Is our destiny found in our biology, in our environment, or in our soul? Do our lives turn out the way they do because of the genes in our cells, the things we learn from our parents and society, or some divine force driving the universe? These kinds of questions have been asked for generations and have no easy answers, but that does not keep people from trying to grapple with them.
Recently, the photographer Daniel Tepper published some photographs in the New York Times and on Instagram of a group known as the B’nei Menashe. These are people from India and Myanmar who claim descent from the ten Lost Tribes of Israel who were dispersed by the Assyrians in the conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in 8th century BCE.
The rabbis of the Talmud assume that these 10 northern tribes were absorbed into their surroundings by their conquerors and ceased to be an independent nationality and ethnic group. And yet this has not stopped rabbis and adventurers from looking for the lost tribes in far corners of the world. The B’nai Menashe community claims descent from the tribe of Manasseh, but so far DNA has not proven a definitive connection.
Tepper notes the irony of his relationship to this lost Jewish tribe. His is a secular Jew who never embraced his tradition, but nevertheless lived in Israel and grew up infused with Jewish culture. The B’nei Menashe live thousands of miles from any major Jewish population center and have limited access to the heritage they have adopted but possess a passionate fire for Judaism. So what creates a yiddishe neshoma, a Jewish soul? Is it DNA, the home you grow up in, or something more mystical?
The idea that our fate is sealed by things we can’t control often makes us uneasy. If it is our genes, or how we were nurtured, or God’s plan which determines the outcome of our lives, then what is the point of the choices we make? A recent article in the New Yorker profiling a behavior geneticist named Kathryn Paige Harden describes the resistance many have to her research that has found a hereditary connection to whether we succeed or fail. These critics are understandably worried that such a view can lead some to conclude that social interventions like affirmative action or welfare have no impact. There is also a danger of using genes to classify whole races and ethnic groups.
Harden’s work seeks to straddle a fine line between acknowledging the power of the “genetic lottery” (the title of her book) and the complex interactions that generate our future. She wants the study of DNA to help us find ways to be smarter in our beneficial interventions, not eliminate them. But in a world that elevates extreme voices, can her middle way find an audience?
The truth is that our destiny is a complex cocktail, filled with the luck of our birth, the choices we make, and a little bit of divine providence. How else to explain the stubborn faith of a small group of Jews in northeastern India? Perhaps their ancestors have a bit of ancient Israelite DNA, but surely there are millions of their fellow citizens with a similar genetic background. For some reason these people decided to join their fate to Israel’s destiny. Their example can inspire us to deepen our connection too.