This is a message of some ambivalence with respect to ancestry.com. I begin with a Biblical reference in which Moses in his farewell speech called Deuteronomy (Chapter 29) says "I am making this Covenant with those who are here today and with those who are not here today."
This passage is understood by Jewish sages to refer to the descendants of Israel or even to those who are not Jewish but will become a part of the Jewish tradition and peoplehood through conversion in the future. There was a triumphal debate between an elderly Jewish woman and a member of the DAR who tried to one up the Jewish woman by saying "I am really a true American as my ancestors landed at Plymouth Rock." To which the Jewish woman responded, "Yes, but my ancestors stood at Mount Sinai!" There are times where I feel truly blessed to be a descendant of those who stood at Sinai but at other times I do not take delight in those who came before me as much as in the achievements that I and my fellow Jews accomplish in this day and age.
Ancestry.com is becoming increasingly favored. Why it is that so many delight in that is obvious. It is fun to know in this age of an anonymity how one does connect not only to those alive today but to those who preceded us. But there is a limit to those connections. I appreciate the few scant records that were left to me by my mother about her father who was a fine Hebrew poet. I take inspiration at how much he accomplished in his journey to America expressed through that poetry. But it was his journey and only to the extent that I emulate some of his values can I really feel triumphant.
On occasion there are people who claim to have "Jewish blood." This strikes me as all together strange. Genetics may determine my skin color or the kind of hair that I have or even some condition medically that is mine. It does not determine my values or my attachments spiritually to the Jewish faith tradition. Only real practice and an embrace of Judaism can determine one's allegiance to a faith. Occasionally, members of another religion somehow incredulously claim to be Jewish when such is not the case religiously, as they fail to embrace the values and the imperatives of that faith. There is no such thing as Jewish blood as my chromosomes are not any way different then any other persons; this despite what the white nationalists may claim. This, of course, is what Hitler tragically used as a definition of being Jewish when the Nazis maintained if someone had a great grandfather or just a grandfather or grandmother who was Jewish, they were to be marched to the same gas Chambers as my fellow traditional Jews. It is reported that Helen Keller had written "the ancestor of every bastard was a king and the ancestor of every King was a bastard."
As Jews begin to celebrate the Passover holidays in just a few weeks we remember a central imperative of our faith "to regard ourselves as if we were personally freed from Egypt." If that declaration and respect for ancestry moves me to celebrate and support freedom in this day and age for all people, then that is worth it!
Yossi J. Liebowitz, rabbi of Congregation Bnai Israel in Spartanburg, can be reached at EZRabbi@aol