Geneticism and the Ongoing Search for Jewish Identity

Sunday, January 7, 2018: 10:00 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Mitchell Hart, University of Florida
Those who think about the implications of research into genetics speak of a “genetic self,” and of how genetics has become the key to understanding human nature. Accordingly, science is said to have replaced religion as the language with which we explain ourselves to ourselves. Is it any wonder, writes Paul Root Wolpe, “[t]hat we have relinquished the Bible to a new set of sacred letters, which, when rearranged in the right way, when interpreted by our revered experts…will create the perfect life, the perfect personality, the perfect society?”[1]

The genetic self, according to Wolpe, is an answer to the postmodern self. The genetic self is the essential self, “written into the genome” [221]. However, Jewish selfhood, for Wolpe, stands in healthy contrast to this strong genetic essentialism. “Jews have always understood that identity is chosen, is to some degree the product of moral choice” [223].

Have Jews always understood identity as something that is chosen? Have Jews always come down on the side of culture rather than biology? And does that really hold true today? Do Jews maintain a healthy suspicion or even repudiation of genetic essentialism? Or do many of them embrace genetics as a true and meaningful way of discovering, or perhaps constructing, a Jewish identity? What is it about “geneticism” that is so attractive? What needs does it fill? And how do we square this recent Jewish enthusiasm for geneticism with the history of racial, genetic, and eugenic thinking that played such a crucial role in modern anti-Semitism, Nazism, and the Holocaust?

[1] Paul Root Wolpe, “If I Am Only My Genes, What Am I? Genetic Essentialism and a Jewish Response,” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, v. 7, n. 3, 1997, 213-230, quote on p. 220.

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