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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What Makes a Jew

When I was studying to be a mohel in Israel, one kind of experience was repeated at many brisses.

As my teacher, Rabbi Mordechai Sasson, is a Sephardic mohel, most of the brisses he'd perform would be for Sephardic Jews, who have a rich cultural heritage which brings the entire family and community into every bris. (or should I say "brit"?)

Typically, after the ceremony was over and Rabbi Sasson was doing his post-op examination, some old-school grandmother or great-aunt would smilingly look upon the now circumcised baby and say עכשיו נהיית יהודי (akhshav nih'yayta yehudi) - "Now you have become a Jew."


This concept may be true in other religions (e.g. before baptism, a Christian child is not a Christian), but in Judaism, one's Jewishness stems from one's birth mother. If the mother is a Jew, the child that emerges is a Jew. Consider girls, who are thankfully not circumcised. How are they to "become" Jews if circumcision is what makes a Jew?

Circumcision does not make a person a Jew.

While this blog is not the forum for discussing the rules surrounding conversion and the Reform practice of accepting people as Jews based on patrilineal descent, I am here to discuss the role of circumcision in all of these procedures.

Judaism manifests itself in Jews in two ways - nationally and religiously - and both are meant to be informed and enlightened by the totality of what we call "Torah" (not just the Five Books of Moses). According to Jewish law, the national element is given to a person at birth and can never be revoked (except in very extreme cases of apostasy). The religious component has always been a question of individual practice - there have always been Jews who were more observant of the law and the Torah's guidelines and Jews who were less observant of the law and the Torah's guidelines.


In the last few hundred years, there have been different movements in Judaism who defined new ways to experience the "religious" element of their Judaism (in no particular order): Hassidim (and all its branches and extremes), Maskilim, Reform (and all its branches and extremes), Conservative (and all its branches and extremes), Orthodox (and all its branches and extremes), Reconstructionist, BILU, New-wave, Humanist, Traditional, Cultural, non-affiliated (the list is surely not exhaustive).

Most continue to circumcise their sons. Some do not.


On the national level, a Jew should ideally feel a sense of camaraderie with other Jews. (Yesterday was Yom HaShoah - I have long advocated that if Hitler did not distinguish between Jews, why should we treat other Jews in any manner other than respectfully?) Some people express this through their family name, through a "Jewish feeling," culturally, identifying with other Jews ('some of my best friends are Jews!'), identifying with the land of Israel, the State of Israel, the people of Israel, Yiddish theater, eating "Jewish food," etc.

Most continue to circumcise their sons. Some do not.

Bottom Line

According to all Jewish approaches, if a child is born to a direct maternal-line of Jews, the child is Jewish, regardless of levels of observance. (The questions arise when a conversion took place in that maternal line, as to what were the circumstances of the conversion.)

The circumcision the boys undergo puts a mark on the flesh that is the symbol of the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 17.

When a male non-Jew decides to go through the process of conversion, he may undergo circumcision (if he was not circumcised as a child) or an equivalent procedure significance-wise (if he is already circumcised), but the circumcision is not what makes him a Jew.

Any person who converts undergoes a program of study, and is dutifully tested for sincerity and commitment to the Jewish faith, and subsequently immerses in a mikveh to complete the conversion.

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