Learning shaped Jewish genes, says college prez
Jewish achievement in a wide variety of fields may have its roots in the religious practices of ancestors going back several generations.
Such “gene imprinting” — genetic traits incorporated into the gene structure in response to lifestyle and cultural practices over centuries — could account for Jewish success, according to Touro College president and CEO Dr. Alan Kadish.
“Many secular Jews and other Jews have been successful because of the traditional Jewish education and the influence of Jewish intellectual tradition on ancestral generations,” said Kadish, speaking Nov. 12 at Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison.
“Epigenetics” — or gene imprinting — “is a real phenomenon,” he said.
Kadish’s talk was the concluding event of a Shabbat weekend program sponsored by the Orthodox Forum of Edison/Highland Park. He also appeared at Ohr Torah the same morning and at Congregation Agudath Israel of Edison/Highland Park that afternoon. The previous evening, Kadish spoke at Congregation Ohav Emeth in Highland Park.
A cardiologist and researcher, he acknowledged that the subject of Jewish overachievement made many people uncomfortable. However, the numbers speak for themselves, he said, particularly in the fields of math and science.
“Thirty percent of Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Jews,” said Kadish. “Of the seven most recent Nobel Prize winners for the sciences, five are Jews.”
Kadish said study of imprinting and ethnic achievement has caught fire in the last three years, with more than 100 papers focusing on the subject. He stressed that epigenetics was not eugenics or genetic engineering, but a new science that suggests that environmental or cultural conditions can somehow alter genetic material, in as little as a single generation.
If so, the achievements of modern American Jews may have their roots in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire, where Jewish life revolved around study of Torah and Talmud.
“There has always been a tremendous respect for the past,” said Kadish. “In scientific research, I can tell you, success can only be achieved by understanding past knowledge and building upon it to create new advances.”
Jews who have been secular for two or even three generations may still be carrying the genetic imprinting of their religious great-grandparents.
While respecting the wisdom of past sages is an integral part of Jewish religious tradition, questioning many of their interpretations and trying to discover new wisdom when studying Talmud is also a longstanding custom.
“Part of that is encouraging people to think creatively,” said Kadish.
Similarly, the precision and logic required to study Jewish text has contributed to success in math and science, said Kadish. He jokingly noted that learning Gemara, or the talmudic commentary on and analysis of Mishna, is better preparation for teaching such skills than a college course.
However, he said, it is the Jewish perspective of the role of humans in the world that may be the linchpin of Jewish epigenetics.
“There is a realization that our accomplishments in this world are not for personal aggrandizement, but for the greater good as decided by Hashem,” said Kadish. “That we have an imperative to make a better world is an integral part of being Jewish.”