Thursday, December 10, 2015

Chanukah 2015

As I was reading the paper the other day, I unexpectedly came across an article about some parallel scientific studies being undertaken in Denmark and in our country. At first, they sounded like the kind of detailed, complicated studies which only scientists could love…or even understand. But then, upon further reflection, I found myself drawn to them and wishing to learn more. And then, entirely unexpectedly, my thoughts turned to one of the riddles of Chanukah…and I found a plausible answer sitting right before my eyes.

When I was in high school, the concept of genetic heritage was presented to us as a kind of code embedded in our cells that we are able to pass along to our offspring if and when we manage to reproduce. As opposed to, say, citizenship, which can be passed along from parents to children but which has no physical aspect to its existence, we were taught to think of our genetic heritage as something fully real in the physical sense (because genes, teensy-weensy though they may be, exist as actual, physical things) and thus not that different from money or property or any other part of a parent’s estate that a child might acquire as a gift from a still-living parent. 

How it all worked was a bit mysterious, surely more than slightly arbitrary. Unless they are identical twins, for example, siblings receive different sets of these gifts from their same two parents. This accounts for the differences between them and was explained to us with reference to the fact that children have two parents, not one, and that the various parts of those parents’ genetic heritage combine in different ways on different conceptive occasions to create different genetic gifts to a couple’s different children. But our genetic heritage was presented to us not only as arbitrary, but also as immutable: you can do what you can to resist the siren call of your genes but they constitute a gift—generally some combination of blessing and burden—that cannot be altered, only inherited and gratefully accepted, actively resisted or passively given in to. I didn’t really understand the whole thing then and I’m sure I don’t fully understand it now. But one thing that was completely clear, even to my tenth-grade self, was that genetics is unalterable destiny, something to be pleased about or struggled against but about which you can’t do a damn thing! Nor, needless to say, can you control the contents of your own future genetic gift to whatever offspring you may eventually produce.

Apparently, I was wrong. In 2010, several professors at the University of Copenhagen found that they could alter the sperm of male rats not by addressing their genetic make-up at all but rather by subjecting them to different sets of experiences. One set of rats, for example, was made obese by being fed very high-fat foods. This was a post-birth phenomenon, obviously. So, at least theoretically, the rats—none of whom was predisposed to obesity—should not have had a higher percentage of obese offspring than rats that were fed a normal diet. But they did. And so began a long, complex set of experiments intended to determine if the genetic heritage bequeathed to offspring can be altered by experience.  In 2013, a group of scientists led by Adelheid Soubry, a molecular epidemiologist at the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina, attempted to perform a similar experiment on human subjects and concluded that experience can indeed alter a man’s sperm in a way that affects the genes a man bequeaths to his offspring. And now the Danes have published a study in a very respected journal, Cell Metabolism, that supports that conclusion. (The science is complicated and I won’t attempt to review it here. It has to do with the way sperm is or isn’t altered by experience to bring certain features of that man’s genetic heritage to the fore. The genes themselves are not supposed to self-alter through the experience of experience. But if the specific way they configure in the context of reproduction can be weighted differently by some specific experience that the man in question has had, then it more or less comes to the same thing. Or at least it does from the vantage point of the embryo that inherits that man’s DNA configured differently than it might otherwise have been.)

Others are less sure about how meaningful the results really are. Many of the arguments against accepting the results of these studies are very complex but, to the extent I was able to follow them, also very interesting. To learn more about these studies, both for and against, click here to read the article by Carl Zimmer mentioned above that was published in the New York Times last week. To read a précis of the Cell Metabolism article (not recommended for people who last encountered the study of biology in tenth grade), click here

I’m hardly in a position to offer an opinion about the worth of the research, but I find it fascinating nonetheless…and not solely because of its implications for our understanding of the human reproductive process. What I find fascinating is the possibility that the role of experience might be no less meaningful on the national level as a people moves forward through history and bequeaths its national culture to new generation after new generation.

There’s no question that Judaism itself—as well as its much maligned stepsister, Jewishness—has developed over the millennia. Every student of the Bible can see how different modern Jewish religion is from the faith depicted in the pages of Scripture. But Judaism today isn’t only different from the Israelites’ religion in biblical times. It is also dramatically different from the Judaism described in the Talmud and even, in profound and meaningful ways, from the Judaism of medieval times. That religions develop over dozens of generations is hardly a great discovery. But what makes religions develop in the specific ways they do develop? What makes some innovations successful and others wholly unsuccessful? Why does an entire people barely pause to notice when whole bodies of scriptural law are summarily dropped—I’m thinking, for example, of the elaborate laws that the Torah sets forth governing inheritance, laws more or less universally ignored today including in the most pious circles—while other practices dating back only three or four centuries have not only established themselves as authentic Jewish rituals but are universally observed in every synagogue community? Are these developments entirely arbitrary? Or is it possible that experience shapes the genetic code—or whatever you’d call it on the national level—that passes silently and subtly from generation to generation? In other words, we are used to thinking of history as the result of Jewishness—what happened to us being a function of who we are—but what if the reverse were true (or also true) and history were rationally to be understood as the set of nation-wide experiences that rests invisibly at the generative core of Jewish life not unlike the way the sperm itself that conveys a man’s genetic heritage to his newly conceived child vanishes into the embryo and is never heard from again other than by manifesting itself in the nature and culture of the man that embryo eventually grows to become?

It would be interesting to think of Chanukah in that vein. It’s not a biblical holiday. Lots of other events of arguably equal importance historically failed to turn into holidays. (One of the few books from outside the standard rabbinic literary corpus to survive intact from the early rabbinic period, Megillat Taanit, is basically a detailed list of thirty-five such politically and historically important days.) Chanukah should have been in that category—a week of days on an ancient list during which eulogizing and fasting was forbidden because of some positive historical event that once happened. But somehow that isn’t what happened.  The experiences of exile and restoration, of being assaulted by a hostile culture and having to find a way to preserve our national cultural heritage despite the pressure to adopt what is touted to us as “world” culture (and thus by definition something superior to our rinky-dink set of beliefs, customs, stories, and ceremonies), the experience of finding the courage to stand up to the world and refuse to vanish merely because a set of self-appointed pundits can’t understand why we wouldn’t want to be a modern nation according to their definition of the term…that set of experiences related to the nation growing up spiritually, nationally, militarily, economically, and, if one can say such a thing about nations, emotionally…that was something that shaped our national DNA permanently and left us different than we otherwise might have been.

That a man’s experiences in life can alter the destiny of his children by affecting his sperm in specific ways is a tantalizing notion. Whether it’s true, who knows? But that the same could be true of national cultures—that they are not so much the source of national experience as they are the product of those experiences’ effect on the transmission of that culture to subsequent generations—that theory strikes me as truly tantalizing. It could go a long way to explaining why Chanukah, which shouldn’t really have been a festival in the first place and which certainly doesn’t feel like it merits the major place on the Jewish calendar it now occupies, has taken such a prominent place in our festal calendar. The rabbis of ancient times had no difficulty permitting the blessing recited while the Chanukah candles are lit to refer to God as having commanded us to kindle them. That that commandment appears nowhere in the Torah, which fact the rabbis surely knew perfectly well, makes perfect sense—Judah Maccabee lived a full millennium after Moses. But perhaps the rabbis were onto something nevertheless. Could it be that God ultimately sanctifies the House of Israel specifically by allowing this concept of experience-altered reality to guide the nation’s religious practices? Could the plan all along have possibly been that, no matter how far afield of Scripture Jews allow their faith to develop, they will always feel themselves under God’s watchful protection and truly to be sanctified by God’s commandment to act in harmony with their own historical experience and its exigencies? That is the thought I offer you to ponder as Chanukah draws to a close and we move on to less festive weeks and, presumably, the eventual arrival of “real” winter.

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