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Scientific discovery shows genetic links to biblical Aaron

NEW YORK, Jan. 7 (JTA) — A scientific discovery of what could be called the “Kohen chromosome” might have religious implications that the scientists themselves never anticipated. After about four years of work, Michael Hammer, a geneticist who works at the University of Arizona at Tucson, and Karl Skorecki, a scientist based at Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, found that the Jewish priestly lineage can be genetically traced back to the progenitor of all Kohanim, the biblical Aaron. The lineage is visible in two markers on the Y chromosome that is transmitted from father to son. Hammer warned, however, that the research is not complete, and that only 20 percent of the men who might be descendants of Aaron had those particular markers. Several days after the findings were published in the London-based scientific journal Nature and were picked up in The Jerusalem Post, Skorecki has been inundated with phone calls by Orthodox Jews in Israel who want to be tested to prove scientifically that they are descendants of Aaron, Hammer said in a telephone interview. In the time of Israel’s First and Second temples, the priests, or Kohanim, had special religious responsibilities for performing holy rites at the site where God was believed to be made manifest. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 C.E., the priests’ role has become transformed into one that is purely ceremonial, with special blessings recited by those of the priestly class during worship services. According to an Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law, a Kohen may not marry a woman who has been divorced, and may not go near a dead body or into a cemetery. And some rabbis have expressed concern that the genetic testing could be used to define who is and who is not a Kohen. “That is a far-out possibility,” though not inconceivable, said Orthodox Rabbi Irving Greenberg, who is himself a Kohen. Hammer, an unaffiliated Jew whose most recent religious connection has been with the Indian guru Sri Chinmoy, said he pursued locating the Kohen chromosome for historical, scientific reasons rather than piety. “I do worry a little about what the potential use of this is,” he said. “I worry mainly about misinterpretation of our findings at this point, that someone may be thinking that they can apply it for a specific purpose.” As a result of the unanticipated potential religious implications, the pair of scientists is uncertain of how far they may take their research. “We’re in a dilemma,” Hammer said. “We can’t prove or disprove very easily if someone is a Kohen from this data. Do we want to? If we don’t, will somebody else come along, a genetic testing company, and do it, or would the Orthodox rabbinate hire some company to do it for them? Are we in a situation where someone could patent this as a genetic test? Is the ability to obtain the information “good or not good?” he asked, rhetorically. “This is very troublesome and worrisome. How far do we want to take this project scientifically? What are the implications ethically?” “It’s up to the scientists to say what can and cannot be determined at this point,” he said, but “the ethical issues are up to the rabbinate, or whoever’s in charge of those rules and laws and things.”