Rabbi says that DNA testing could reveal millions of people with lost Jewish roots
Recent advances in DNA testing are the final stage in bringing about a special vision of Messiah, one that will fulfill God’s promise to Abraham while uniting all three major Abrahamic religions, believes a prominent rabbi and former member of Knesset.
“This is the special function of the final generation before the Messiah, which we are clearly in right now: to bring close all the descendants of Jews that were lost to the Jewish people,” Rabbi Chaim Amsalem, a prominent Sephardi rabbi, recognized authority on halacha (Torah law), and former Knesset member for Shas, told Breaking Israel News.
“We need to bring close those who have their roots in Israel, those souls who stood at Mount Sinai with us, but their souls were lost to us because of the exiles and the catastrophes and tragedies that befell us throughout history.”
Making God One
DNA testing graphically illustrates how mankind is one large interconnected family. Rabbi Amsalem understands this universal reality to have repercussions for the Jewish role in bringing the Redemption.
“Christians believe in Hashem (God), each branch in its own way. Even the Muslims believe in Hashem in their own way. It is the Jews’ purpose to bring about Messiah by uniting the world in the service of Hashem,” Rabbi Amsalem said, quoting a verse in Zechariah.
And Hashem shall be King over all the earth; in that day shall Hashem be One and His name one. Zechariah 14:9
“Not to convert them,” the rabbi noted. “But anyone who discovers that they are descended from Jews, we are required to help them. The non-Jews will remain as they are, but we have to reconnect to those souls that were lost.”
Rabbi Amsalem based this on chapter 34 in Ezekiel.
The weak have ye not strengthened neither have ye healed that which was sick neither have ye bound up that which was broken neither have ye brought back that which was driven away neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force have ye ruled over them and with rigour. Ezekiel 34:4
The task set out by Rabbi Amsalem, inconceivable just a few short years ago, is at hand. A simple DNA test is performed at home with a cheek swab, which is then mailed to a laboratory. For less than $200, anyone can learn their ancestry going back six generations – including if they have any Jewish genes.
Bennett Greenspan, president and CEO of Family Tree DNA, a leading genetic testing company, has watched this phenomenon grow for 15 years. His company performs hundreds of thousands of these tests each year. Greenspan explained to Breaking Israel News how the test determines Jewish ancestry.
“We compare the subject’s DNA with those of verified DNA databases that have been established for specific ethnic groups, “Greenspan explained. “These databases are based on hundreds of thousands of samples and the level of certainty is extremely high. We can tell you what percentage of your ancestors were from different ethnic groups.
“We have a database of DNA for people who are verifiably Ashkenazi Jewish, or verifiably Sephardic Jewish,” Greenspan told Breaking Israel News.
With DNA testing becoming so accessible, the number of people discovering their Jewish roots is growing exponentially. Some tests show that almost 20 percent of people originating from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) have a high rate of Jewish ancestry. About one in ten Hispanics from North and South America tested by Family Tree DNA showed Semitic ancestry, strongly suggesting a Jewish background.
Jewish roots are showing up in the most unexpected places. Professor Tudor Parfitt, a British historian who specializes in the study of Jewish communities around the world, found the Kohen modal haplotype, frequently called the Cohen gene, in nine percent of the Lemba tribe in Africa.
Greenspan noted that DNA testing in Europe is revealing the Jewish roots of children hidden during World War II who were previously unaware of their true identities.
Greenspan, as a Jew, understands this as an imperative for the Jewish people in this generation.
“I have seen so many tears in the faces of those who were ripped away from the body of Judaism by hatred, fear, distortion and outright lies,” said Greenspan. “Bringing any of those people, these lost souls, back to Judaism is a mitzvah (Torah commandment) and should be considered an obligation of our generation.”
Rabbi Amsalem noted the urgency of connecting to people with Jewish ancestry. “We will never be at peace in our land until we perform this function, of bringing everyone together to serve Hashem, each in their own right,” Rabbi Amsalem said.
Finding Abraham’s Seed: The Biblical Promise
As the co-author of the book, “Do you have Jewish roots?”, and the founder of Shavei Israel, Michael Freund is intensely interested in genetic testing. He has been searching the far corners of the globe for almost 20 years, trying to find people with roots in Israel in order to help them reconnect to the Jewish People.
DNA testing has become one of the tools Freund uses in his search for communities around the world with ancestral connections to the Jewish people, but he recognizes its limits.
“DNA testing can be one factor that we consider as part of the big picture, but it is only one piece of the puzzle,” Freund explained. “We look at a broad range of factors, such as history, background, folklore and customs. Jewish identity is much more complex than the results you get in a petri dish.”
Freund predicted that advances in DNA technology “herald a global movement of return,” noting that this new wave of people discovering their Jewish ancestry may have a Biblical basis.
I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore. Genesis 22:17
“There are an estimated 14-15 million Jews in a world population of seven billion. That makes us a very miniscule drop in a very large bucket. So what happened to those promises made to the Biblical Patriarchs?” asked Freund. “Perhaps the answer is that there are a lot more of us out there than we realize and maybe DNA technology will encourage many non-Jews with Jewish ancestry to reconnect with their Jewish roots, and encourage other Jews to return to the fold.”
Status Versus Identity
Greenspan is careful to add a disclaimer about the significance of the results of genetic tests.
“We are not saying that the DNA proves Jewish status,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. We can scientifically prove that a person has Jewish ancestors but that does not give them Jewish status. That has its own specific set of rules, and isn’t a result of scientific proof.”
According to Jewish law, Jewish status is matrilineal, transferred from the mother to her children. The child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother is not considered as having the status of a Jew.
Jewish status can also be the result of conversion. Therefore, the lack of Jewish ancestors does not mean a person is not Jewish, since a female ancestor could have converted to Judaism. Similarly, Jewish ancestry does not prove Jewish status, since a female ancestor may have converted to another religion.
Thus, a person can have the halachic status of being a Jew while not having the corresponding genetic identity. Or he can have Jewish ancestors, even on his mother’s side, and still not fulfill the halachic requirements of being a member of the tribe.
“It is certainly an important factor for identity,” he contended. “For the past 15 years, I have seen how it affects people when they discover Jewish roots they were previously unaware of. Their connection was buried due to our tortured history. People take a DNA test, find out they have Jewish ancestry, and become intellectually interested. Usually they become supporters of Judaism and Israel.”
Freund cautioned that the issue is complex. “Identity is important and it is very personal,” he said. “But it does not obligate society or the community to accept that identity or confer recognition or status. There are many people who, based on the result of a DNA test, mistakenly assumed that they were Jews, and mistakenly assumed on that basis they would be able to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel).”
According to Freund, Jewish identity is found in the soul as much as it is in the chromosomes.
“I think the Jewish spark can never be extinguished. It might be buried or hidden, but at some point it is going to burst forth,” Freund said. “I’ve heard from countless people who related that they always felt an inexplicable attraction or connection to the Jewish people, and after DNA testing showed a genetic connection, it answered that question for them.”