who have merely pretended to be Christians, albeit for five centuries or longer. Others come to us because they have recently learned a previously deep, dark family secret that a grandmother or great—grandmother was Jewish. When the claimed lineage is direct in the maternal line, we may be faced with an assertion that the person is already Jewish, not requiring conversion. Indeed, if that lineage can be proven, some rabbis would agree with that claim.[iv]
American Reform Judaism, from its outset, downplayed Jewish genetics, and even peoplehood, emphasizing religiosity instead. In 1885, our Reform forbears wrote in the Pittsburgh Platform, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” As time went on, the matter became more complicated. In 1937, particularly mindful of European persecutions, Reform rabbis wrote in the Columbus Platform: “Living in all parts of the world, Israel has been held together by the ties of a common history, and above all, by a heritage of faith.” They further emphasized, “The non-Jew who accepts our faith is welcomed as a full member of the Jewish community.”
In our own age, too many people, groups, and nations hang on to disappearing notions of their genetic purity. Israel’s nation-state law and the rise of white nationalism in the United States are particularly pernicious examples. Liberal Jews must not participate in racial purity tests, however well intentioned.
Ever eager to work with candidates for conversion, I welcome each one with open arms. When a conversion inquiry comes from a person with a Jewish partner, I do not assume that their motivation for seeking conversion is purely “for the sake of the relationship.” When a person comes with no familial connection to the Jewish community, I am confident that, with time, the ger tzedek, righteous convert, can become an heir to the Jewish heritage no less than those who have been Jewish all their lives. When greeting people who approach my office with claims to Jewish ancestry, but no Jewish upbringing or education, I am eager to help that person explore whether or not Jewish faith and community are right for them.
Then, if and when the time comes, when the person emerges from the mikvah, after a long and comprehensive process, that person is a Jew for all purposes[v] a lineal descendant of Abraham and Sarah.
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.