Fishy Logic


I get a lot out of the investigative journalism that Shemarya Rosenberg provides for free to the Jewish community, and he mainly gets a lot of undeserved mean and nasty comments for it. But this guest post on Rosenberg’s blog Failed Messiah did not pass the logic test.

gefilte fish in LA deli from flickrBased on reading a story by Hillel Halkin in Commentary the anonymous, Orthodox guest blogger made the case that Jews have always intermarried, and that only recently has this been a source of contention in the Jewish community.

The basis of this claim is that many Jewish men have a genetic marker associated with Levites on their Y chromosome. Jewish women, on the other hand, do not have a genetic marker. So, the nameless guest blogger suggests, this must mean that Jewish men married non-Jewish women and were perhaps more relaxed about them converting.

But how does he deduce that? It’s a Jewish genetic marker on the Y chromosome. I am not a scientist, not even a little bit, and yet I somehow realize that women do not have Y chromosomes. That’s what makes us biologically female–we have two X chromosomes. So if there is a genetic marker for being a Levite in the Y chromosome, no women, Jewish or not, will have it, ever. It’s one marker, and Jewish men may have it even if their other genetic patterns aren’t similar. Or they may not. No biggie.

I just have to edit this to add that I didn’t take into account any of the discussion of mitochondrial DNA in the original article. The genetics in this might be more interesting than what my limited science background has prepared me to understand!

In any case, I continue to find the whole emphasis on Jewish genetics troubling, mainly because I think it locates current Jews’ identity in an odd place, and has racial overtones.

Of course, Jewish people are not all genetically similar. You can tell that with your eyes. This argument is fishy. You can tell that with your nose–whether you have a Jewish one or not. (And whatever you think that means!) Being Jewish is not a genetic condition, it’s a cultural one. When we choose to preserve our culture–religion, language, foodways, jokes, music–that’s what preserves the Jewish people. We pass on a legacy to our children, whether they are biological or adopted. People who decide to join us by conversion become Jews, period, and don’t get a new chromosomal marker when they do it.

Yes, it would be very interesting if we’d always had supportive non-Jewish spouses helping us do that throughout our history. It’s even more interesting that we have supportive non-Jewish spouses doing that right now. It’s nice of the anonoblogger to say that conversion should be an easier process, but this genetic argument is about as relevant as the price of fish on Tuesday.

5 thoughts on “Fishy Logic”

  • The Orthodox guest blogger was right about interfaith marriage, Jews *have* been doing it for a long time: even Moses married a non-Jew, the daughter of a Midianite priest of all things!

  • Right, and that’s the point of the blog. Either, through most of our history, many non-Jewish women married in without converting, or with much less rigorous conversion procedures than we have now. Nobody questioned their children or grandchildren. Everybody just kind of, melded in. This must have been less true for men, but still not unheard of.

    I haven’t read the whole Halkin article but he’s a genetic historian. He found that there are 4 women who are the mitochondrial precursors of almost all Ashkenazic Jews. (Stephen Colbert has mitochondrial markers consistent with being an Ashkenazic Jew. He did a segment with this guy.)

  • Thank God I didn’t claim to know what I was talking about! Please note disclaimer!

    It still doesn’t tell us anything about whether the women were Jewish, because of course they could have converted to Judaism–which wouldn’t have changed their DNA. Unless Lamarkian genetics have come back in (and now we have plumbed the extent of my knowledge of the history of biology, let’s back away carefully.)
    (As far as the studies, and I don’t even know if you’ll see this, if you click the link to Halkin’s article, there are some citations in his text. I read the article, I just didn’t understand the part about the mitochondrial DNA being passed to female offspring…)

  • The argument in the blog is not scientifically wrong.

    Y genes are passed on father to son and so are an indication of paternal descent. Mitochondrial genes are passed on only from a mother (to both sons and daughters), and so are an indication of maternal descent. This is how “mitochondrial Eve” was traced.

    So if it is true that the Y chromosome is more similiar in a group of Jews from diverse geographies than among Jews and the surounding population, it stands to reason that non-Jewish men haven’t been contributing significantly to the Jewish gene pool. Also if the mitochondrial DNA of Jews matches the geographic population more than the at large Jewish population that means that non-Jewish women have been contributing significantly to the Jewish gene pool over the generations.

    I don’t know if the studies have been done, or if they are any good. THere aren’t any scientific citations in the blog. But if the assertions are correct, the argument is correct as well.

    Whether any of this matters is another story.

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