26 Oct 2018

What Elizabeth Warren’s DNA Test Teaches Us about Jewish Identity


Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Cherokee ancestry – and by implication nationhood (though that’s something she has recently retracted) – got me thinking about what makes a Jew a Jew.

Before I get into that question, here’s a rough summary of her story:

Warren is the senior Democratic senator to Massachusetts. Her claims to Native American blood have been mocked by President Trump and others and so, in an effort to verify her claim, she underwent a DNA test.

On October 15, 2018, the Boston Globe broke the story of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test. Annie Linskey wrote that she had, “released a DNA test that provides ‘strong evidence’ she had a Native American in her family tree dating back 6 to 10 generations, an unprecedented move by one of the top possible contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president…Warren…provided the test results to the Globe on Sunday in an effort to defuse questions about her ancestry that have persisted for years.[1] The analysis of Warren’s DNA was done by Carlos D. Bustamante, a Stanford University professor and expert in the field…”

Partisan Reception by Left- and Right-Leaning Media Outlets

The Left embraced the news as proof of her claim to be Cherokee. The Right mocked it.

What are the facts?

6-10 generations back means she’s between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American, or 0.01 to 0.0009 percent. Quite a microscopic spec to say the least. In fact, at best she’s whiter than the average American of European descent who according to this study is 0.18 percent Native American. Furthermore the study was based on DNA samples from Mexico, Peru, and Colombia rather than for the Native American ancestry she claims.[2]

What do Members of the Cherokee Nation Think?

Left and Right aside, the Cherokee Nation of which she claims ancestry itself pushed back with a statement in response to her DNA test claiming Native Heritage (italics mine):

“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

Elizabeth Warren Responded to the Cherokee Denunciation of her Claim:

Elizabeth Warren responded to the Cherokee Nation’s statement via Twitter, rolling back any claim to nationhood despite having contributed to a cookbook called “Pow Wow Chow” where she listed herself as “Cherokee” and, as the Globe reported in April, “being listed as a minority in the American Association of Law Schools directory and that Harvard Law School had touted her supposed lineage when the program faced doubts about faculty diversity.”

Warren said, “I won’t sit quietly for @realDonaldTrump’s racism, so I took a test. But DNA & family history has nothing to do with tribal affiliation or citizenship, which is determined only – only – by Tribal Nations. I respect the distinction, & don’t list myself as Native in the Senate.”

So where does the conversation arising from her results settle? She’s genetically uber-white despite the media spin of ‘strong evidence’ of the tribal ancestry she claims; ancestry is not synonymous with tribal affiliation and sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship (and tribal affiliation.)

What light does this discussion shed on Jewish religious-national-tribal-cultural identity? What do DNA; ancestry; heritage; legal conditions determined by a sovereign tribe and cultural engagement have to do with regard to being a member of the tribe of the Jews? (I’ll get to converts at the end.)

DNA Demonstrates Fascinating and Rare Relationships Amongst Jews but is Irrelevant in Determining Jewish Identity

Ancestors: What Constitutes Proof” is an interesting article, published on July 11, 2018 by Roberta Estes on her site “DNA Explained” wherein she presents what she requires to constitute proof of ancestry.

“Proof is not a Y DNA match, at least not without additional information or evidence, although it’s a great hint!” she says. Furthermore she wants “mitochondrial[3] DNA (mtDNA) to prove that the mother is the actual mother of the child.”

In light of her reliance more on maternal than paternal DNA, the research of Dr. Karl Skorecki and Michael Hammer conducted on Kohanim, members of the Jewish priestly tribe descended from the tribe of Levi and his descendent Aharon, the brother of Moses, is particularly interesting.

Science Daily shared the results of their second research paper originally published by the American Society For Technion, Israel Institute of Technology. The article, “Priestly Gene Shared by Widely Dispersed Jews” demonstrates genetic links among Jewish men thought to be descendants of the Biblical high priest Aharon.

An article on Aish, “The Cohanim-DNA Connection” by Rabbi Yaakov Kleiman tells the fascinating story of how Dr Skorecki initially came to conduct the initial research (italics and parentheses mine.)

“Dr. Karl Skorecki, a Cohen of Eastern European parents, was attending synagogue one morning. The Cohen called up for the Torah reading that morning was a Jew of Sephardic background, whose parents were born in North Africa.Dr. Skorecki looked at the Sephardi Cohen’s physical features and considered his own physical features.They were significantly different in stature, skin coloration and hair and eye color. Yet both had a tradition of being Cohanim, direct descendants of one man – Aharon, the brother of Moses…

“The Cohen line is patrilineal — passed from father to son without interruption for 3,300 years, or more than 100 generations.

“Dr. Skorecki considered, ‘According to tradition, this Sephardi Cohen and I have a common ancestor. Could this line have been maintained since Sinai, and throughout the long exile of the Jewish people?’… (His reasoning was that) if the Cohanim are descendants of one man, they should have a common set of genetic markers — a common haplotype — that of their common ancestor (Aharon.)

“The results of the (first) analysis of the Y chromosome markers of the Cohanim and non-Cohanim were indeed significant. A particular marker, (YAP-) was detected in 98.5 percent of the Cohanim, and in a significantly lower percentage of non-Cohanim…

“In a second study, Dr. Skorecki and associates gathered more DNA samples and expanded their selection of Y chromosome markers. Solidifying their hypothesis of the Cohens’ common ancestor, they found that a particular array of six chromosomal markers was found in 97 of the 106 Cohens tested. This collection of markers has come to be known as the Cohen Modal Hapoltype (CMH) – the standard genetic signature of the Jewish priestly family. The chances of these findings happening at random is greater than one in 10,000.”

Yet despite these remarkably rare odds, having that “Cohen” Y gene would not necessarily mean you’re a Jew. That is because whereas Jewish tribal identity is patrilineal according to Torah, one’s Jewish identity is matrilineal. In other words a man might have over 100 generations in a direct line of fathers descended from Aharon but if his mother were not Jewish, he would not be either.[4]

And what of the female chromosome Roberta Estes finds stronger than the male one?[5] The bottom line according to Orthodox Judaism is that DNA, regardless of percentage, is not an indicator of Jewishness even though research has shown the commonality of DNA amongst Jews.

Cultural or Religious Participation Doesn’t Make you Jewish

I once met a convert who received a gift from her grandmother which had been passed down to her from her gran’s own great-grandmother. She said something to the effect of, “Being that you’ve converted to Judaism, I thought you might want this document that has come into my possession from my ancestors.”  It was a ketuba, the marriage document of the convert’s great-great-grandmother. She was fifth in a line of women – her great-great-grandmother, her great-grandmother, her grandmother, her mother and then herself. She had gone through the process of conversion having been Jewish all along. She and any of her female ancestors or current relatives in a direct line of women[6] going back five generations likely kept nothing of Jewish law or tradition – at least consciously. Whereas they might have been charitable, hospitable and so on (all actions that are required by Jewish law,) they did not observe, or even know about Shabbat, kashrut, mikva, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and other Torah requirements. Yet this did nothing to their essential Jewishness.

Conversely, there are people who go through Reform or Conservative conversions who are not Jewish according to Orthodox Judaism. They might keep Shabbat, kashrut and other commandments specific to Jews. They might participate in Jewish cultural events and even feel an affiliation with the tribe and the Land of Israel. Yet without that Jewish mom, none of that would not make them Jewish.

Humanly Defined Legal Parameters of Tribal Affiliation Don’t Make You Jewish

Chuck Hoskin’s statement that, “Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation” is certainly valid for the Cherokee nation. But not so for Jews.

Just as people didn’t come up with the idea of marriage – G-d did, so too did the Jewish people not come up with the idea of nationhood – G-d did. We didn’t emerge in the way other nations have as a people in a land. In fact, to my knowledge, the Jews are the only people who became a nation (connected to a different geographical space) in exile.

In his book The Kuzari, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi explains this unique emergence of Jewish faith and nationhood. Having previously stated that, “The conditions which render a person fit to receive Divine influence do not lie within him…For this, inspired and detailed instruction is necessary…Whosoever strives by speculation and deduction to prepare the conditions so as to receive this inspiration…is an unbeliever,” the ‘conversation’ between the Rabbi and King of Kuzar continues.

The Kuzari askes, “Explain to me how your belief grew, how it spread and became general, how opinions united after having differed, and how long it took for the faith to lay its foundation and to be built up into a strong and complete structure. The first element of religion appeared, no doubt, among single individuals…Their number increases continually, they grow more powerful…”

To which the Rabbi responds, “In this way only rational religions, of human origin, can arise…A religion of Divine origin arises suddenly. It is bidden to arise, and it is there, like the creation of the world.”[7]

All this is to say that Jewish nationhood, being a member of the tribe, has its own unique parameters – those set by G-d Himself.

So What Makes a Jew a Jew?

Despite all that has been said about Jewish identity, becoming a member of the tribe is open! Although Judaism does not proselytize, if someone sincerely wants to become a Jew, the path is open. There is only one condition – that he or she take on the parameters set (not by other members, not by tribal leaders, not by any commonly agreed upon human standards but) by G-d, namely that that individual assume the obligations of Torah law.

As for any other claims to being Jewish, the only requirement is that your mom was too according to Torah law. You don’t have to join the JCC, pay for a High Holiday seat or keep the commandments (though of course both for G-d, oneself and continuity, the latter is ideal.) Our tribal identity is transmitted by our fathers, our Jewishness by our mothers. This is the true nature of our “heritage” – a Jewish identity that both comes and belongs to us by reason of birth from our Jewish mothers.

The Torah has kept us. It maintains our bonds. But our Jewishness precedes even Torah. This is why when G-d told Moses that He was considering wiping out the Jews under his leadership during their forty-year sojourn in the desert and starting afresh from Moses himself, the latter responded by saying he would rather G-d wipe him out from His Torah. Moses understood this secret of our identity, that Jews are rooted deeper in G-d than even the Torah itself. From there the tribe begins.

[1] Aside from her Twitter-feud with President Trump, there’s the question of whether she received personal and professional gain from the claim. The Boston Globe headline read, “Ethnicity not a Factor in Elizabeth Warren’s Rise in Law,” and states, “The Globe closely reviewed the records, verified them where possible, and conducted more than 100 interviews with her colleagues and every person who had a role in hiring decisions about Warren who could be reached. In sum, it is clear that Warren was viewed as a white woman by the hiring committees at every institution that employed her.” But even in the eyes of the Globe, things weren’t all that simple as evidenced in a Daily Wire article titled, “Boston Globe Busted Changing Headline of Big Report to Elizabeth Warren’s Benefit.” (Italics mine)

[2] The Globe article explains that, “Detecting DNA for Native Americans is particularly tricky because there is an absence of Native American DNA available for comparison. This is in part because Native American leaders have asked tribal members not to participate in genetic databases”

[3] Men have both and X and Y chromosome, women have only an X chromosome. Thus the X chromosome can be inherited from both father and mother: Women inherit two X chromosomes – one from their father and another from their mother, men inherit only one X chromosome from their mother and a Y chromosome from their father. Mitochondrial DNA (not synonymous with the X chromosome, is passed on exclusively by women. This means a woman can pass her mtDNA to grandchildren only by having daughters. It is the perfect tool to trace maternal lineages.

[4] The paper “Genetic citizenship: DNA testing and the Israeli Law of Return” by Ian V. McGonigle and Lauren W. Herman offers an academic and interesting analysis of the debate regarding DNA evidence when it comes to Israel’s Law of Return.

[5] A fascinating study published in The American Journal of Human Genetics, “The Matrilineal Ancestry of Ashkenazi Jewry: Portrait of a Recent Founder Event” presents a statistic that corroborates the Biblical account of the four matriarchs of the Jewish people. “Both the extent and location of the maternal ancestral deme from which the Ashkenazi Jewry arose remain obscure. Here, using complete sequences of the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), we show that close to one-half of Ashkenazi Jews, estimated at 8,000,000 people, can be traced back to only four women carrying distinct mtDNAs that are virtually absent in other populations, with the important exception of low frequencies among non-Ashkenazi Jews. We conclude that four founding mtDNAs, likely of Near Eastern ancestry, underwent major expansion(s) in Europe within the past millennium…”)) And yet, even if this gene were present in someone whose mother is not Jewish, that child would not be considered to be a Jew.

[6] Her great-great-grandmother’s son would also have been Jewish but if his wife was not, the line would have ended there – and the same applies to any male in the family whose offspring were born of a non-Jewish wife.

[7] In this light, Abraham’s personal search and realization of One Divine Being was just that – personal. The emergence of nationhood occurred in response to Divine revelation.