Is genealogical research a waste of time?

September 12th, 2018 Posted by Ask the Rabbi 13 comments

Dear Rabbi & Mrs. Lapin,

Please let me first tell you that I have learned much from your writings. I appreciate your knowledge, willingness, and even courage to boldly share truth with those who have ears to hear.

My question:  Is it wise and worthwhile to spend time and money investigating one’s genealogy?  What do you think of the DNA tests to discover where your ancestors lived?

I was adopted and have discovered my biological family through DNA testing.  I am over 60. My bio and adoptive parents are all deceased. I continue to think of my adoptive side as my “real parents and family”. However, the treasure hunt for older blood ancestors and lineage has been quite interesting.

One concern I have, which I’d like you to address, is whether I spend too much time in research. It can take hours and hours of looking at records to find and confirm even one person. I would say though that some of those ‘finds’ has yielded some very interesting and fulfilling data.

This experience has led me to better understand and appreciate the hand of God in my life. I’ve spent about 3 years now in this process and I wonder if it really matters who my 4th great grandfather was and whether he was born in Scotland or Sweden? Should I discontinue my research, if I am the only one in my family who finds this fascinating?  I have adult children who are not the least bit interested.

I do not spend time or money researching at the expense of my family’s needs. What do you think of this new craze to have your  ‘DNA done’?There are many passages in the bible about genealogy, so how does Ancient Jewish Wisdom apply to my situation? Thank you!

Shawn

Dear Shawn,

Working backwards through your letter, we have to say that we know very little about the companies in business to test your DNA. We tend to be wary of fads and would recommend researching the reliability of any of these companies and the usefulness of the results well before parting with your money or your DNA. For the most part, all they tell you is about the presence of ethnic and geographic markers with limited accuracy.  Information about particular ancestors would be more interesting but that information is available only through the research that you are enjoying.

Having said that, you are correct that God’s system places great importance on genealogy. While each of us is an individual, we are also links in a chain. Much of today’s pathologies are the result of devaluing family and pretending that caring who one’s parents are, in particular fathers, is irrelevant and unimportant. Many men who saw an easy income stream in becoming sperm donors while in college found, to their shock, that the offspring they put out of mind were eager to find them.

Physical and spiritual adoption are also a part of the Bible. Mordechai raised Esther after the deaths of her parents and Joshua, rather than his own sons, became Moses’ spiritual heir. While you cherish your adopted family, it is not surprising at all that you are curious about your physical antecedents.

We’re not sure why this hobby is any different from golf or collecting duck calls.  While it would be nice if you and your children shared this interest, as long as this isn’t interfering with your family’s welfare, why shouldn’t you continue? It is very possible that as your children get older, they will find that they are, indeed, grateful to know more about their background.

You sound very aware of the limitations of time. If you spend hours researching a relative, those hours are not available for other pursuits. If you are not minimizing more important areas of your life, but this is your “free time” relaxation, then not only do we see it as a benign activity, but one that is clearly filling an emotional need of yours. That sounds like a good deal.

Happy hunting,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

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13 comments

Sharon Knotts says:

My family took the DNA tests, and my husband’s DNA showed that he and his sister are only half-siblings. His parents are deceased. He went on a journey researching the DNA matches he had, but his sister did not. All their matches were on their mother’s side. After weeks of research, every available hour he searched the family tree of the unidentified matches. He finally narrowed it down to one family, and eventually to one man he was certain is his father, but there was one curve ball that he couldn’t reconcile: He shared one DNA match with his sister that connected to her father (the man he thought was his father too). One morning in prayer, he sensed that he was to look at a particular branch that he had not payed much attention to, as it seemed to be irrelevant. He went to the computer and traced that line, which led him to a marriage between another member of his sister’s father’s line and the line of his true father.
Mystery solved! He learned his father (and his wife) are deceased, but that he had three new half-sisters, who were skeptical. He convinced one to take a DNA test, and they matched as half-siblings. Her father and his mother took this secret to their graves. But he has since met one sister, and they hit it off big time. He is flying next week to meet the other two and their families. God is so good!
Another bonus: The man who raised him died at 52 after two heart attacks and open heart surgery. This always puts up red flags for his health care. His bio father lived much longer, and there is longevity in his line. My husband says that God gave him a miracle–a new health record! (tongue in cheek)! His doctor agreed.

Susan Lapin says:

My goodness, Sharon. What a story. I’m glad your husband is looking on the bright side of this. DNA testing could definitely open a can of worms.

Lisa says:

This reminds me of a woman searching her family tree some years ago. This was an older woman with grown children. Her reason for searching was, as she put it, “there had to be something good in our family line.”

She wasn’t the only person in this world thinking that way. If one does not find any value in their own life, they will often seek out such validations, including searching the family tree.

It is one thing to come from a blood line of supposed good people who did good things. Yet when the opposite is going on through the blood line, it can cause severe issues psychologically. How is one to handle discovering their relatives as murderers, rapist, convicts, prostitutes and such? I truly believe the Creator deems every being as precious and valuable regardless.

Thanks again Rabbi.

Susan Lapin says:

Lisa, we probably all have our share of both saints and rogues, as well as normal, conflicted people in our lines.

Joyce R. says:

Hi, Shawn. I have enjoyed many hours doing genealogical research. I found confirmation for some family stories, found one story to be unconfirmed, and discovered lots of new information. I discovered that I have a lot of religious nonconformists hanging from different branches of the family tree. There are French Huguenots, Quakers, Mennonites, and Puritans. One of my earliest ancestors is one of several patron saints of brewers of beer. Eight hundred years later, a many times great uncle was the last Mennonite martyr in Switzerland. Almost a hundred eighty years after that, an ancestor died on the guillotine during the French Revolution. One ancestor came to America in 1621 as a surveyor for the Virginia Company. Many ancestors fought in every major war this Nation has fought from the Revolutionary War forward. There were also a few scoundrels. Altogether, my search has strengthened my connection to this nation I love as well as confirming a rich heritage of love of the L_rd and service to His people. The value is in the sense of continuity and connection. Rachel Carson wrote of the web of life. In my research, I have found the web of family, the web of faith, the web of shared commitment to the ideals of patriotism, love of liberty, and passing those ideals from one generation to the next.

In all this, I have thought about doing a DNA test. I am ambivalent simply because of privacy concerns in these days of computer hacking and data sharing.. I may yet decide to do such testing, but I do not have the questions you had because of your adoptive status. May your ongoing researches be a blessing to you and your children. BTW, your children may not share your interest now but save what you learn because, one day, they or their children may change their minds.

Susan Lapin says:

Joyce, you have uncovered a tremendous amount about your family. And a fascinating group they seem to be. I definitely agree that down the road, Shawn’s children and grandchildren will appreciate his research.

George says:

A third/cousin of mine got her DNA tested … just because she was curious. Her father is my second cousin. She found out that she had 0% DNA from her “father“. So at 40+ years old she found out that her mother apparently had had an affair!

For months she has been depressed, extremely depressed, and very angry at her parents, for not telling her years ago.

But as I told that beloved cousin, we adopted our daughter. I am her father. Period! She is my daughter. Period! Through this I have tried to show my cousin that it really doesn’t matter what blood she has, Just as my (adopted) daughter will always be MY daughter, we will forever be COUSINS!

Susan Lapin says:

For every positive story, George, there is most likely a negative one. Many stories are best left uncovered.

David J says:

My mother was adopted as an infant. She found her biological family a few months after her biological mother died. A few years ago I decided to ask my biological cousins the story of my mother’s adoption, as they have gotten quite up in years. If I don’t find out now, the story will be gone forever. Long story short and without going into personal details, I will just say that I consider my mother’s adoption to be an act of divine providence and is a firm testament to me of the loving nature of deity. That one act changed the course for the good of generations and generations yet unborn. Countless blessings upon countless people resulted from my mother being adopted.

That said, getting to know my biological family has been a pleasure. Two years ago, my immediate family I decided to visit some of my biological extended family (I wanted to see them before they died as they are up in years as I mentioned earlier). When they learned that I would be in town, they threw together a family reunion, created a PowerPoint presentation showing the family’s history from the time they left China to the present. My immediate family and I even stayed with my mother’s last surviving biological sibling during our visit. Even though I was raised apart from them, it turns out I have quite a lot in common with them in education, aspirations, ambitions, etc., much more so than with the extended family into which my mother was adopted.

My first loyalty will always be to my mother’s adoptive family, but I have formed quite a bond with her biological nephews and nieces.

Susan Lapin says:

How wonderful that you were able to connect with your mother’s biological family, David. Thank you for sharing your story.

Pastor Dave Peterson says:

Hi!
I remember that my father had a need to reconnect with his ancestry around 50 years of age. Both my parents have since died and I, now 52, have discovered a new found connectedness in genealogical research. On top of it all, a joyful realization through dna testing- I have Jewish ancestry! It’s where my heart has always been and I enjoyed Hebraic studies in seminary as well as the language. I thoroughly enjoy all your books and dvds and now I’d like to study with a Rabbi. I’m open to suggestions!
Shalom!
David

Shawn says:

Wow! I feel so honored that my question was chosen to be answered and I thank you Rabbi and Mrs. Susan for your thoughts. I heartily agree with your observation that many societal issues stem from lack of family ties and fatherly guidance. I had not considered this thoughtfully with regards to geneology, but I realize it is demonstrated within my own background. Where there was a strong family and father, the family flourished. Where a good father was lacking, so did the family suffer, even more than one generation. I can definitely see my own unique situation in Genesis 50:20. Evil was the intent, but God took it and immediately turned it into good. I am affirmed by the comments of your readers, and I too have similar stories which I chose not to share details. Though we have many lineages, we are all one family together, ultimately tracing back to our Father God. I must tell you this genealogical journey has really become a journey of faith for me.

Susan Lapin says:

Shawn, we try to choose a variety of questions that we think touch many people’s lives. As you can see from the comments, your thoughts are shared by many. Thank you for writing back.

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