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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