S.F. ethicists to ponder genes influence on Judaism

Some 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote "to thine own self be true," coining a truism. But now scientists are pondering the meaning of the word "self."

Following rapid advances in the field of genomics, some social scientists have begun asking the big question: How will age-old perceptions be affected by groundbreaking discoveries?

And as scientists decipher more and more genetic blueprints, what will they reveal about what it means to be black, Native American — or, for that matter, Jewish?

"How will we think about this, with genes being chemicals and ourselves being essentially a bundle of chemical reactions?" asked Professor Laurie Zoloth, director of San Francisco State University's Jewish studies department. "What does this do to ideas about ourselves or about God and faith?"

A consortium of biologists, anthropologists and ethicists will be exploring those pressing issues, thanks to the recent establishment of a three-year National Institute of Health grant. Known as the ELSI project, the studies, which are being conducted throughout the country, will address the ethical, legal and social implications of the mapping of the human genome. The NIH allocates 3 percent of its yearly budget for ELSI projects. Zoloth's will be based out of SFSU and the University of Minnesota.

According to Zoloth, one of the study's principal investigators, the notion that one's genetic makeup may determine personality and behavior is especially pertinent from a Jewish point of view.

"Jews tend to think that the most important aspect of a person is not who the parents were but [the individual's] deeds and their study, Torah and mitzvot. You can choose between good and evil all the time," said Zoloth, who is also a bioethicist. "In Deuteronomy, when it says Moses asked to go into the land, he had to pass between two mountains, and he chose life, chose for the good, the mitzvot. So Jews traditionally strongly elevate the ability of moral choice."

Yet geneticists have found that many character traits and aspects of one's personality are dependent upon genetic makeup.

"What happens to these [Jewish] understandings if your destiny is biologically determined?" Zoloth wondered. "What do you make of that?"

Meanwhile, the first phase of the study is determining how, in the light of genetic breakthroughs, various ethnic groups have begun to perceive themselves differently — an apropos subject for Jews, who have been the subjects of several eye-opening genetic studies in recent years.

In 1997, a team of scientists discovered a genetic marker called Y Alu polymorphic (YAP) on the Y-chromosome of 98.5 percent of Kohanim (descendents of the tribe of Jewish high priests) in a research group. A follow-up study one year later uncovered a distinctive arrangement of six chromosomal markers in 97 of 106 Kohanim tested (92 percent).

The genetic distinction was discovered in Kohanim hailing from around the world and is a major blow to the theory that Ashkenazi Jews are not direct descendants of the ancient Hebrews.

Similarly, genetic testing revealed that a southern African tribe known as the Lemba, who claim Jewish ancestry, do indeed seem to carry distinctively Jewish Y-chromosomal types.

In addition to the NIH endowment, the S.F.-based Walter and Elise Haas Foundation is in the process of putting together a grant for Zoloth to focus specifically on the human genome project's ethical and social ramifications for the Jewish community.

By December, Zoloth hopes to assemble Jewish rabbinic and philosophical leaders from Israel and the United States to discuss such issues as cloning, stem cell research and genetic screening.

She also predicts the ELSI grant's research project will result in both general and scholarly books within three years.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.