The Genome Project

Bereishit By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 28, 2000 / 5761 | Torah Commentary

The genome project holds out the promise to alleviate some social as well as physical ills. This past summer the New York Times ran a long article in its weekly Science section (my favorite) to the effect that the noxious concept of race has no genetic foundation. Caucasians, Africans and Asians are genetically indistinguishable No more than .01 percent of our gene pool determines our external appearance, the basis on which we make racial distinctions. In contrast, many thousands of our 80,000 genes combine to produce such traits as intelligence, artistic talents and social skills.

The reason for this shared complement of genetic material is largely historical. Homo sapiens have not been around long enough to diverge genetically, not more than 7,000 generations. Apparently our ancestors originated in Africa between 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. And when they migrated in small numbers to settle in other continents, they carried with them only a limited amount of genetic variation. In consequence, we humans are remarkably homogeneous, “differing” from one another only once in a thousand subunits of genome.

In other words, racial distinctions are creatures of culture rather than nature. How much misbegotten effort has been expended over the past century and-a-half to ground our prejudices in science and how much harm have we inflicted on those deemed objectively inferior! Racially, what separates us is literally skin deep; what unites us is essential and pervasive.

These days because of the assaults by proponents of creationism against the teaching of evolution, science and religion have again been thrown into a manufactured, primitive conflict. I cite the challenge of genome research to racial thinking to show what Judaism has long appreciated: that science is an ally rather than a threat because it enhances our awareness of God’s infinite grandeur. In this instance, science dramatically reinforces the unity of the human family enunciated in the opening chapter of the Torah and exquisitely elaborated by the Rabbis.

There is nothing self-evident about explaining the bracing reality of human diversity in terms of a single common ancestor. In a world of myths populated by many deities, the origins of humanity could be imagined in sundry ways. For the Torah, human life springs from the formation of one generic couple culminating the order of creation. And this point is regarded of such supreme importance that it is repeated three times in the first five chapters (Genesis 1:27, 2:7, 18 ff., 5:1-2). We are even provided with a family tree that runs from Adam to No·ah to underscore our ultimate interconnectedness (ch. 5). Genealogy is meant to deliver a moral message.

From those strands, encoded with the unity of humankind, the Rabbis wove an extraordinary tapestry to celebrate our shared humanity. The locus of this discourse was to be a court of law sitting in a capital case. Prior to giving testimony, witnesses were reminded of the gravity of capital punishment. Speculation could lead to the taking of an innocent life. The Mishna, accordingly, provides the court with a panoply of moral lessons from which to choose its admonishment of the witnesses (Mishna Sanhedrin, 4:4).

The first lesson imbedded in the opening chapter of Genesis is that all human life is of absolute and ultimate value. At one time humanity consisted of no more than one man and one woman. To have killed either would have ended all of human existence. No matter how many of us live today, the taking of a life must still be seen as the moral equivalent of destroying the whole world. We must cultivate our moral imagination to value human life in terms of its original precariousness, much like seeing the baby they once were in each homeless man or woman seeking our help.

Secondly, our common origins contribute to human harmony. None of us in pique or pride can claim to have come from better stock. We are fated to be equal. The Talmud adds that the present strife among families and nations would be still further exacerbated if we could throw into the mix that some of us are descended from more noble ancestors than others (B.T. Sanhedrin 38a).

Thirdly, creation in the singular promotes the belief that all existence owes its state of being to but one grand and incomprehensible creator God. The appearance of human life in different corners of the world might have given rise to the simple-minded notion that each human cluster is the initiative of another deity. Monotheism is affirmed by a single primogenitor.

And finally, the infinite variety to be found in humankind offers a glimpse of God’s unfathomable majesty. In a striking analogy, the Mishna speaks of a die used by a mint to produce coins that are all identical. In Adam and Eve, God also created a die from which all human beings would be minted. But unique to God’s die is the mystery that not one human being resembles another. Each is endowed with its own individuality. Even the most powerful monarch can do no more than forge a die whose content never varies.

This nugget of rabbinic theology profoundly expands the universalism inherent in the first chapter of Genesis. It puts forth a view of humanity as encompassing as its view of God. Every human being is of ultimate worth, equal value and unique individuality. And what could be more appropriate than to remind ourselves of this ethical vision in the midst of trying a capital case?

But what strikes me as most noteworthy is finding the nugget in a rabbinic text edited around 200 C.E., after the disastrous failure of three momentous uprisings against Roman rule, two in Palestine in 66 C.E. and 132 C.E. and in much of the Diaspora in 115 C.E. Despite the destruction of the Temple, the loss of life and property and the ensuing despair, the Mishna did not excise from its statutes its identification with the rest of humanity. In an act of self-transcendence, Judaism tried to prevent national humiliation from compromising its theological universalism. And the validity of that defiant posture is now confirmed for us from the unexpected quarter of the genome project.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’reishit are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.