What is Jewishness exactly? We talk about it regularly as though it were a heritable genetic trait of some sort, one that—for some reason—is solely passed down from mothers to their children. Indeed, even when people argue the point and try to make a case for patrilineality as a valid determinant of Jewishness, they are merely arguing along the same lines and insisting that “it,” whatever “it” actually is, can be passed along by men to their offspring as well. Of course, the fact that conversion is permitted seriously undermines the genetic argument: if we’re talking about something akin to DNA that you either do or don’t have, how can any behavioral or attitudinal factor override not having it? But, it turns out, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any a genetic component to membership in the House of Israel…and therein hangs an interesting tale.
I read a remarkable story in the Washington Post last July about an Irish-American woman from Chicago, one Alice Plebuch, who took one of the various “just-for-fun” DNA tests available on the market because she wished to learn more about her father, who had died many years earlier, and about her father’s family. (You can read the article by clicking here. You can also visit the websites of three of the larger companies that offer this kind of service to the public by clicking here, here, and here.) The results, however, were not at all what she expected: about half her DNA results confirmed what she already knew about her descent from people who hailed from various regions within the British Isles, including Ireland, but the other half pointed to a combination of Eastern European Jewish and Middle Eastern ancestry. One of her parents was apparently not as Irish as she thought…but which one? That was what she now felt herself obliged to find out.
There were, of course, lots of possible explanations for the unexpected test results. One set of her grandparents could have been Jews from Eastern Europe who so totally shed their previous identity upon arriving in Ireland that just a generation later there was no trace at all of it, and no recollection on the part of anyone at all that they had ever been anything other than “just” Irish. Alternately, one of her grandmothers could possibly have had an extra-marital affair and then simply allowed her husband to presume that he was the father of the child she subsequently bore. That, however, would have led to a quarter of her DNA being labelled as Jewish, not half. Could both her grandmothers have had affairs with Jewish men? Imagining such a thing about one of her grandmothers was hard enough, but about both felt wholly impossible. There had to be other some other plausible explanation!
Plebuch talked her brother into being tested, plus one cousin on her mother’s side of the family and another on her father’s side. Her test and her brother’s yielded the expected result indicating that their mother and father had to have been the same people. But the tests involving the cousins yielded one interesting piece of data and another that was truly confounding. The interesting information came from a comparison of the two cousins’ results and made it clear that the Jewish component in Alice Plebuch’s DNA came from her father’s side of the family. That was what she suspected anyway, but a far more amazing piece of information than that came from a comparison of her own DNA with that of one of her cousins, the son of her father’s sister, which effort yielded the categorical result that they had no blood relationship at all! In other words, reading her own DNA results against her cousin’s yielded the conclusion that her father and his sister were unrelated by blood.
I won’t describe the rest of the story in detail—although I really do recommend that Washington Post article as riveting reading—but the short version is that, after a lot of very detailed sleuthing, Alice Plebuch was able to conclude categorically that her father and another baby were switched at birth, or shortly after birth, at Fordham Hospital in the Bronx where they were both born on the same day of February in 1913. And she somehow managed to identify that other baby and to find his still-living daughter too, whom she felt honor-bound to inform that her father was an Irish Catholic at birth who was simply raised as a Jew by the Jewish people he came to know as his father and mother, neither of whom had any idea that they had brought home the wrong baby.
It sounds like the plot of a made-for-television movie—and not even that believable a one at that. And there surely are a lot of obvious questions to ask about how such a thing could ever occur in real life and who, if anyone, should be held accountable after all this time. But the question that the story raises that matters to me personally has to do with the nature of identity. The Irish Catholic baby brought home by a Jewish family turned into Philip Benson and was raised as a Jewish boy in a Jewish home, then grew up to become what any of us would call a Jewish man. Was he “really” Jim Collins, as the Jewish baby brought home by Irish Catholic parents and raised in their faith was known to the world? Was Jim Collins, the man Alice Plebuch knew as her father, “really” Philip Benson? Were both their lives essentially lies lived out against backgrounds that neither recognized as false but which were, historically and genetically, wholly untrue? Were they both essentially phantoms, men who were neither who they were or who they weren’t? It’s hard even to say what those questions mean, let alone to answer them cogently. Since there’s no reason to think that, had Alice’s grandparents brought the correct baby home from the hospital, that he would eventually have ended up marrying Alice’s mother, Alice Plebuch’s very existence seems predicated on a mix-up that any normal person, other than her husband and her children and all her friends, would easily label a tragedy. Does that make her existence tragic? It’s sounds vaguely right to say that, but I’m not sure I could look her in the eye while I was saying it.
We all believe, or I think we do, that there are character traits that inhere in the shared genetic heritage of any recognizable group. Such talk often veers into tastelessness bordering on prejudice when we “assign” qualities, and usually negative ones, to people based on their race or ethnicity. But does that mean that there are no shared traits that the members of groups with a common genetic heritage all share? (And, if that is the case, then why should those shared traits be uniformly positive? Surely negative traits can also be shared!) But what is the precise boundary between identity and shared heritage, between the autonomy of the individual and the shared genetic heritage that inheres in that individual’s DNA? Surely, both concepts impinge upon each other. But in what specific way and to what precise extent—that is a far thornier riddle to solve.
From a Jewish perspective, the issue is even more complicated. The man the world knew as Jim Collins was born to a Jewish mother and so was, according to all Jewish authorities, a Jewish baby. The Talmud has a name for a child who is spirited away from his parents at birth, or shortly after birth, and raised without reference to his “actual” heritage: this is the famous tinok she-nishba of talmudic lore. Nor is this treated as a merely theoretical issue: the Talmud goes into considerable detail with respect to the specific laws that apply to such a Jewish individual raised in total ignorance of his or her Jewishness. Most of those discussions revolve around intricacies of halakhic obligation when a particular infraction is repeated over and over in the course of years or even decades by a Jewish individual who, unaware of his or her Jewishness, has no inkling that some specific deed is forbidden to him or her by the Torah. Such a person is technically a sinner, but our sages understood easily how wrong it would be seriously to attach that label to someone whose sins are completely inadvertent and who lacks even an inkling of his or her real status as a Jewish individual. The debates are interesting. But there is no debate at all about the Jewishness of the tinok she-nishba, just about the specific way the law should apply to such a person.
Was Jim Collins a tinok she-nishba? Labelling him that way would seem to oblige us to consider Philip Benson a non-Jew. When viewed dispassionately, that sounds almost reasonable, particularly since any rabbi could “solve” his predicament easily enough with a trip to the mikveh, a visit to the bet-din, and a few minutes with a mohel. But let’s imagine that the truth about Philip Benson never came out. Would we really consider it a tragedy for a man raised as a Jew from birth, circumcised on the eighth day of his life, provided throughout his childhood and adolescence with a Jewish education, the husband of a Jewish woman and the father of Jewish children—would it truly be a disaster if the truth about his “real” parentage never came out? Part of me thinks it would be. But another part can’t quite embrace that level of ex post facto harshness.
Most of the time, it’s probably wisest just to allow people to be whom they appear to be. Mostly, we already do this. When I walk into the Kotel plaza in Yerushalayim and join a minyan for Minchah, no one asks me if I am really a Jew, much less if I am really a man! I look like a man, so that’s good enough for them. I apparently look like a member of the House of Israel too…and that too is good enough even for the guys who hang out at the wall wearing their giant black hats. (I don’t push it, however, by also self-identifying as a Conservative rabbi.) Ultimately, we are all Jews by self-definition…and that, really, has to be the bottom line. Sometimes, real wisdom lies in stepping away from the fine print and being content just to read what people possessed of normal eyesight can see, and then leaving it at that.
Should I buy one of those DNA test kits and find out where my people really come from? I haven’t decided one way or the other. But if I do…I promise (maybe) to share the results with you in a subsequent letter.