A Jewish friend of mine gave me permission to share recent communication that he had with his son about their ancestry. The correspondence began when my friend asked about his son’s results from DNA testing:
I wonder if you have researched DNA testing companies and come to any conclusions about which might be the best choice?
I believe that your DNA results from a test you took a few years ago was for mitochondrial DNA, which comes from your mother’ ancestry. I recall that you had Western European, Russian, Asian, and African ancestry. I am curious about what my DNA would show. I want to make a good decision about where I will get the best value for the fee. I wonder if you have any specific recommendations or if you have any idea about how I should go about finding a reliable and economical DNA service?
The test I took actually includes paternal as well as maternal haplogroup for men.
This is my paternal haplogroup (inherited from you): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haplogroup_J-M267 Wikipedia says it’s “amongst Jewish groups, especially those with Cohen surnames”. This is the site: https://www.23andme.com/ It’s the most well-name company in the field. Can’t say too much about the competition because I haven’t used them. I think they have some tools that would allow us to tie the two reports together to some degree if we both had reports there.
This prompted a lengthy letter from my friend to his son, reflecting not just on DNA but on the evolving nature of Judaism:
Thank you, Lucky, for sending me this information.
Here is what I know about the Kohanim:
When I went to Hebrew School, we learned that when the Torah was to be read at a religious service, the honor of being first to read would be given to a Kohane; the second reader would be a Levite; and then an “ordinary” Jew (Israel) would be last to read.
We were told that Kohanim were special Levites who were priests, and non-Kohane Levites were a lesser class of priests. If your last name was Cohen, or Katz, you were a Kohane. If your last name was Levi, Levin, or something similar, you were a Levite. These priestly classes were hereditary. Even if your last name was not an indication, you might still be a Kohane or a Levite, but you would just have to know that you were because the information had been handed down through the generations.
What I later learned, was that in ancient times, the Kohanim had been a powerful caste with authority and privileges, and non-Kohane Levites were sort of second-string priests, serving in support of the Kohanim. This power structure depended on the Temple cult in Jerusalem, which was very ritualistic so that the priestly class’s power depended on their importance in being the ones ordained to perform the rituals.
With the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian captivity (actually there were two Babylonian captivities, with ten of the 12 Hebrew tribes disappearing with the first captivity, but let’s keep it simple for now) the Jewish religion had to change radically if it were to survive. The Temple was destroyed, and the rituals centered in the Temple could no longer be performed. Without the Temple-centered rituals, the hereditary priests lost their function, and Judaism might very well have disappeared.
Instead, a new type of leader emerged: Rabbis.
Rabbi means teacher. Unlike Kohanim, which is a hereditary caste: Anyone (at least in theory) can become a rabbi, not because of hereditary privilege, but because of merit. The priests were preservers of tradition. The rabbis were thinkers and debaters of ideas. It was a revolution for the religion to shift focus from fixed rituals to evolving ideas. To this day, there are two underlying strands in Judaism (and in other religions and philosophies as well). One focus is on tradition, rules, ceremony: what type of incense to burn and when, what prayers to say when the incense is lit, what type of incense holder to use, what gestures to make.
The contrasting focus is about meaning. This is prophetic Judaism, which challenges priestly Judaism.
Giving voice to the Deity, the prophets denounce piousness, despise rituals, and proclaim that protecting the weak from injustice and taking care of the needy — not rituals — is what is Holy. The Babylonian rabbis created the Talmud, which is a book of ethical debates. The Talmud does discuss rules and rituals: But the heart of the Talmud is an ongoing argument examining all aspects of what it means to be a decent human being
Today, these two strands continue, and usually it is not clear that there even are two strands.
At a Sabbath service, the Rabbi might give a sermon about justice and there may be initiatives to help the oppressed and stand in solidarity with targets of hatred, as with the congregation which gave the keys to their synagogue to a Muslim congregtion, whose mosque had been firebombed. Yet the service is choreographed according to ancient rituals. There is a nod to tradition by giving a Kohane the honor of reading the Torah first, but otherwise no one thinks very much about who is a Kohane and who is not, even though it was once very important.
That Rabbinical Judaism supports justice over rigid ritual, is illustrated by the precept that a congregant should interrupt a religious service, even during the Torah reading, to air an injustice. (At least in theory 🙂
I recall a sermon that our spiritual leader, Rabbi Weiss, gave at my friend Alan Silver’s Bar Mitzvah. Rabbi Weiss advised Alan not to blindly follow commandments from G’d; but that there are times (such as when G’d is being punitive) to struggle against G’d. I do not know whether Alan Silver remembered that, but I never forgot it. That was probably a great example of what we mean by Rabbinical Judaism.
Of course, nothing remains a pure type: Rabbinical Judaism deteriorates into ritualist religion, and then new challengers emerge. There are even father-son lineages of Rabbis, which are hereditary in effect, although not by code.
The founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Israel, was a non-conformist, who rebelled against ceremony and ritual. On Holy Days, and on the Sabbath, no one could find him because he had disguised himself, wearing the clothes of a Christian peasant, and gone off to cut firewood for elderly and sick people, even though this violated the law not to work on Holy Days. During the day, Rabbi Israel pretended to be an ignorant lout. All night he studied.
He taught a few followers quietly, making no fanfare about being intellectually accomplished. After awhile, his followers started the Hasidic movement, which at first was a rebellion against conventional Judaism. But now, it appears that the Hasidic Jews are very conservative, and very conformist.
Back to DNA:
I am surprised to learn that I have a strong genetic connection to the Kohanim. I am also surprised to learn that a man’s paternal genetic background can be traced through Y Chromosome DNA. When I learned about genetics in high school, we were told that the Y chromosome is a blank with no genes at all. But the link you sent me discusses Y DNA, and everything else that I am finding talks about Y DNA as though it is just common knowledge. I cannot even find any reference for it ever having been thought otherwise.
In school we learned about Mendel’s study of pea flower colors, and how statistical analysis of Mendel’s observations lead to his conclusions about dominant and recessive traits. It all seemed pretty simple, although at some point there was some acknowledgement that genetic hereditary is a bit more complex, because phenotypes are composed of a combination of gens , not an individual gene, as with the color of pea flowers. Of course, it turns out that genetics is not just a bit complex, it is extremely so.
We never heard of mitochondrial DNA (which was first discovered in the 1960, so that it would have been cutting edge information that my teachers would not yet have known about). I am really lost when I read about current DNA research. To some degree, I am probably in the stage of initial confusion, which often clears up with time with something complex that is new to me.
My personal interest in my own DNA has a lot to do with my mother, who looked Asian. Even though two of her sisters were redheads (Frances and Ruth) and her brother (Harry) also had light hair, my mother (and her sister Yetta) were dark. My mother had olive skin, and was said to look Persian. When she was a girl, referring to her oriental looks, other children gave her the nickname: “Chinky Eyes.”
When I read Jews, God, and History by Max I. Dimont, I wondered if my mother (the therefore myself) might have had Asian ancestry. Dimont writes about a Turkish people called The Khazars in Central Asian, whose king in the middle ages invited representatives of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism each to present a case for their religion, and then ended up converting to Judaism, along with all of his subject. This Jewish Kingdom continued for 500 years, expanding into an Empire which included Kiev, and became a rival of Moscow for leadership of Russia.
In the end, Moscow prevailed and the Khazars faded, but a turn of history could have resulted in Russia being a huge Jewish nation. According to Dimont, in Eastern Europe Jews coming up through Europe intermingled with Khazarian Jews coming from the east. Could my mother have had Turkish ancestry?
Curious, I searched youtube, but mostly found videos discussing Khazars and Jews are hateful polemics. Finally I did find genuine scholarly treatment of the subject in this lecture by Dr. Henry Abramson.
Twenty second after 49 mins he talks about DNA. He does not go into great detail, but does refer to haplogroup DNA. It turns out that 5.2% of male European Jews have DNA, showing Khazarian ancestry, and about 2% or European Jewish women do. So perhaps my mother was part of the 2%. I wonder if mitochondrial DNA testing would clarify anything, or if it would just be a waste of money.