A groundbreaking ruling by Eretz Hemdah, a respected Torah law institute, has paved the way to using genetic testing to establish Jewish identity. Though this is just the first step in a long process, it already affects tens of millions of people around the world who are discovering their ancestral roots in the Jewish people, while helping many others in their journey towards conversion.
In a groundbreaking Responsa B’mareh Habazak Volume 9 ruling by the Eretz Hemdah Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, a collection of dayanim (Rabbinic judges) ruled that it is possible to determine one’s Jewish status based on genetic testing of the mitochondrial genome. If the Chief Rabbinate of Israel embraces the ruling, some 40% of olim (immigrants to Israel) from the former Soviet Union may be absolved of the need to convert in order to receive state recognition as Jews.
According to Eretz Hemdah, the ruling is intended to “give expression to the unique situation that Jewish communities around the world are presently undergoing.” The ruling could consequently provide Jewish recognition for hundreds of thousands of olim from the USSR who are unable to prove their Jewish ancestry and are therefore barred from Israeli recognition in issues of marriage, burial, and other undertakings that require one to be Jewish.
Michael Freund, founder of Shavei Israel, an organization that helps non-Jewish people with Jewish descent make aliyah (immigrate to Israel), sees this as an opportunity to use modern technology for a revolutionary development in the Jewish world. “This could very well be a major turning point in how DNA and technology are used in order to assess a person’s Jewish identity,” he told Breaking Israel News.
Freund sees the new technology as part of the trend of a prophetic return of the exiles to their Jewish roots. “We were persecuted more than any other nation in the past two millennia, it is no surprise that after all the oppression and expulsion that we are finding remnants of Jews from all four corners of the earth. It is no coincidence that the technology is coming to light at a time of an awakening of people with Jewish ancestry.”
He continued, “I would like to believe that it is part of the divine plan to assist us and facilitate efforts to reach out to descendants of Jews and bring them home to Zion,” Freund told Breaking Israel News. “We are on the cusp of a tidal wave of return and it behooves us to reach out to them.”
Ashley Perry (Perez) also views the trends of the last century to be prophetic and is delighted that Rabbi Carmel and his colleague, Rabbi Moshe Ehrenreich, “had the courage and foresight to move forward on this very sensitive issue.” Perry is the president of Reconectar, an organization that helps descendants of Spanish and Portuguese Jewish communities (known as Bnei Anousim, Marranos, and Conversos) reconnect with the Jewish world and Israel. “In the last century, the Jewish people demonstrated that history is no obstacle to achieving the highly improbable with the return to Zion and ingathering of exiles,” he told Breaking Israel News.
According to both Freund and Perry, one benefit of expanding the definition of what it means to be Jewish is that it creates an affinity and sympathy for Israel.
“There are massive positive implications for Israel and the Jewish world if we do reach out, welcome, and reconnect with those who were disconnected from us. Many Rabbis say we have the obligation to welcome them back,” Perry told Breaking Israel News.
“If one finds out about Jewish roots, they are more likely to visit and support Israel,” said Freund. “In our interest to utilize this technology and reach out more energetically to descendants of Jews.”
According to Freund, there is also a moral obligation to reach out. After the Holocaust, he explained, up to 350,000 Polish Jews returned to Poland in order to seek out loved ones and reclaim assets, but decided to stay and hide their Jewish identity even from their own family because of what they endured under Nazism, and then communism. “Many Jewish parents put their kids up for adoption in hopes that once things quiet down they can retrieve them,” said Freund. Of course, many parents did not return and the children grew up outside the Jewish faith.
“The DNA testing in question could prove to be a very valuable tool in determining Jewish identity in this case,” said Freund. “Many archives were burned, so DNA tests could come to serve that function in lieu of no documented proof of identity,” he told Breaking Israel News.
According to the Rabbinical Deal of the Eretz Hemda, Rabbi Yosef Carmel, the halakhic (according to Jewish law), grounds are solid. “Testing the Mitochondrial genome, which is transmitted exclusively through the female germ line, makes it possible to identify relatives. If it can be proven that a Jane Doe is the offspring of a Jewish mother, her own offspring would also be recognized as Jews (from birth).”
“Some 40% of European Ashkenazi Jews carry a genetic mark that suggests they are the offspring of four mothers who immigrated to Europe from the Middle East a millennium ago. Chances are high, statistically speaking, that anyone able to prove that they are the offspring of those four mothers is Jewish according to halakha,” said Rabbi Carmel.
However, Perry and Freund are skeptical of the halakhic acceptance of DNA tests.
Perry told Breaking Israel News, “I don’t see acceptance of this ruling happening at the moment because we are a people who go by tradition: if a mom Jewish, her kids are Jewish. One could have 99 percent of the DNA markers, and that doesn’t mean that they are halachicly Jewish. They could be 1% Jewish on a DNA test and be halachicly Jewish. In addition, Sephardim (Jews of Spanish and Italian descent) represent a much greater pool, which makes DNA mapping more of a challenge.”
Even so, Perry argued, the DNA tests “could be one of the pieces of evidence that allows people to understand Jewish ancestry, reach out to those with Jewish ancestry, and act as a springboard for greater interest in ancestry for those who want to return to Jewish people.”
Freund was unsure about how the ruling may be received by the Jewish population and the Rabbinate. “Jews have been oppressed because of our blood, with the Nuremberg laws and times in the inquisition and afterward. We have a very complicated relationship with the idea of blood demonstrating one’s lineage. But maybe we can turn it on its head use it for the positive rather than negative.”
While he agreed, “DNA testing is becoming an increasingly large part of the puzzle in terms of helping people to uncover their historical or genetic link with Jewish people,” he concluded, “It’s a complex issue because it involves genetics, and most don’t understand the full complexities of genetic research. Because in halakha, you need a siman boucah (clear sign) of someone’s Jewishness; it will be up to other rabbinical authorities to decide and study the issue and whether to adopt this approach or not.”
Likewise, Rav Chaim Amsalem, a prominent Sephardi rabbi, recognized authority on halakha (Torah law), and former Knesset member, believes that the DNA test has halakhic limits. “I do not see it being used as proof of Jewish status,” he told Breaking Israel News. “But if the test shows that someone has Jewish paternal roots, we can use this to determine that if they choose to convert, the process should be done in a more positive manner. If the genetic testing shows that the person has maternal Jewish roots, if they choose to convert, it should be a much shorter process that fulfills the basic requirements. Genetic testing is a blessed development that will be an enormous aid when we go out into the world. It helps us determine who is connected to the Jewish people and in what manner.”
Rabbi Carmel and Rabbi Moshe Ehrenreich have been lobbying the Chief Rabbinate to accept their research and ruling. They say the response has so far been positive but no official response has been released.