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D’var Torah for my Bat Mitzvah

June 15th, 2014 · by Cyndi · No Comments

This is the drosh, the Torah commentary, I wrote for my Bat Mitzvah on June 14, 2014.  My Torah portion was Sh’lakh L’kha, specifically Numbers 15:14-16.

I gave a shorter, and less technical version, at the actual service.  The only changes were to the genetics portion in the beginning (I also did not read anything in boxes).  Below is the full version, with appropriate links.

D’var Torah
Cyndi Norwitz
June 14, 2014

Today I am a woman!

Yesterday I was a woman. And the day before that. And so on back nearly 35 years. Still, today means something. It doesn’t change who I am physically, but it does change me.

Today I am a Jew!

I’ve been a Jew my whole life. So were my parents. And their parents. And their parents. And back as far as my genealogy hobby *cough* obsession can take me. Today though, I’m a different Jew. A year of study and the accomplishments of this ceremony mean something. I’m not more Jewish, but I am more Jewish.

The stories my family told me are that I am Jewish all the way back. DNA tests confirm that. 94-100% [spoken version: nearly 100%], depending on the algorithms. After the initial influx into Europe about 1-2000 years ago, Jews have been mostly marrying each other to the point that “Jewish” shows up as separate as Italian or Finnish. You can’t tell one Jew from another though. Even Ashkenazi vs Sephardic is hard. A Jew from Romania looks like a Jew from Latvia. We just moved around too much. When you look to see which populations this “Jewish” group matches best, it’s not other Europeans. It’s non-European Jews, Palestinians, Druse, and other folks from the Middle East.

One way to get more precise is to look at the paternal line (through Y-DNA) or the maternal line (through mt, or mitochondrial, DNA). Each of us gets our mtDNA from our mothers, and only women can pass it on. [Beginning of section I removed, see end of page for replacement text.]  Every generation gets exactly the same sequences. Except sometimes, every few thousand years, there is a mutation. Those mutations allow us to track groups through time by location.

Imagine two sisters. One has identical mtDNA to her mother and passes it on to her daughters, and their daughters. The other sister has a single letter in the DNA that is different, a mutation. She passes that on to her daughters and their daughters. Those two groups are related but no longer the same. Repeat the process over hundreds of generations and you will end up with dozens of groups, each differing from the other by a small handful of mutations. Some of the groups migrate, then split up and migrate again, and you end up with different mtDNA’s all over the world.

My mtDNA is U6a7a1b. The U’s were one of the early splits in human history, after a bunch of us left Africa 60-70,000 years ago. A group of U’s moved from Western Asia into Europe. About 35,000 years ago, U’s split up. The ones that stayed in Europe became the U5’s. U2’s moved into India. The ones that went back to Northern Africa are my people, the U6’s.

Over the next 30,000 years, the branch of my maternal ancestors split another 5 times, mostly within the Maghreb, Northern Africa west of Egypt. My branch became Jewish and eventually moved to Spain. With the Inquisition 500 years ago, this branch, now Sephardic, spread over Europe, back to Africa and the Middle East, and to the Americas. The furthest back I can take my maternal line, the line I have the least information about, is to my great grandmother Hermina Goldberger of Kosice, Slovakia. I am the only known U6a7a1b from Slovakia outside my immediate family. [end of section I removed]

Years before present
U6 35300
U6a 26200
U6a7 Maghreb 29000
U6a7a 7600
U6a7a1 4700
U6a7a1b Sephardic 1400
“On mtDNA grounds, it is known that after the Out of Africa migration around 59–69 kya [thousand years ago], the U branch of macro-haplogroup N spread radially from somewhere in western Asia around 39–52 kya. This reached Europe, signaled by haplogroup U5, North Africa by haplogroup U6, and India by haplogroup U2. Coalescence age for U5 correlates closely with the spread of Aurignac culture in Europe and, from an archaeological perspective, it has been argued that Central Asia, not the Levant, was the most probable origin of this migration.  In absolute agreement with this vision, we propose that, in parallel, U6 reached the Levant with the intrusive Levantine Aurignacian around 35 kya, coinciding with the coalescence age for this haplogroup.”From: The history of the North African mitochondrial DNA haplogroup U6 gene flow into the African, Eurasian and American continents. BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014

 

So how did my maternal ancestors become Jewish in the first place? One theory, not that we can ever prove or disprove it, is that we were part of the “mixed multitudes.” Torah, in Exodus 12:38, says that as the children of Israel left Pharaoh, “And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle.” The word for mixed multitude, עֵרֶב רַב (Erev’rav) even shares a root with Maghreb. Related also to words for west, evening, and mixed grill.

The mixed multitudes get a bad rap. We see the term again in Numbers 11:4 when the people had nothing but manna to eat. “And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting; and the children of Israel also wept on their part, and said: ‘Would that we were given flesh to eat!’”

But are these the same people? “Mixed multitudes” in Exodus, sometimes translated as “rabble” or “many other people” or “hoard,” is עֵרֶב רַב (Erev’rav). But in Numbers it’s הָאסַפְסֻף (asafsuf), sometimes translated as “some foreigners,” “foreign rabble,” “contemptible people,” “the vulgar,” and “riff-raff.” The root, אָסַף (asaf) means gather. So asafsuf means a gathering or assembly.

The asafsuf aren’t the mixed multitudes as most Rabbinic commentators assume, but rather, as one modern commentator puts it “charismatic Israelite trouble-makers.” So when God gets fed up with the kvetching and punishes the asafsuf with a plague, God isn’t killing off the outsiders, but the Jews keeping the people from God’s plan.

We have a similar story in this week’s portion. Twelve men representing the 12 tribes of Israel go out to spy upon the land of Canaan and 10 of them come back thinking the entire venture is a bad idea. Their crime isn’t their fear of failure, but the dissent they spread among the people through “evil reports.” God kills them off with a plague and everyone else gets an extra 40 years of wandering in the desert.

“Erev” is in the Torah 10 times. With the exception of “mixed multitude” from Exodus, every use refers to the warp and woof of weaving. Specifically to the woof, the thread drawn through the warp yarns to make cloth. When applied to people, most commentators take this to refer those of mixed heritage. Not quite Jews perhaps, but family they could not leave behind.

The only other time we see “Erev” in the Bible is Nehemiah (13:3), where it is translated again as “mixed multitude” and clearly refers to people engaging in intermarriage and their children. It’s a bit of an understatement to say Nehemiah hates intermarriage—he curses Jewish men who married non-Jewish women. He pulls out their hair, even kills some of them. Many commentators cite this passage as proof that God is against intermarriage too. Nehemiah doesn’t compromise; he wants Jews to marry other Jews, period. But what he’s going on about is the effects intermarriage often has: people stop obeying God’s laws. They work on Shabbat, they fail to give their tithes to the Levites, and they don’t teach their children Hebrew.

We see this throughout the Torah as well. Plenty of non-Jews marry Jews (Moses’ wife Zipporah is but one example) and God is fine with it. But others cause problems. The difference is in their behavior, not their birth. My Torah portion today (Numbers 15:14-16) says “the same Torah and justice shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you.” In other words, if you live with the Jewish people, you have to follow the same laws. And if you do that, you’re the same as us. And if you break God’s laws on purpose, “whether [you] be home-born or a stranger…that soul shall be cut off from among [your] people.”

Ezekiel (47:21-23) tells that when the Jews came to their land they should divide it by tribe.  “This is the territory you are to divide among the tribes of Israel. You are to divide it by lot as an inheritance both to you and to the foreigners living among you who give birth to children living among you; for you they are to be no different from the native-born among the people of Israel — they are to have an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel. You are to give the foreigner an inheritance in the territory of the tribe with whom he is living,’ says Adonai Elohim.”

 

And what is that word “stranger?” It is not the erev, the mixed multitudes, or the asafsuf, the gatherings, but something completely different. Here it is גֵּר(ger) and it is mentioned dozens of times throughout the Bible. We were strangers in Egypt but, by the time of the Exodus, we were no longer strangers yet strangers lived among us. The verb form is often translated as “sojourn” but it is different from mere traveling. The contrast is between a stranger and one who is “home-born.” So a stranger is an immigrant, an alien. Their children are no longer strangers. And children are the point…a ger is someone who isn’t just visiting; they plan to stay. They are converts.

Leviticus (19:34) says “the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

 

Jews, like nearly every other population on this planet, often married their neighbors.  European Jews look different from Indian Jews who look different from Ethiopian Jews.  Each group looks more like their neighbors, but still has more in common with other Jews than those neighbors.  I may look Eastern European to a large degree but, when I look at my many thousands of DNA matches over several different companies, matches that generally don’t show up if more than 6-10 generations back, I don’t match a single non-Jew without significant Jewish ancestry, not one. But I match nearly every European Jew I come across, regardless of ancestral location, usually through both my mother’s and my father’s lines; even my husband and I are 7th cousins.

Throughout Torah and Haftorah we have countless examples of Jewish men marrying non-Jewish women and bringing them into the community.  This bears out historically too.  It’s not just Jews; we see “erev,” mixture, in nearly every population on this planet.  We have periods of just marrying ourselves too.  No geographic isolation to explain it here, just political.  The initial influxes of (mostly male) Jews to Europe with the Romans 2000 years ago, as well as immigrations a bit later, involved much intermarriage.  And this shows up in deep analysis of DNA as well as our looks.  After that, until the 20th century, intermarriage was rare.  Jews throughout most of Europe were limited in where we could live or in our professions.  We often had to wear distinctive clothing and were frequently kicked out of towns or entire countries, invited back, then kicked out again as regimes changed.

Through it all, we chose Judaism.  If our spouses were not Jewish, they chose to be a part of our community.  We taught Judaism to our children, and their children.  Certainly, many Jews left.  They converted or lived with the community of a non-Jewish spouse.  Some Jews converted by force and Judaism was lost over the generations.  Some just drifted away.

Somehow, over thousands of years, we still exist as a people.  We’ve survived oppression, genocide, and periods of calm with intermarriage and children who barely know they are Jewish.  One phrase we sometimes hear is that Jews are the “chosen people.”  Certainly many Jews see this as a badge of superiority.  Many others simply excise the language.  But I want to embrace it.  There are multiple paths to God.  Some evil, some unjust.  But many valid, righteous, paths.  We as Jews are chosen to take our particular path.  The path I was born to.  The path I chose voluntarily years ago.  The path I traversed with a year of study to bring me to my bat mitzvah today.  I am chosen.  And I choose Judaism.

 

Alternate text I read during the service June 14, 2014:

The stories my family told me are that I am Jewish all the way back. DNA tests confirm that, nearly 100%. After the initial influx into Europe about 1-2000 years ago, Jews have been mostly marrying each other to the point that “Jewish” shows up as separate as Italian or Finnish. You can’t tell one Jew from another though. Even Ashkenazi vs Sephardic is hard. A Jew from Romania looks like a Jew from Latvia. We just moved around too much. When you look to see which populations this “Jewish” group matches best, it’s not other Europeans. It’s non-European Jews, Palestinians, Druse, and other folks from the Middle East.

One way to get more precise is to look at the paternal line (through Y-DNA) or the maternal line (through mt, or mitochondrial, DNA). Each of us gets our mtDNA from our mothers, and only women can pass it on. After leaving Africa, my maternal line went to Western Asia, briefly to Europe, then settled in Northern Africa, mostly within the Maghreb, Northern Africa west of Egypt. My branch became Jewish and eventually moved to Spain. With the Inquisition 500 years ago, this branch, now Sephardic, spread over Europe, back to Africa and the Middle East, and to the Americas. The furthest back I can take my maternal line, the line I have the least information about, is to my great grandmother Hermina Goldberger of Kosice, Slovakia.

Sources:

Categories: Family Life · Genealogy · Judaism · Religion & Holidays · Shabbus · Writings
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