Traditional accounts of Jewish history, it would appear, are part true and part myth. Despite their dispersion in space and time, the Jews have continued to be that most curious (and in the eyes of many, preposterous) of combinations: at once a people or nation, fellow communicants in the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, and a family or tribe belonged to only by those born or married into it. They could not have remained such an amalgam had they not clung to strict rules of membership and admission.
Yet these rules were not observed everywhere or always. There were periods and places in which a blind eye was turned to them, most often when violations were not remediable. Had a rabbi arrived in Yemen or Bukhara soon after the founding of its Jewish community, he might have been able to insist on the halakhic conversion of its handful of Jews. But this would no longer have been practicable after several generations had gone by, especially since Yemenite and Bukharan Jews would have forgotten by then that their maternal progenitors were not halakhically Jewish and would have reacted with resentment to such a demand. Similarly, Khazars identifying themselves as Levites were accepted as such without inquiries into their past. It is an old rabbinic adage that one does not inflict demands on the public that the public is incapable of meeting. Better a tolerated myth than an intolerable truth.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
Hillel Halkin, who always has interesting things to say, discusses what the rather new science of genetic genealogy apparently tells us about the Jews. Bottom line: yes, the Jews came originally from the Middle East, just like they always said they did. But while they were away, there was a substantial amount of intermarriage with locals, whether through conversion, rape, or simple hanky-panky. Which isn't surprising either, human nature being what it is and always has been.