Genes and Judaism: Commentary on Silverman and Clark

- Yeruham Frank Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for Asian and International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel
Fax: + 972-7-6477633
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 104-105.

Silverman and Clark, in their paper on surrogacy, refer to: "the Jewish status of any individual, which, in turn, can have consequences with regard to many aspects of Jewish life."

I would like to try to address a difficult question, perhaps the very most difficult question which this paper raises for me. Why is it so important whether or not a baby has a "Jewish status", i.e., whether or not it is Jewish?

As a Jew and an Israeli I understand on an emotional level, but not an intellectual one, why this is important to Silverman and Clark. Perhaps I might even say that I understand it on a spiritual level, but then if you ask me what I mean by "a spiritual level" I would have a hard time explaining it. I feel, however, that I owe it to my international friends, including couples who are half Jewish and half Japanese, to try to explain why it is important to so many of us that our descendants be Jewish.

First, though, to try to clarify a point which might not have been perfectly clear in Silverman and Clark's paper, Jewish Law recognizes two ways of becoming Jewish: being born of a Jewish mother or converting to Judaism. The fact that any human being can convert -- if he or she convinces the rabbis that they are really serious about it -- shows that Judaism has nothing in common with racism. On the other hand some people argue that nobody really converts to Judaism. They say that those people who feel a call to unite themselves with the Jewish people were really Jewish all along in virtue of being descended from an unbroken maternal line of Jewish women, perhaps dating as far back as the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. But this fact was forgotten at some point long ago, so the person grew up unaware of being Jewish. But then a call came from somewhere deep in the subconscious, to re-unite oneself with one's people, and the person went and converted.

Since Jewish Law sees Judaism as a maternally-transmitted characteristic, one is lead to speculate that it is a maternally-transmitted mitochondrial characteristic having to do with intellectual life. Of course this is just speculation but there is evidence of unusual intellectual ability among Jewish people. I have seen published reports that of all countries, measured by percentage of population, Israel has the highest number of peer-reviewed medical publications (1) and the highest number of peer-reviewed scientific publications (Israeli Ministry of Science Website), and that Jews have received the far highest number of Nobel prizes.(2) Of course this might be not because we are Jews but because we are Asians, and the data might be biased because other Asian peoples have not yet had time to assert themselves intellectually on a global basis. Until World War II most of Asia was under imperial influence. I am obviously not in favour of militarism, but one cannot deny the fact that Japanese policy led not only to the very unfortunate Pacific war, but also to a renaissance of Asian pride. With patience we may eventually be surprised to see Asian scientific achievements to an extent that Jewish achievements will not appear unusual.

So why is it so important that a Jew's offspring be Jewish? I feel as much at a loss as I do with respect to the ongoing controversy over infant male circumcision (3). Epidemiological studies seem to show that the procedure cannot be justified medically, because medical benefits with respect to UTI, penile cancer, STD etc. do not sufficiently outweigh risk (4, 5). And Jewish authorities, like Maimonides in the Guide to the Perplexed (III,49) , say that the operation is intended to do physical damage to a perfectly healthy organ in order to reduce sexual pleasure. This literature makes me feel that I was mutilated and that I caused to be mutilated three innocent babies in violation of all principles of pediatric informed consent. (Since the operation was not medically indicated it is hard to imagine how a democratic country could have given me the right to assent to their being operated on coercively. The right might exist, however, in Israel and in Muslim countries, which are not purely democratic but theocratic to varying degrees.) But when all is said and done, I would have it done to my sons again if I had the choice now. And although I cannot justify it philosophically or bioethically, I would prefer that my children marry Jews (although I think I would accept non-Jewish daughters and sons-in-law if this were my children's choice.)

So I still have no answer to my question. But among the many things which remain to be said is that my international friends who, as noted, include many international marriages, are perhaps an unusual phenomenon so far as the world goes: professors, scientists, academics who have the money and the grants to travel the world, go to conferences, speak International English and other languages and fall in love with people from far-off places. When I go abroad to conferences, or even sit alone here and think about these dear friends, then -- like them -- I cannot understand why it should matter what nationality you are. Let's all be one world, one universal people. But then I begin to feel like the philosopher, David Hume, who said he could doubt the testimony of his senses when he sat alone in his study and philosophized; but when he went out and mixed with everyday people he began to think like them again. And when I come home from the conferences and begin to mix with my neighbors, the office workers and plumbers and motor mechanics, it seems obvious once again to marry among one's own people and live in one's own land.

Friends who are more traditionally religious than I will often say that the reason why Jews ought to make sure that their children be Jewish is that this is what Halacha, Jewish Religious Law, demands. And that is considered sufficient reason because Halacha is believed to be based on the Oral Tora, which is said to have been given to Moshe at the same time as the written Tora.

On the other hand, however, it has to be remembered that the Bible, the book on which Judaism is based, talks about two exiles, two dispersions of peoples. We hear the most about the Israeli people being exiled and scattered to the far corners of the earth. But this was the second exile. Before that came the dispersion of the peoples at the time of the Tower of Babel, before which the entire earth, as it says, was one people speaking one tongue. I recall hearing or reading a rabbinical opinion -- I don't recall where -- according to which the world will be put back together in reverse order of the dispersions. First the Israeli people will return from exile to be reunited in our land. And then all peoples will be reunited to become one people with one language again. And perhaps we are at the beginning of this second stage of redemption, which is maybe what Jews call the Coming of Moshiach, Christians call the Second Coming, and many others now call the New Age. But just as the first stage, the return of the Israeli people to Israel, took thousands of years just to begin, so the next stage, the reuniting of the human race will require equal patience. And then maybe we'll really get to universal bioethics and universal love.

1. Benzer A, et al. Geographical analysis of medical publications in 1990. (Letter) Lancet (1993) 341:247.
2. Hulley J. Comets, Jews and Christians. Jerusalem and New York, The Root & Branch Association Ltd. l996.
3. Milos MF & Macris D. Circumcision: a medical or a human rights issue? Journal of Nurse Midwifery (1992) 37:875-965.
4. Fetus and Newborn Committee, Canadian Pediatric Society. Neonatal circumcision revisited, CMAJ 154 (l996), 769-780.
5. American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Circumcision. Circumcision policy statement. Pediatrics (1999) 103:686-693.

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