Epigenetics and a Yiddishe Taam

A study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience early this month may end up having farther-reaching implications than the researchers ever imagined. A team at the Emory University School of Medicine found evidence of what is called “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance,” or the fact that information can be transmitted from one generation to another without altering the primary structure of the DNA.

In the study, male lab mice that were exposed to the smell of cherry blossoms with a hint of almond were subjected to electric shocks over a period of three days. A control group of mice also underwent the same fear conditioning when exposed to alcohol, a control substance. Although the offspring of the “cherry blossom” mice never spent any time with their male parents (ruling out the possibility that this “fear” was somehow taught), when they were exposed to the smell of cherry blossoms upon reaching adulthood, the second and third generations of descendants of the cherry blossom-exposed mice had a reaction that was consistent with fear. Yet for the group that had been taught to fear the smell of alcohol, exposure to cherry blossoms elicited no reaction.

The amazing thing about this is that it opens up a whole new vista for neuropsychological research. The field of epigenetics is still a relatively new one, and as Brian Dias, a postdoctoral researcher at Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center and co-author of the study, put it, “We’re still scratching the surface.” But University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Christopher Pierce, who was not involved in the study but had himself made previous discoveries in epigenetic inheritance, was impressed by the result of Dias and his co-author Kerry Ressler. “It’s a compelling finding,” he said. “The fact that epigenetic changes happen in mammals is just amazing.”

While this study stands to revolutionize the field of neuropsychology, should its findings be confirmed, it has implications that should make us take stock of our lives as frum Yidden.

In the most recent issue of Dialogue, Harav Aharon Feldman, shlita, has an article entitled “Observant But Not Religious.” In his opening paragraph, the Rosh Yeshivah writes: “What is the greatest issue facing religious Jewry in today’s world?… It is… one that goes to the very core of our identities as Torah-loyal Jews: that many — too many — of us are observant, even punctiliously so — but not quite religious.”

Rabbi Feldman goes on to explain that what he is referring to is the all-too-common neglect of the avodas Hashem that is internal. “…[C]onstant growth in inner spiritual devotion is the raison d’être of life itself, …[performing] mitzvos on a solely external level without involving the inner self is to choose to remain oblivious to the ultimate purpose of Man’s existence.”

Moreover, he says, this can be a direct cause of the increasing drop-out rate of our children. “Children sense the disparity between deed and inner commitment in their parents’ lives and interpret it, rightfully, as hypocrisy … he will look forward to the time when he can unshackle himself from his parents’ hypocritical demands.”

Perhaps we can take Rabbi Feldman’s words a bit further. It is well known that Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, said (and variations of this can be found many times throughout his writings) that there was a simple reason why most of the pre-World War II American Yidden were not successful in raising frum families, despite their own mesirus nefesh for Shabbos and the like. Harav Moshe said that it came down to the fact that they said, and felt, “Es iz shver tzu zayn a Yid.” (“It is difficult to be a Jew.”) Although they were ready to be moser nefesh for Yiddishkeit, the very fact that they felt it was a burden gave their children cause to consider whether they wanted to shoulder this burden as well. While it may have been worth it for their parents, the younger generation didn’t feel that there was any value in carrying the same burden their parents had sacrificed so much for. They felt that if it was so “shver” to remain a Yid, they may as well not.

In his article, Rabbi Feldman explains that the natural outcome of a completely external avodas Hashem is that “…we do not take mitzvos seriously and thus feel constrained by a system of behavior stripped of its intellectual depth and emotional resonance.” In essence, we are left with a Yiddishkeit not unlike the pre-War American Jews. That is, a Yiddishkeit of “Es iz shver tzu zayn a Yid.”

We can delude ourselves into thinking that we are better off than the aforementioned American Jew. We, after all, don’t come home and complain to our families about how hard it is to be frum today. But the truth is, that shouldn’t be any comfort to us. Let us pretend that we were able to put aside the Rosh Yeshivah’s point about how our children perceive the inherent contradiction between our external and internal service of Hashem and the hypocrisy factor that accompanies it. We still are not much better off than the abovementioned Yid.

The fact that there exists cognitive dissonance in our external and internal avodas Hashem leads us to feel, as Rabbi Feldman put it, “constrained” by the mitzvos. Even if we don’t preach that fact to our children, it is a “sensitivity” (as Brian Dias describes the aversion to cherry blossoms in the mice) that we very well may be passing on, unknowingly, to the next generation. Our children
would then be beginning their lives very much in the same position as the generation of lost American Jews — resenting the Torah, and not feeling it worth the sacrifice.

The solution to this problem is pretty simple. While Dias and Ressler are still studying whether mice can “unlearn” these sensitivities once learned, and thus spare the next generation, they concede that humans will not be as absolute, because, unlike lab mice, they aren’t raised in a controlled environment.

But we can work to mitigate these factors by nurturing our children with a Yiddishkeit that is not only worth sacrificing for, but one that isn’t perceived as a sacrifice at all; and, more importantly, internal avodah that will help them unlearn the negative traits we may have unwittingly instilled in them.