No really, what is a Jew?

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Imagine if right before your bar mitzvah you were told that — despite the invitations in the mail — you had to change the venue for your Torah reading. Now imagine that the reason you had to change the venue was because you might not be Jewish. And imagine that the reason you might not be Jewish is that your circumcision might not be complete. It’s an unlikely and unfortunate story, but according to the Australian Jewish News it happened to a boy from Sydney last week.

The details are a bit unclear, but from what I gather, something like this happened: The boy’s mother was originally not Jewish. She was converted by a Progressive (the Australian version of Reform) rabbi. The boy was circumcised as a baby, but the mother wanted him to, now, have an Orthodox conversion. The usual conversion process includes immersion in a mikveh and, for a circumcised boy, a ritual drawing of blood. So before his bar mitzvah, the boy from Sydney went to the mikveh and when the rabbis were getting ready for the ritual drawing of blood, they noticed that the boy’s circumcision was incomplete. (I can only guess what this means.) The rabbis recommended additional circumcising (under anesthesia); the boy’s mother was horrified; and the bar mitzvah was moved across town to the Progressive Temple.

This is not a classic “Who/What is a Jew?” question, but rather, the less classic, but more and more common: “No really, what (the heck!) is a Jew?” This is one of those cases that makes you really scratch your head.

I understand that according to Orthodox halakha this boy is not Jewish and according to Progressive halakha he is Jewish. But halakha aside, how much do we privilege the existential experience of Judaism? Meaning: this boy was circumcised (albeit incompletely) as a Jew, he studied for his bar mitzvah as a Jew, he obviously considers himself a Jew, and God knows he was traumatized as a Jew. Somehow, I can both accept that some Jews don’t consider him Jewish and, at the same time, feel there’s something strange about saying he’s not Jewish.

Ultimately, I guess, it comes down to how concerned we are with having a single, unified, easily identifiable Jewish people. But this already might be unrealistic. Which, again leaves me scratching my head. So really, what is a Jew?

Posted on October 26, 2006

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2 thoughts on “No really, what is a Jew?

  1. Israel

    A Jew is someone who can trace their ancestry back to that original group of people who were led to believe that a god was delivering them a set of laws.

    Thats it.

    The rest of us are acting Jewish because we’ve been told we are Jewish either by our parents or by a group of people that feel that the convert has jumped through enough hoops to warrant the label.

    I think this story about this unfortunate child illustrates really how awful some religious people can be – even to the young. Some Rabbi has decided that the kid ins’t jewish unless he goes under so that he can have the job finished.

    Just think about it a moment. Think about what’s going through that kids head. Then think about whats going through that Rabbi’s head.

    I’m telling you, its a cruel, nutty world out there. And Jews are no exception.


  2. clara1

    Well, I was starting to get angry at the post by Israel until I saw that it was Israel. Even though I don’t agree with him about Hashem, Judaism, and converts.

    What was done to the child sounds like a power play. I think that Rabbis can be human and pitch fits if things don’t go their way.

    Some of the Orthodox laws seem trivial, like no pants for women and that’s what I live in pants and shorts, so it’s trivial and i’ll adjust if Hashem wants me too.

    I think this blog site is great. But, could you make the blog itself be able to be put in a printable form? We are never satisfied are we.

    I have to agree on Israel’s statement: I’m telling you, its a cruel, nutty world out there. And Jews are no exception.

    Thats because Jews are human and falliable and have egos whether they should or not.


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