The DNA of Responsibility : Ending the Story of Racism

I recently watched momondo‘s video about ” The DNA Journey“. The video shares interviews with a broad cross-section of British society. In the first half they ask these individuals their feelings about their own group identity and their thoughts on other cultures/ nationalities/races and groups. The researchers then offer each of them free travel to visit their ancestral homes as determined by a DNA test. In the second part of the short film they share the DNA reports with the participants. It is worth watching to see the impact of these reports in challenging their assumptions about themselves and the world.

On their website momondo says:

We only have one world, but it’s divided. We tend to think that there are more things dividing us than uniting us.

It is fascinating how personal narratives rarely align to the stories told by our DNA. Race and other social groupings are clearly just a construct and not as “real” as we have been led to believe.

I  was thinking about this when talking to my friend Adina Konikoff this morning at the bus stop. She is giving a Dvar Torah at her Minyan on Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion,  race relations in the country, and the story of the Egel Arufa, the heifer.  There the end of Shoftim we read:

1If, in the land that the Lord your God is assigning you to possess, someone slain is found lying in the open, the identity of the slayer not being known, 2your elders and magistrates shall go out and measure the distances from the corpse to the nearby towns. 3The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke; 4and the elders of that town shall bring the heifer down to an ever-flowing wadi, which is not tilled or sown. There, in the wadi, they shall break the heifer’s neck. 5The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of the Lord, and every lawsuit and case of assault is subject to their ruling. 6Then all the elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. 7And they shall make this declaration: “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. 8Absolve, O Lord, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel.” And they will be absolved of blood-guilt. 9Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 21: 1- 9)

It is untenable in the Torah for a murder to happen without fault and someone taking responsibility. The ritual of the Egel Arufa, the heifer, is an effort to reconcile  society’s responsibility for that murder. It has profound implications in modern society in which almost the entire world is inhabited and we are more interconnected than ever online. If we have this level of responsibility of the Egel Arufa when the victim is not connected to us, how much more responsibility do we have today?

I was thinking about this anew since watching the The DNA Journey video. We often resort to our tribal identity to define the sphere of responsibility. But these identities and narratives are just a social constructs. The story told by our DNA is that we all intermingled and truly responsible for each other. The surge of racially motivated violence needs to stop. In the The DNA Journey video in response to getting her report one woman replied saying, “I’m going to go a little far off right now, but this should be compulsory… There would be no such thing as extremism in the world if people knew their heritage.” How will we eradicate the scourge racism? We might need to sacrifice our old narratives, but we are responsible to tell a new story. This story is already in us, right there in our very DNA.

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