Dvar Torah Lech Lecha 5777

By: Rabbi Gil Nativ

I was once invited by friends for lunch on Shabbat. Their other guest was an Orthodox Jew who worked as a physician at Soroka Hospital.  He explained why he could not set foot in my synagogue, where women go up and chant Torah or use their female voices to function as cantors, both practices are against Jewish Law.  I replied that I avoid praying in his Orthodox synagogue where women are ‘second class citizens’, stuck behind a curtain, with no active role in congregational life…  This table-talk ceased for a moment and then he sighed and said: “Something is wrong with our people. We never agree on anything! We cannot even pray together. No other people suffers from such internal rivalry”.  I hesitated and said: I am not sure if this diagnosis is correct. It seems that other nations are also engaged in harsh internal rivalries, sometimes even in bloody ‘civil wars’. However, let us assume that your observation is correct. Since you are a physician, and must have studied a course in Genetics, here is “my take” on this touchy issue:  Abraham married his ‘half sister’, i.e. He and Sarah have the same father*. His son, Isaac, marries his first cousin, Rebekka, and his grandson, Jacob, marries two first cousins (his mother’s nephews)… According to Genetics, Three consecutive generations of weddings within a family significantly increase the odds of giving birth to children suffering from physical and/or mental deficiency. It may very well be the reason why we, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, suffer from this ‘suicidal tendency’ of fighting with our own brethren… Moreover, we have been against “intermarriage” for the past 3000 years… May be it is time to reverse this traditional policy and encourage many non-Jews to convert and get married with our sons and daughters, in order to improve as much as possible our genetic health…

I must be honest with our Biblical heritage. This insistence of our forefathers to match-make only within their own family, ceased as soon as Jacob and Laban made a pact of disengagement, marking a border between their “territories” [Gen. 31:51-54]. Joseph, the beloved son, marries Osnat, an Egyptian woman. Judah, the ancestor of most Jews in the past 2500 years, married a Canaanite woman, and so did his son… We do not know who were the wives of the other 10 sons of Jacob, but in all likelihood they were Canaanites… Leviticus 18 warns against the sexuality of Egyptians and Canaanites: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt… …or the land of Canaan to which I am taking you” This warning is followed by a long list of Incest taboos and other prohibited carnal relations. The story of how the widow Tamar tempted her father in law, Judah [Gen.38] seems to indicate the sexual promiscuity of Canaanite women, but surprisingly the offspring of this illicit intercourse, Peretz, becomes the forefather of King David. Our beloved king David inherited the genes of both Tamar, a Canaanite woman, and Ruth, a Moabite woman…

In the course of reviewing our ancestry and origins of Jewish genetics I “spoiled” for you some of the surprising Biblical narratives that await us in future weekly portions, so I return to this weekly portion of Lech-lecha, in which Abram (not yet Abraham) departs from Haran (North-Eastern corner of Syria) with his wife “and the persons that they had acquired in Haran and they set out for the Land of Canaan” [12:5]. These persons (lit. “the souls”) they had acquired were most probably slaves and maidservants, but the Midrash claims that these were male and female converts, who had joined the new faith of Abram and Sarah. If these converts joined the first Hebrew family, why not have Isaac marry the daughter of one of these righteous converts? Obviously this midrash is anachronistic: the very concept of ‘conversion to Judaism’ originated several centuries after Abraham’s lifetime.  For a Haredi Jew there is a different explanation: It is an important mitzvah to encourage and welcome converts to Judaism, but a Jew whose great-grandparents were all born within the Jewish people will not allow his son or daughter to marry someone whose blood and genes are gentile, no matter how observant he/she is… Even someone who can record Jewish genealogy for centuries, but his/her mother lived as a secular Jew, and probably conceived a child without immersing in a Mikveh after menstruation, is not a decent “match” for his son or daughter…

I consider this approach ‘racist’, but I admit that it is a matter of definition of what is ‘racism’.  The objection to intermarriage with Canaanite nations has nothing to do with their ‘genealogy’ but rather with their pagan culture [Exod. 34:12-15]. Even Moabites and Amonites, whose genealogy began with a father having intercourse with his two daughters, are “forbidden” not due to corrupt genes, but rather “because they did not greet you with food and water on your journey when you left Egypt” [Duet. 23:5]

The different definitions of belonging have been struggling within us throughout our history. In the middle ages Rabbi Judah HaLevi was a strong advocate of the ethnic –genetic approach: You can only be born a Jew. If you are a Jew by Choice, you can only hope that your children will be assimilated (thru marriage with Jewish spouses) and acquire the inherent advantages of the Jewish genes.  Maimonides held a different approach: A non-Jew who accepts the Yoke of Heaven (faith) and the Yoke of Mitzvot (practice) becomes automatically the child of Abraham and Sarah, no matter what kind of genes he/she inherited from biological parents Unfortunately it seems that in recent generations HaLevi’s theology has the upper hand…

Many of the Polish people who have converted in recent years (under the auspices of the EUPJ Beit Din) are convinced that they have a Jewish grandparent, but have no way to prove it… I say to all of them: I care very little if you had a Jewish grandparent, but I care very much whether your grandchildren will be Jews…                    

*Commentaries explain that when Abraham said that Sarah was “my father’s daughter” [Gen. 20:12] he meant that Sarah was his niece.  This does not change my claim that for our three forefathers married only within their family.

 

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