Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message: January 18, 2023.

ANCESTORS, REAL AND INVENTED

Illustration: Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, The Lovell Haggadah (2008): “For the Israelites serve me; they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt”
 
                Our identity is founded on our history. And that history—at the national level-- is one that began with enslavement. We were enslaved by Pharaoh. 
            Now, Judaism is not a race, although our identity contains a national component.  People join families by marriage and by adoption as well as by birth. Therefore, people who did not physically descend from Israelites, enslaved in Egypt three millennia ago, can and do become fully Jewish.
            Can those who have joined our Jewish family say that they are the offspring of an enslaved people?
            The answer is yes.  This is an old principle of Judaism.  Ruth says to Naomi, “your people will be my people and your God, my God.” In adopting Judaism, one adopts the Jewish people as one’s own.  One acquires ancestors, in a spiritual if not a genetic sense.
            The great rabbi Maimonides reaffirmed this principle in a stirring defense of the rights of the convert to Judaism to enjoy equal status to those born of Jewish mothers.  He received a query from Obadiah the Proselyte—a remarkable figure! Most likely a Norman (Christian) knight from Sicily, a convert to Judaism from sincere conviction, and therefore a refugee, fleeing Christendom to live openly as a Jew in Egypt.  But once there, he was harassed by the members of the synagogue.  They said to him that while he could pray “Our God” he could not add the words “And God of our fathers” since his biological father had not been Jewish.  Maimonides rejected that discrimination. Let us hear his exact words:
            Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation. The reason for this is, that Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God; he rejected the idols and abolished their adoration; he brought many children under the wings of the Divine Presence; he gave them counsel and advice, and ordered his sons and the members of his household after him to keep the ways of the Lord forever… Ever since then whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace be with him. These men are Abraham’s household, and he it is who converted them to righteousness. In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him. Thus, Abraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism.
            This notion, that in becoming Jewish we inherit the formative ancestors of our tradition, has an American parallel. When I was a child, schoolchildren were taught to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” My class was exclusively Jewish. We were grandchildren of immigrants. But we sang, “Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
            Let me sharpen the point by going back one generation.  My mother and father sang that in grade school in the 1920’s, when their fathers--- first generation Americans, refugee immigrants from the Tsar and his pogroms—were still alive. No one in my parents’ families had an ancestor who had died in the USA until 1928, when “Bubby B’rakhah”, my mother’s great-grandmother, passed away in the Bronx. That was the first death of any of my ancestors on American soil.  Even so, my parents were fully entitled to sing that song in public school in the Bronx and in Baltimore.  That is the way that identity works.
            From this authentic, if symbolic, ancestry, we move to more complicated cases Let’s look at two cases from recent American political history.
            First, let us look at the claim of Senator Elizabeth Warren, that she descends (in part) from Cherokee and Delaware Indian ancestry. Her DNA testing revealed some—not much—genetic material from Native American sources.  At that point, she was harshly—and crudely—reviled by then-President, Donald Trump.
            Scientific analysis of her DNA results leads to the conclusion that she had a Native American ancestor six to ten generations ago—perhaps one ancestor out of 64, or as little as one ancestor out of 1012.
            Those who disagreed with Senator Warren’s politics were tempted to discredit her claim. But they were ignoring American realities in doing so. In their racist moments, Americans have often treated as significant a small genetic contribution from a non-White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ancestor.  The racism of America routinely discriminated against “Mulattos”, “Quadroons” and “Octaroons” --- the infamous “one drop of blood” standard. If an American could suffer discrimination for a relatively modest degree of minority ancestry, why is that heritage no longer significant now that the political climate has changed, and one might conceivably derive some benefit from such an ancestry? Isn’t this a case of “sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander?”
            In any case, the claim of Senator Warren was based, she said, on family lore, not on DNA testing. As a rabbi, I understand that claim.  I have worked with any number of people who knew that they had one great grandmother who kept domestic customs that “seemed Jewish”--- she wouldn’t let them have a glass of milk with their hot dog, for example, claiming it was “bad luck”--- and with my help, their sleuthing recovered the suppressed Jewishness of their past. I have also worked with others whose Jewish ancestors openly shared their Jewishness with their ethnically diverse offspring.   These examples affirm what Abraham Lincoln meant in describing the links joining Americans as “the mystic chords of memory.” These chords overlap with the intertwined strands of DNA. Each is significant.
            Now we pass to a wholly bogus claim of Jewish ancestry: the claim of Rep. George Santos (R, NY) that his maternal grandparents were refugees fleeing the Holocaust.  Genealogical records disprove his assertion. Santos has doubled down, insisting that those are his family recollections, but his assertions have not been found convincing.  Matt Brooks, the chief executive of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that Brooks “deceived us and misrepresented his heritage” and would therefore not be welcome at the future events of that group.
            We are now reading the story of enslavement and Exodus. The Rabbis comment that, when we tell the story of the birth of our nation to our own children, we start with the shameful and conclude with the praiseworthy.  What they meant was that we start with the honest admission that our ancestors had been enslaved--- that admission was considered shameful in ancient times. 
             Today, we should own that, even though we reject the imputation of shame. Our ancestry matters.  But ancestry is not as a fact in isolation.  We need to go, as the Rabbis put it, “From shame to praise”--- I would rephrase that by saying that we need to go from the mere assertion of who our ancestors were to the embrace of their best values as guideposts for our lives. 
             It is not enough to claim Abraham and Sarah as your first father and mother. You must also strive to be their worthy descendant.