What does it mean to be a Jew today? What do Jews bring to the world today?
When I look at the Jews, I see continuity among people of different communities—Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, the Bukharan Jews from Central Asia—who remained apart for thousands of years. From a population geneticist’s point of view, to be Jewish today is to be a beautiful example of the process of descent with modification from a common ancestor. We not only share a common culture and religion, our genes tell us we share a common origin. One example is the special genetic marker of the Cohanim, the priestly class, which is represented by a unique Y chromosome lineage carried by Cohanim in different Jewish communities today that traces back to a common male ancestor over 100 generations ago. I’m not a Cohen but knowing this has an emotional impact on me. Our ancestors almost went extinct many times in history, so it’s amazing that Jews still exist today as a people. Our genetic heritage brings with it all the forces that shaped that struggle for survival. Genetic variation is influenced not only by chance but also by selective pressure. Whether you have what it takes to survive changes in the environment depends on what you carry with you, so in our genes and our culture, we carry the special talents we have as Jews. There are many explanations for this. Perhaps Jews, as a result of having evolved through the many near-extinctions and persecutions, had to be clever and outthink others to survive. Perhaps because Jews could not own land in many places in the past, they had to work with numbers and mental constructs and abstractions more than others. And, of course, our culture has always taught us the importance of education and studying. So what do we offer the world? We offer our unique brand of intelligence.
Michael Hammer is a population geneticist at the University of Arizona.
My father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, was once asked at a demonstration against the war in Vietnam, “What are you doing here?” My father replied, “I’m here because I can’t pray. Whenever I open the prayer book, I see images of children burning from napalm. How can I pray?” For me, that captures it. On the one hand, we have a need to pray. But if we’re able to pray easily when there’s so much suffering around us, it’s not really prayer. My father believed that prayer had to be subversive, that prayer should make you feel that you need to strive for something more. To be a serious Jew means you can’t be complacent. A life of kedusha means that we have to be concerned about humanity, about others who were also created in God’s image.
Susannah Heschel is a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College.
Madeleine May Kunin
We came to the United States when I was a child because my mother feared that Hitler would occupy Switzerland, as he had all the countries around it. Being a Jew in America is very different from being a Jew in any other country. Here, your religion is not your identity, at least from the viewpoint of other people. You are Madeleine Kunin, governor of Vermont, not the Jewish governor of Vermont. But when I returned to Switzerland as an ambassador, I was considered the Jewish American ambassador. There’s a difference. Jews offer the world diversity, intellect and ambition. We also offer a sense of history, particularly the lesson that silence in the face of injustice is never acceptable.
Madeleine May Kunin, a former governor of Vermont, is a professor at the University of Vermont.
What Jews have to offer the world right now is what we always have offered it, although the world has not always been willing to pay attention. We have a vast experience of oppression, of displacement, of a refusal to accept nonexistence. Jewish history, culture, theology and ethics have immense amounts to teach the world in terms of how majorities relate to minorities. They teach us how minorities come to understand themselves as being a model for the rest of the world, of being more exemplary as a result of lessons that either history or God has chosen to teach. The question is: Does our survival, which has always been a difficult proposition, mean that we’re exempt from our own moral codes when nobody else is following them?
Tony Kushner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.