Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On the concept of the Jewish people

Daniel Kaufman wrote a piece last month on his new blog Apophenia about religion without spirituality. He talks specifically about his particular liberal take on Jewish religion and culture and relates the notion of Jewish identity not so much to the religious side of Judaism in the sense of beliefs but rather to its rituals and conventions and to Jewish nationhood.

In the comment thread I raised a couple of questions, one about his notion of the Jewish people.

"I can see," I wrote, "that one can identify with the experience of more recent generations but doesn't it get a bit problematic when one imagines that one's "nationhood" traces back thousands of years in more than a mythical way?

"And then there is the problem of deciding who exactly is a member of the Jewish people and who is not. I, like many with British and European ancestry, have Jewish ancestors. There seems to be an arbitrariness about the Jew/non-Jew distinction if it is seen as clear-cut [unless of course one is using the word in a purely religious sense to designate individuals who identify with particular congregations or forms of Judaism]; and an unsatisfactoriness about seeing people as being more or less Jewish (especially in genetic terms)...

"... There are some perceptions of Jewish identity which appear to me on the one hand to give too much credence to the Biblical accounts as history and on the other to incorporate unrealistically strong claims to genetic continuity over the entire span of the tradition. (Or traditions? I tend to see Jewish culture as extremely variegated, more as a kind of patchwork, interacting with and contributing to various other traditions and cultures.)"

Daniel Kaufman's approach draws more on cultural and psychological rather than on strictly historical factors. But, as I suggested in the discussion, the (degree of) historical grounding of the Biblical narratives upon which Jewish culture and religion are built matters; it makes a difference.

He replied first by conceding that the concept of the Jewish people is not amenable to a clear, analytical definition, referring to it as a Wittgensteinian "family-resemblance" type of concept. Would this not, however, render the concept insufficiently determinate, insufficiently robust to do the work he wants it to do?

In a final comment, he more directly addresses my historical concerns, acknowledging that tracing the Jewish people back beyond the Roman era is rather problematic because of the lack of independent sources. He identifies with the tradition of Rabbinic Judaism which, deriving from the Pharisaic tradition, developed in the diaspora after the Roman era.

There are a couple of issues which I would like to pick up on, so here are a few further thoughts...

Firstly, as I suggested above, I see Judaism and Jewish culture more generally as being far from homogeneous. It changed over time (as all cultures do) and at any given time has been more or less variegated. At the time of Jesus, for example, Judaism was clearly comprised of a variety of (competing) schools of thought and practice. In various ways, the Gospels, Acts, the Book of Revelation and Paul's letters provide compelling evidence for these but there is (even stronger) evidence also from many other sources, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls (which were the product of an extremist or radical community which rejected the religious and political status quo and lived a monastic type of life while awaiting an imagined war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness in which they would fight on the side of the angels of light). The figures of John the Baptist and Jesus may be seen to inhabit a similar radical space, though they rejected communal living.

Of course, the Pharisees figure prominently in the New Testament narrative as do the Sadducees (who apparently believed in the traditional Jewish concept of Sheol, rejecting the notion of the resurrection of the dead and indeed any notion of judgement after death). And Paul (or Saul of Tarsus) seems to have been a practitioner of a heterodox and mystical form of Judaism.

Another relevant issue is that, unlike today's versions, Judaism was a proselytizing religion during Roman times. In fact it was the energetic and successful missionary activities of the Jews which apparently precipitated an expulsion in 139 BC and another in AD 19. References to the Jewish expulsion from Rome in the Acts of the Apostles, Suetonius, Cassius Dio and (much later) Paulus Orosius all apparently refer to an edict of the Emperor Claudius (who ruled from 41-54) however.

Given, then, that many Roman Jews were converts and, given that the post-Roman diaspora communities were probably also associated with conversion activity (and widespread intermarriage with local people), it is no surprise that there is much confusion and controversy surrounding the question of Jewish ethnicity, much of it currently focussed on DNA studies and their interpretation.* No doubt a scientific consensus will form over time as more studies are done, but it is already clear that Jewish ethnicity is not and never will be amenable to a straightforward genetic test.

The central focus of Daniel Kaufman's post (which I did not directly address in my comments) relates to the broader question of whether one can have a (viable) religion without spirituality. This issue came up the other day in another exchange between him and me in the comment thread of a subsequent post, and I may have more to say about it in the future.

For now, let me just make two points.

The first relates to semantics. There is a question about whether the attenuated form of Judaism he describes remains a religion in any meaningful sense. Certainly he is employing a broader view of the religious and the sacred than the conventional one. And this is fine, but for the fact that we normally like to retain some kind of distinction between 'actual' religions and forms of life (like nationalism) which may well involve expressions of the same sorts of instincts as those traditionally associated with religion but which are not religions.

The second point relates to the question of whether or not such attenuated forms of religion are capable of sustaining themselves beyond a couple of generations. (My guess is that they are not.)


* I have touched on these issues before. For example, this post discusses (and links to) research which examines Ashkenazi lineages via mitochondrial DNA analysis. The findings were that the female lines derive predominantly from European rather than Levantine populations. (The four major and most of the minor Ashkenazi maternal lineages form clusters within descent lines that were established in Europe between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.)

Y DNA studies, on the other hand, have apparently shown that Ashkenazi Jews (here I am citing Wikipedia) "share more common paternal lineages with other Jewish and Middle Eastern groups than with non-Jewish populations in areas where Jews lived in Eastern Europe, Germany and the French Rhine Valley."

Mitochondrial and Y DNA are good for discovering deep ancestry but don't indicate the actual degree of relatedness between individuals: for this autosomal DNA or whole-genome analysis is required. Studies of the latter kind paint a very complex picture of regional variation with varying levels of commonality with host populations leading to increased scope for competing claims and interpretations. One surprising early result was that there appear to be very strong genetic links between Sephardi and Ashkenazi populations and non-Jewish Southern Europeans, especially modern Italians.

This is how the authors of the cited mtDNA study sum up the research into Ashkenazi origins and place their own work in relation to it:

"We are [...] faced with several competing models for Ashkenazi origins: a Levantine ancestry; a Mediterranean/west European ancestry; a North Caucasian ancestry; or, of course, a blend of these. This seems an ideal problem to tackle with genetic analysis, but after decades of intensive study a definitive answer remains elusive. Although we might imagine that such an apparently straightforward admixture question might be readily addressed using genome-wide autosomal markers, recent studies have proposed contradictory conclusions. Several suggest a primarily Levantine ancestry with south/west European admixture, but another concludes that the ancestry is largely Caucasian, implying a major source from converts in the Khazar kingdom. An important reason for disagreement is that the Ashkenazim have undergone severe founder effects during their history, drastically altering the frequencies of genetic markers and distorting the relationship with their ancestral populations.

"This problem can be resolved by reconstructing the relationships genealogically, rather than relying on allele frequencies, using the non-recombining marker systems: the paternally inherited male-specific part of the Y chromosome (MSY) and the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). This kind of analysis can be very powerful, because nesting of particular lineages within clusters from a particular geographical region allows us to pinpoint the source for those lineages, by applying the parsimony principle. This has indeed been attempted, with the MSY results interpreted plausibly to suggest an overwhelming majority of Near Eastern ancestry on the Ashkenazi male line of descent, albeit with much higher levels (more than 50%) of European (potentially east European) lineages in Ashkenazi Levites, suggesting a possible Khazar source in that particular case.

"The maternal line has also been studied, and indeed Ashkenazi mtDNAs are highly distinctive, but they have proved difficult to assign to a source population. Some progress has been made by targeting whole-mtDNA genomes or mitogenomes, which provide much higher genealogical (and therefore geographical) and chronological resolution than the control-region sequences used previously—although the far larger control-region database remains an invaluable guide to their geographic distribution. Using this approach, Behar identified four major founder clusters, three within haplogroup K—amounting to 32% of sampled Ashkenazi lineages—and one within haplogroup N1b, amounting to another 9%. These lineages are extremely infrequent across the Near East and Europe, making the identification of potential source populations very challenging. Nevertheless, they concluded that all four most likely arose in the Near East and were markers of a migration to Europe of people ancestral to the Ashkenazim only ~2,000 years ago. The remaining ~60% of mtDNA lineages in the Ashkenazim remained unassigned to any source, with the exception of the minor haplogroup U5 and V lineages (~6% in total), which implied European ancestry.

"Here we focus on both major and minor founders, with a much larger database from potential source populations..."

Their conclusion: "... Overall, we estimate that most (more than 80%) Ashkenazi mtDNAs were assimilated within Europe. Few derive from a Near Eastern source, and despite the recent revival of the ‘Khazar hypothesis’, virtually none are likely to have ancestry in the North Caucasus. Therefore, whereas on the male side there may have been a significant Near Eastern (and possibly east European/Caucasian) component in Ashkenazi ancestry, the maternal lineages mainly trace back to prehistoric Western Europe. These results emphasize the importance of recruitment of local women and conversion in the formation of Ashkenazi communities, and represent a significant step in the detailed reconstruction of Ashkenazi genealogical history."