February 26, 2024
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Is All of Jewish History Imbedded in Our DNA?

In a column The Jewish Link column, “Is Hashem Using Scientists as His Agents to Fulfill Torah Prophecies?” (December 22, 2022), I discussed the intersection between Torah and science. Here, I propose an extension of that concept, whereby the Torah again predated “modern science” by thousands of years, this time by connecting science with Jewish history, using genetics as the bridge.

Background: DNA, genes and chromosomes work together to make you who you are.

DNA is the genetic blueprint of most organisms and stores the genetic information that is responsible for building and maintaining your human structure. Chromosomes carry the DNA in cells. Genes are composed of DNA stretches and are the hereditary molecular segments of your DNA which give you your unique physical characteristics, and which transfer traits to the progeny. Together, your body has a complete, unique instruction manual that tells your cells how to behave and function, as well as a record of its past history.

History: Over the years, mortal man, with ever-increasing complexity, has developed various scientific tools and disciplines to try to understand and explain what was already divinely revealed in just a few pages of the Torah, about the origins of the natural world, starting from the vast universe down to the individual man.

In Bereshit, on Day Four, Hashem created all manner of creatures to swarm in the waters and winged fowl to fly in the air, each to its own kind. Then on Day Five, Hashem created aquatic creatures, creeping insects and winged fowl, each after its own kind. On Day Six, Hashem created land
animals, reptiles and wild animals, each onto its own kind, and above all, man, in His own image. The constant emphasis of each species made in its own kind, I feel, strongly reinforces the notion in the Torah that each species is uniquely individual, which is what modern-day genetics also recognizes.

DNA markers based on Jewish history: Like snowflakes, different individuals may resemble others, but each has a unique DNA makeup. Larger groupings, like families, tribes and countrymen, may also share similar, although not identical, traits embedded in their DNA. That’s why native-born Norwegians can readily be distinguished from native-born Chinese. Also, for example, Ashkenazy Jews, have certain distinctive DNA sequences that differentiate them from other groups, and also make them more susceptible to certain diseases. It is estimated that the majority of Ashkenazy Jews have such markers.

Historically, we know that in America today, there are many Ashkenazy Jews like my own parents, who came from Poland and Russia, and that most of those Jews originally came from the Rhineland in Germany. From DNA studies of medieval cemetery remains from that region, it was found that those Jews had earlier come from southern European areas like Italy, and before that from the Middle East, including the western Mediterranean regions like Babylonia, and the Holy Land. Since DNA is handed down from generation to generation, today’s Ashkenazy, as well as all Jews, may still have some DNA markers from Jews living in biblical times, going back to Yaakov and even Moshe, Avraham, Noach and maybe Adam and Eve.

(Here I must insert a disclaimer that the issue of studying DNA from human remains may have halachic ramifications well above my pay grade.)

Jewish history derived from DNA studies: Just as geologists derive information about the earth’s history by studying core samples, and climatologists use tree rings to study the environment around an individual tree, so, too, we can envision a reverse engineering scenario where we can tease out historic information from DNA samples. This is analogous to tapping into the memory of a GPS device or an airplane’s black box to reconstruct entire travel routes and parameters. By reading specific markers in our own DNA, we may be able to trace backwards our own journey through history. And doing this from a large sampling of Jews’ DNA, which likely will be accumulated over time, we can also use this data to build up a detailed history of the entire Jewish people throughout the ages, going back to … Adam?

All this may sound like pure science-fiction fantasy, especially as regards to pinpointing a single individual’s place in Jewish history. However, consider some pertinent facts. First, DNA strands in humans contain many millions or billions of smaller sequences, and scientists aren’t certain what function many of these have. It is not beyond the imagination that some of these are memory units storing information, not just controlling body parameters and functions. Secondly, pinpointing single DNA markers out of the many millions or billions of people on the earth sounds like a fool’s errand, but scientists today already have the tools to analyze minute amounts of trace elements in asteroids and pinpoint where in our vast universe they came from, and they also can photograph a single atom in a specimen sample. That is, one atom out of uncountable trillions.

Tracing a single individual’s path through Jewish history via his DNA doesn’t seem like such an unattainable task after all, does it?

Max Wisotsky
Highland Park
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