Rewritten March, 2019.

While there is a definite cluster of Jewish genes, plenty of people have those genes but aren’t Jewish, and plenty don’t have them and are. DNA does not make you a Jew. It’s something much deeper.

Let’s start from the beginning. The Jewish people began with the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. The children of Jacob, to start with, likely married out of the family. Then there was the "mixed multitude" that came with the Children of Israel out of Egypt. Until the covenant at Mount Sinai, there was no formal conversion, and Jewishness followed the paternal line. (From Sinai on, Jewishness follows the maternal line.)

The royal family itself is linked to King David, a descendant of a convert named Ruth whose story is told in a book of the Hebrew Bible named after her. Another book, the Megillah of Esther, speaks of “many of the people of the land” becoming Jewish during the Persian exile.

In the Mishnaic Period, some of the greatest sages and leaders were converts—such as Onkelos, Shemaya and Avtalyon—or descendants of converts, such as Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir. Mass conversions may well have occurred in Canaan, Yemen and the Caucasus. Today there are African Jews, Japanese Jews, even Inuit Jews. It seems difficult to call such a mixture a "race."

Indeed, scientists continue to argue whether the term race has any useful meaning when classifying human beings. Racism as a sociopolitical Does race have any useful meaning when classifying human beings?ideology died with the Holocaust and was laid to rest by the civil rights movement for all thinking people. It should be obvious to all who have learned the history of the last century that humanity can no longer afford to discriminate by race or genetic makeup if we are to survive on this planet.

Nevertheless, it’s indisputable that certain groups form clusters in which certain genetic properties are more common than for humanity as a whole. It’s important to understand those clusters, as they help us understand national identities and allegiances, as well as genetic inheritance.

Since Jews have mostly “married in” for several thousand years, yes, there are certain features that are distinctly common among Jews—as there are among Inuits, Icelanders, Amish, the Basque people and others. On the other hand, since there is room for conversion, those features are not ubiquitous within the group.

One feature that stands out in the Jewish cluster: The We’ve yet to find evidence that Jewish intelligence or philanthropy is genetic.average verbal IQ score among Jews is 120. Translate that into percentiles and we discover that the average Jew is a “one out of ten”—brighter than 91% of the population. That may explain why Jews, at only 1.4% of the American population, make up 22% of Ivy League students, 20% of America’s chief executives and have earned 25% of the Nobel Prizes awarded to American scientists (not including Jews born outside the US, such as Albert Einstein) since 1950—32% worldwide in the 21st century—and 52%(!) of Pulitzer Prizes for nonfiction (the key is verbal IQ).1

(For a sampling of great Jewish authors, see 101 Authors Who Didn’t Write the Bible.)

But is it all in the genes? So far, no real evidence. No “Jewish genes” for IQ scores have turned up, nor for scientific innovation (although over 500 genes have been found related to intelligence, so we may not be far). Neither do we know of any genetic basis for charitability, yet Jews give far more charity than others in the same income bracket and make up a highly disproportionate number of America’s leading philanthropists (19 out of the top 53 and five out of the top six in 2015 according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy). Is it biology or is it culture?

All that geneticists know so far is that there is certainly a “cluster” of typical Jewish DNA. They’ve also been able to identify several distinct haplotypes—markers in the chromosome structure that cropped up in one individual and have been passed on ever since. That allows them to approximate the age of these unique features, along with a good guess at the geographic origin. The time machine of our genes show that most Jews have a shared ancestry that traces back to ancient Israel. Any competing theories will have to argue with hard science.2

Every once in a while, another opportunist attempts to genetically dismember the Jewish people. Yet, as science gets better at these things, all such attempts only backfire. In 2015, 30 researchers from nine countries pooled their data to create "the largest data set available to date for assessment of Ashkenazi Jewish genetic origins." They concluded their analysis with a statement:

We confirm the notion that the Ashkenazi, North African, and Sephardi Jews share substantial genetic ancestry and that they derive it from Middle Eastern and European populations, with no indication of a detectable Khazar contribution to their genetic origins.3

Nevertheless, from the perspective of traditional A DNA test demonstrating typical Jewish DNA is not a blank pass into the tribe.Jewish law (known as halachah), a DNA test demonstrating typical Jewish DNA is not a blank pass into the tribe. After all, if your ancestry is from Europe, there’s about a 90% chance of some Jewish DNA turning up in there. That’s due to the many Jews over the ages who were forcibly converted, or simply left the fold due to the hardships involved.

On the other hand, there are entire communities of Jews with no typical Jewish haplotypes to speak of—such as the Bene Israel in India, who are considered Jewish by orthodox standards. Does that mean they are not descendants of Abraham? Not necessarily. Perhaps they were isolated before those haplotype markers turned up.

All this means you’ll still need evidence of a Jewish mother no matter how kosher your DNA. (See our article How Do I Know If I Am a Jew? for all the details.)

Common descent, then, does not make a race, nor does proof that you share it guarantee citizenship. On the other hand, neither does it imply exclusivity.

The traditional Jewish self-concept is that Jews comprise a family held together by a covenant with G‑d accepted at Mount Sinai. Anyone born into that family is there for life—just as you can’t divorce your parents, you can’t undo your Jewishness. A Jew who calls himself by any other name is still a Jew.

On the other hand, just as you could be born into a family, you might also get yourself adopted in—which is fundamentally what conversion is all about. And again, once in, it’s a knot that can’t be undone. Only that to tie that knot, you’ll need to accept upon yourself the same covenant we entered and the mission we were assigned at Mount Sinai over 3300 years ago before a tribunal of qualified Jews.

Jews are bound together tighter than any DNA or ideology could bond us. It is a bond eternal that runs deeper than any bond.


Looking for specifics on what makes a person Jewish? Read: Who Is a Jew?

Or maybe you were curious about what Jews believe? Browse through our section titled An Introduction to Jews and Judaism.

To learn about the rule of matrilineal descent in Judaism, read: Matrilineal Descent in Judaism.

Looking for information on conversion to Judaism? Read: Should I Convert to Judaism? or How To Convert to Judaism.

Wondering if perhaps you might already be Jewish? See How Do I Know If I Am Jewish?