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Three different Jewish people giving Selichot prayers at the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

Can Jewish People be a Nation, and a Religion, and a Race?

Although Jewish people usually, but not always, share a common gene pool, they are not a race because any non-Jew who converts to Judaism will be recognized as being Jewish by all those rabbis who share a commitment to the same denomination of Judaism as the rabbi who did the conversion. 

Racial diversity amongst Jewish People

For example, a few years ago a Korean American woman, Angela Buchdahl, was named Senior Rabbi of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue. She is the first Asian-American senior rabbi of one of the North America's largest (2,400 families) Reform synagogues.

Born in South Korea in 1972, Rabbi Buchdahl, and Chinese American Reform Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, rabbi of Temple Sinai in Oakland, California. exemplify the new, ethnically and racially diverse face of the worldwide Jewish community, which now includes between 300-500,000 non-Jews who have become Jewish - formally by conversion or informally by acculturation into the Jewish people and its culture.

Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, first Asian-American Senior Rabbi. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, first Asian-American Senior Rabbi. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Orthodox Rabbis would not accept these two Reform Rabbis because (1) they do not want to accept any Jewish woman as a Rabbi, (2) they do not want to accept any Reform Rabbis as Rabbis, and (3) because they do not want to accept Reform converts to Judaism in general. They only want to maintain a monopolistic control over Judaism.

When it comes to Jews who are non-religious or even anti-religious, they are considered secular or cultural Jews, unless they are converts to another religion. Orthodox Jewish law still considers even apostates to be Jewish because for over fifteen centuries Jews were frequently subjected to persecutions and forced conversions, which meant that thousands of Jews who were baptized still believed in the One God of Israel. 

Some Jews today who have converted to a Protestant Fundamentalist denomination call themselves “Jews for Jesus” or Messianic Jews; but almost all non-Orthodox Jews think they are simply mixed up.

People of the Jewish faith giving prayers at the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. (CC0)

People of the Jewish faith giving prayers at the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem. ( CC0)

What might be considered the Jewish Nation?

Like most nations, Jews have a national language, a shared history, which is much longer than most nations, and a style of cooking and thinking that is as distinctive as that of many other nations. 

What they have lacked for most of their 4,000 year history is an independent State in one geographical area. However, states come and go (Yugoslavia) and go and come (Poland and Israel) so having a state is not the most important aspect of being a nation. 

More important is that the majority of Jews do not view “Jews for Jesus” or Messianic Jews as belonging to the Jewish community. 

The answer to the question of ‘what are Jews?’ is that since Judaism and the Jewish People are so deeply intertwined they cannot and should not be separated. Individuals Jews act in all kinds of ways, but the historical community is a blend of Jews: by birth (genes), belief, behavior and belonging.

New genetic studies show how over the centuries many non-Jews have entered the Jewish community and many Jews have, voluntarily or not, left the Jewish community. Today we can answer the complex question: are all present day Jews really the biological descendants of the Jews who inhabited the Land of Israel 3,000 years ago?

The answer is: Yes and No.

Ethiopian Jews celebrating Sigad

Ethiopian Jews celebrating the Sigad Festival at Jerusalem's Haas Promenade. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Genetic Jew

Genetic analysis does support the historical record of Middle Eastern Jews settling in North Africa during Classical Antiquity, actively proselytizing and marrying into the local populations, and, in the process, forming distinct populations that stayed largely intact for more than 2,000 years. 

The study, led by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, was published online August 6, 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

"Our new findings define North African Jews, and enhance the case for a biological basis for Jewishness," said study leader Harry Ostrer, M.D., professor of pathology, of genetics and of pediatrics at Einstein and director of genetic and genomic testing for the division of clinical pathology at Montefiore Medical Center. 

However, as anyone who has been to present day Israel knows, Jews come in many shades and looks. This is because even in the diaspora, and even against the will of the ruling religious authorities, Jews have almost always proselytized their neighbors, and quietly welcomed converts into the Jewish community, even against the formal rules of medieval rabbis. 

That is why most Jews in different geographical locations tend to look similar to the local majority after several generations. The rabbinical rule that one should not refer to any Jew's convert status is evidence of the desire of Jewish leaders to keep proselytizing and conversion activities secret from the ruling religious authorities.

In a previous genetic analysis, the researchers showed that modern-day Sephardic (Greek and Turkish), Ashkenazi (Eastern European) and Mizrahi (Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian) Jews that originated in Europe and the Middle East are more related to each other than to their contemporary non-Jewish neighbors, with each group forming its own cluster within the larger Jewish population.

Further, each of the four geographical groups genes demonstrated Middle-Eastern ancestry, plus varying degrees of inclusion of converts to Judaism from the surrounding populations. This is true even though two of the major Jewish populations -- Middle Eastern and European Jews -- were found to have diverged from each other approximately 2,500 years ago.

Shepardic Jewish couple in traditional clothing 1900

Shepardic Jewish Couple in tradtional clothing, 1900. ( Public Domain )

The Close Pool of North African Jews

The current study which extended the analysis to North African Jews, the second largest Jewish Diaspora group found that they also were more related to each other than to their contemporary non-Jewish North African neighbors. 

The current study also included members of Jewish communities in Ethiopia, Yemen and Georgia. In all, the researchers analyzed the genetic make-up of 509 Jews from 15 populations along with genetic data on 114 individuals from seven North African non-Jewish populations. 

North African Jews exhibited a high degree of endogamy, or marriage within their own religious group in accordance with Jewish custom. Ethiopian and Yemenite Jewish populations also formed distinctive genetically linked clusters, as did Georgian Jews. 

Reincarnation and the Jewish Soul

Yet some converts to Judaism, and their genes, have always entered the Jewish gene pool. In the west today, many converts to Judaism are descendants of ex-Jews in previous generations who are now returning to the Jewish People, and bringing many non-Jewish genes with them. 

This unusual form of religious conversion, as a result of reincarnation, is a special aspect of Kabbalah: the Jewish mystical tradition. Unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, Kabbalah does not teach that reincarnation (gilgul) occurs over the course of millions of years to millions of different sentient species. 

The Kabbalist by Isidor Kaufmann. (Public Domain)

The Kabbalist by Isidor Kaufmann. ( Public Domain )

According to Kabbalah, only the souls of self-conscious moral creatures like human beings reincarnate; and they reincarnate only when they have not fulfilled the purpose of their creation. 

Since Judaism is an optimistic religion, most Kabbalists teach that most people can accomplish their life’s purpose in one or two lifetimes. 

A few souls may take 3-5 lifetimes or more. The bright souls of great religious figures like Moses or Miriam can turn into dozens of sparks that can reincarnate several times. 

The souls of Jews whose children have been cut off from the Jewish people, either through persecution or conversion to another religion, will reincarnate as one of their own no longer Jewish descendants. 

These descendant souls will seek to return to the Jewish people. A majority of people who end up converting (or reverting) to Judaism and the Jewish people, have Jewish souls from one of their own ancestors. However, their genes are mostly from their non-Jewish ancestors. 

Rabbi Maller's web site is: www.rabbimaller.com. His new book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi's Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (a collection of 31 articles by Rabbi Maller previously published by Islamic web sites) is now for sale ($15) on Amazon .

Top image: Three different Jewish people giving Selichot prayers at the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem                  Source: © yokypics / via Fotolia

By Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Comments

There are only 3 races of people as defined by science: Black, Asian, White. Everything else is Ethnicity, this is a common mistake most people make. To say the Jewish religion has their own race isn't valid. The do have their own ethnic backgrounds much like all the other people in the white race with very different cultural traditions: Mexican vs Irish, vs French, vs German. All of these people are different, but belong to the same racial category.

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