Raphy’s Bogology: The genetics of conversion – to Judaism

“What is a bogologist?” This question was inserted into a search engine by one of my readers. Here is the answer

Akira in his comment on my post on Shlomo Sand exclaimed: “Jewishness is in the genes? How Nazi!” I riposted (which I repost here):

“Yes it is, Akira – except Jewish converts, one would imagine; and so is the lion’s share of your and my intelligence and much more genetically based. How Zani! (you might exclaim); anagrammatiically speaking. By the way, Theodor Herzl, the “founder” of Zionism said: “We [Jews] are an historical unit, a nation, with anthropological diversities.” The context was a reaction to Israel Zangwill’s view that the Jews were a race. (See Desmond Stewart’s “Theodor Herzl”, 1981, Quartet Books, p.210). Having said all this, it depends what you mean by JewishNESS, n’est-ce pas?”

I said that Jewishness is in the genes. By “Jewishness” I, of course, mean more than having done the hora (in church? with reference to Christian converts to Judaism) and loving Sophie Tucker. I also said that converts to Judaism don’t genetically qualify as Jews, one would imagine. I need to change that to “I would imagine” because there is at least one person who does imagine that converts to Judaism undergo some kind of biological change (I assume genetic change, unless one can change biologically without changing genetically – in this context).

In an article in “The Jerusalem Post” (Jun. 25, 2008) Nathan Lopes Cardozo writes:

“As the State of Israel and its rabbinical courts head toward a large-scale showdown concerning conversion, it is remarkable that not one of the participants, including the Orthodox, has considered this major, crucial question: Is conversion at all possible? This may sound like a rhetorical question since the answer is in the affirmative. Yet, logically speaking, conversion to Judaism should not be possible. Just as it is impossible for a Jew whose father is not a Kohen to become a Kohen, similarly, it should be out of the question for a gentile to become a Jew. Either one is born into a family of Kohanim, or one is not. Presumably, then, either one is born a Jew, or one is not. Yet, conversion to Judaism is possible. How?”

Cardozo has found what he says to be “authoritative” evidence provided by Michael Wyschogrod, in his book The Body of Faith. Wyschogrod maintains that when a gentile converts to Judaism, he or she does not merely share the beliefs of the new religion – as would be the case of a Jew converting to Christianity – but that the convert miraculously, and therefore literally, becomes the seed of Abraham and Sarah. The miracle is not totally biological but “quasi-biological.” How does this quasi-biological miracle occur? By immersion in a mikve (ritual bath), which “symbolizes” (is that why the miracle is only quasi?) the mother’s womb through which a person is born. Wysh to grod that this were true, but it seems, if not unseemly, uncalled for; for God can call forth sons of Abraham from the very stones if he wished – which I would think is a greater -and more likely miracle – than Wyshogrod’s. It’s unwise to rely on one’s Jewishness: “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8).

“Some Jews had the mistaken notion that God’s promise to be faithful to the seed of Abraham guaranteed their salvation no matter what. But John (the Baptist) calls them sons of the devil (vipers, Luke 3: 7) instead of sons of Abraham and says: Yes God will be faithful to Abraham’s seed, but your pride has blinded you to who Abraham’s seed really are—they are not every single physical descendant, but are people who, like Abraham, repent and bear the fruits worthy of repentance. God can create people like that out of these stones and leave you to judgment, and yet still be faithful to his promises” (John Piper).

See related post “How do you prove you’re a Jew?”