The Jewish Outlook

The Confluence of Science and Religion: Interview with Jon Entine

by Juli Berwald

The relationship between science and religion is a challenging one. As Rabbi David Nelson, one of the authors interviewed for this article put it “both religion and science have a hard time with humility.” Fundamentally, science and religion exist to help us understand more about the world. However, the paths by which the two attempt to reach these goals can be very different, and at times in conflict.

This year’s Austin Jewish Book Fair is packed with compelling events. Surely, one of the most interesting is bound to be the night in which the connections between science and religion are discussed. Jon Entine, the author of Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People, harnesses the genetic code to clarify issues of individual identity and the identity of the Jews.

The question of Jewish identity is a daunting one, what made you decide to tackle it?

I have always been interested in the interface and genetics and identity. This led me to explore the issue of black dominance of sports in my previous book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About.

One of the most fun chapters in that book, and one of the more provocative discussed an idea that was prominent in the 1920’s through 1940’s: that of the scheming, flashy, trickiness of Jews. During those times Jews were not only very involved in sports, they actually dominated sports. The top basketball teams of the times were the Philadelphia Hebrews and the New York Celts, which had a number of Jews who dominated  the team. This dominance of Jews in sports, led to discussion of whether genetic factors stereotypically assigned to Jews, such as trickiness and sneakiness, helped them excel at sports. The idea of how much of a person’s behavior is due to genetics and how much is cultural became fascinating to me.

On the heels of these journalistic explorations, a family crisis made the question of the genetic identity of the Jews personal. The discovery of a breast cancer mutation in my family lit a fire in my own sense of identity. In one year, my mother, my grandmother and my aunt all died of either breast cancer or ovarian cancer. In 2002, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had genetic tests done and we learned that rather than considering her cancer bad luck of the draw, as we had with my mother, aunt and grandmother, we learned that my sister’s cancer was linked to a genetic mutation. [This mutation is found more commonly in Jews than non-Jews.]

All of a sudden, I realized that members of my family were branded as Jews in our very genetic make-up.  I found out that I had the mutation myself and I may pass it on to my daughter. So here I was carrying a marker that says, “You are Jewish and it’s genetic.” I felt that I needed to start looking into what that means.

You don’t seem to shy away from controversial subjects. Do you see this book as a controversial one?

People who have a political agenda can turn it into a controversial book. I see it as a journey using the DNA time machine. If you are interested in the history that underlies the three major religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, then there is no controversy.

I think there will be a coterie of what I call “genetic cultural fundamentalists,” who will go after the book. They may say that I am “resurrecting the race concept” but geneticists have put this back on the front burner. We are not just a collection of individuals, we are a collection of groups.

Look at the Human Genome Project. Phase 1 came out and said, “We are all alike.” Now the second phase has come out and it says, “We are all different.” Advances are going to come by looking at differences. We know that one group tends to get Tay Sachs, another Sickle cell anemia and a third breast cancer. When we understand why these different groups get these diseases we will make progress in treating them. I recognize that pursuing this superficially will open a Pandora’s box of race. But I really believe we need to develop a vocabulary to understand and discuss these ideas.

Do discussions of Jewish identity have any place in discussions of Jewish spirituality?

Judaism is different than almost any other religion today because it is the only surviving tribal based religion. Twenty-five hundred years ago almost all regions were tribal. All the other religions except for Judaism died out. Judaism always included a sense of who you are as well as what you believe.

I see spirituality as something that touches on issues of who you are and something that involves deep feelings of where you came from. In my book, I discuss Christians who never questioned their faith in religion and then they find out they have Jewish ancestry. This fact touches them deeply because it connects them to their own history and their sense of their place in the world. This sense of deep connections to history is a walking definition of spirituality.

What is the major message you hope people walk away with after they read this book?

Jews are better basketball players than anyone else [Laugh].

No, I think there are two major messages from the DNA revolution. One, we are profoundly different from each other. We are very unique in who we are. Two, there are a lot of similarities among us, as Jews, as Israelis, as Americans. The challenge is to come up with a vocabulary to discuss these differences and group similarities and not be threatened by either story.

Austin Jewish Book Fair’s  Four Questions For Jon Entine

1. What is your favorite word?
Maddie – my daughter’s name

2. What is your favorite book?
Advertisements For Myself, which is an early book by Norman Mailer. It’s about writing and it influenced me a lot in how I think about the world, and writing, and how I present ideas so that people take them seriously and discuss them.

3. Who is your favorite author?
Norman Mailer

4. If you were to walk by a burning bush and God were to call out to you, what would you say?
Can you make sure my daughter gets into an Ivy League school (or The University of Texas) and that I have the income to pay for it?
P.S. Buy my book.

Juli Berwald is a science writer and one of the co-chairs of the Austin Jewish Book Fair.