Traditional Jews, as a community, are to ensure that all male Jews have been circumcised, either by removal of the penile foreskin, brit milah for born Jewish or milah l’shem giur for adopted Jewish, or by the drawing of one drop of blood from an already circumcised foreskin, hatafat dam brit. Torah requires that all male Jews to be marked during infancy through ritual circumcision of the foreskin on the penis (B’reishit 17.12 “a son belonging to you eight days (of age) will be (foreskin-)cut, every man in your generations, house born and money-bought from any foreign-son (stranger) which he (the child) is not from your seed”, Vayikra 12.3 “and on the eighth day his foreskin flesh will be cut”). If they have not been circumcised for some reason or are of another people but now being accepted by a Jewish community as one of the people or if adopting a male child at birth into a Jewish family, then to be Jewish and observant they must be ritually circumcised (B’reishit 17.11,13 “you will cut-away your foreskin flesh, and it will be a covenant sign (physical marking) between me (G-d) and between you … foreskin cut will be your house born and your money bought, then my covenant will be in your flesh, covenant for beyond-perceivable-time (olam)”, a time so distant that it is, in a sense, beyond the horizon). Note, for those in doubt of their Jewishness because they were not circumcised before a Rabbinic leader, Torah only requires that you be circumcised, preferably on the eighth day of life and, if not, at any age just so long as it is done (Sh’mot 4.25 “Tsippora took a cutting-stone and cut-off her son’s foreskin”, B’reishit 17.24-25 “Avraham (was) ninety and nine years (of age) when he cut his foreskin flesh, and Yishmael (was) thirteen years (of age) when he cut his foreskin flesh”). Torah does not say that an already circumcised male must be for some reason ritually circumcised again through the drawing of blood. This is a Rabbinic requirement of those not of Jewish people-hood but who are circumcised and choosing Judaism, meaning choosing to live as and marry into the family-nation and be Jewish, or those of Jewish non-Orthodox communities who are already circumcised but wishing to immerse fully into the Orthodox Jewish way-of-life (meaning not considered Jewish by Orthodox standards). Seeing how Judaism, the civil-religious tradition of Jews, is inherently non-proselytizing in nature, this requirement of hatafat dam brit for males choosing Jewishness, along with all the extensive study requirements of language-history-mitsvot that goes along with it, serves beneficially for the family-nation as a means of discouragement to choosing so and as a show of commitment if not discouraged. To choose to be of the Jewish people is to obligate yourself to the civil-religious tradition that defines us as a people, Torah mitsvot and community halakhah-minhag, and it is to accept fully the responsibilities and fates that befall us as a people. In “denominational” movements, this drawing of one drop of blood even applies to Jews born Jewish and have undergone the coming of age ceremony, but are secular or humanistic and non-theistic now in view, as a reaction to the anthropomorphic way that tradition and Torah can express the relationship between the formless Creator G!D and humankind, but are now seeking to re-embrace tradition within observant Jewish communities.
For Jewish males, another physical based personal life event that defines a traditional Jew is the Torah mitsvah that states adult males will not cut away (meaning, shave off) their beards, if they are able to grow one (Vayikra 19.27 “do not strike-off the edge(-growth) of your head and do not mar the edge(-growth) of your face-hair”). Modern tradition posits that so long as we are not using a razor to cut away the beard, as was done in ancient times, grooming the beard and keeping it neatly styled does not violate this Torah mitsvah. In fact, one can actually trim with clippers all the way to the skin, if needing to be beardless for social reasons of necessity, because of the context of this prohibition. Though, it is generally considered a positive cultural-affirming mitsvah to keep the beard somewhat grown out among more conservative communities. It’s a sign of cultural connectedness, besides being a mitsvah right in today’s clean-shaven encouraged world, and keeping the beard grown prevents us from accidentally violating, out of habit of doing or by forgetfulness or whatever, the Torah prohibitive mitsvah of not shaving your beard during the funeral rites for a loved one.
Traditional Jews, whether male or female, do not get permanent artistic tattoos and brandings or artistic scarrings for their flesh, and traditional Jews who have them from prior years of not being Torah observant do not get any more for their skin (Vayikra 19.28 “an incision for a (deceased) breathing-creature (a person) do not make on your flesh, and a marking incision (artistic design or lettering) do not put on you”). This physical based personal life event that defines all traditional Jews, that of not placing within one’s skin ritual scarring and ink tattooing, has a deep historical civil-religious ritual connection for us that still defines us as Jews in this day and time of human history. In ancient times, the funeral practices of neighboring peoples was to shave the beard and head and to mark and scar themselves as part of their religious practices (idol and ancestral worship). Though, technically, the only way to violate these two Torah mitsvot is to do it for funeral rite and idolatrous religious reasons, that of shaving away the hair of the body and that of marking oneself with images of deities or deceased family members, it is still greatly frowned upon by much of the Jewish family-nation. There are three valid reasons for avoiding these body modification behaviors: The first one and most important one is that, if I’m not mistaken, Torah does not give approval under other circumstances to shave away the hair or to get a tattoo that somehow demonstrates or focuses our attention upon our Jewish emunah/innate-convictions, whereas Torah does provide acceptable doing with that of eating food or that of having sex or that of intermarriage between other nations. (Meaning that just because we can by way of it not being said we can’t, doesn’t always mean that we should. The mitsvot of Torah must be understood in proper greater context with the rest of Torah.) The second one is that the encouragement of getting a tattoo or artistic scarring of the flesh for artistic secular or expressive religious reasons (like, for examples, a tree of life, Hebrew lettering or Torah passages, sacred numbers, etc.) could very well lead to “in ignorance” (whether by complete ignorance or momentary ignorance by drink) getting a tattoo that does actually violate the no-idolatry mitsvah above. Even removal of the tattoo later, leaves scarring that reminds of the image. The third one is that certain specific types of tattooing (such as numbering one’s skin) creates discomfort, a justifiable pain, in the lives of many in this modern time who or whose family members underwent forced tattooing at the hands of a WWII nation that was determined to commit genocide of Jews, branding them like cattle then shipping them in cattle train-cars to be put to death by gas in the gas chambers or worked to starvation and death in the work camps. All male Jews should not take lightly the idea of keeping their beards grown somewhat, and all Jews should seriously take a moment to think twice before deciding to mark their flesh with anything other than a henna tattoo (which lasts a long time, but is not permanent, and so long as the temporary body art does not violate the Torah mitsvah).
For traditional Jewish women (and men, when in relations with a woman), the Torah requires by mitsvah for ritual separation sake that we are not to engage in sexual intercourse during a woman’s monthly period (Vayikra 15.19, 24 “(when) a woman comes-to-have a blood issue (and) comes-to-have her flow in her flesh, she will be seven days in her niddah (ritual-separation), and anyone that touches on her is tamei (ritually-impure) until the sunset (evening) … and if a man lies-down with her (sexually) and comes-to-have her niddah (ritual-impurity) upon him, he will be tamei (ritually-impure) for seven days”). Any other time is totally fine, for it is obligated upon the male by tradition to fulfill her desire when she wants it, but this time of menstruation is a time of renewal and rest from sex for both her and him. (See the Low-Down on Torah Sex section for more about the real deal Torah approved/disapproved sexual practices.)
Traditional Jews, both the men and the women, regularly immerse ourselves in a mikvah, preferably of living water, in modern continuity with the ancient ritual purity laws instructed in Torah (Vayikra 15.16 “when a man releases-out from him lying-down seed (an emission of semen), then (he will) wash with water all his flesh and be tamei (ritually-impure) until the sunset (evening)”, Vayikra 15.28 “when she is purified (meaning, cleansed) from her (blood-flow-)issue and tally-marks (counts) to herself seven days, she then will be (ritually-)pure”, Vayikra 16.24 “and (he will) wash himself with water in a sanctified spot (place) and (then) put-on his coverings (his clothes)”) This act of tevilah, of making ourselves ritually pure thorough immersion in a body of water, allows us to mark the separation moments with reverence after sexual intercourse, after monthly niddah, before engaging in specific rituals of significance, Shabat, the three pilgrimage festivals, being accepted into the community for the first time, etc. It is required by tradition that we be completely naked for this ritual immersion, not a lint of clothing remaining, and that the entire body including the head of hair be immersed. In most observant communities water immersion is witnessed to ensure that the ritual immersion is done and done correctly. Not only do we ritually cleansed our our body-mind by water immersion, but various communities will ritually immerse certain objects or clothing under certain conditions and occasions for ritual-purity purposes, as well. Yes, there is a rudimentary aspect to the mikvah ritual. Back in the day in the desert where water is definitely scarce, ritualizing the bathing activity ensured that everyone within the family-nation kept hygienically clean. But, the ritual of water immersion itself serves a great civil-religious purpose, that of addressing ritual-purity to be in body-mind sanctified. Emissions from the body symbolic mimic the dying process and ritual bathing symbolically mimics the birthing process. In today’s world, in most countries, bathing is still a random as-truly-needed process, and the mikvah ritual has more of its ancient meaningful impact in these places. Yet, in most modern countries, where baths regularly take place near or always daily, this water immersion ritual has to be elevated into a religious-focused act, lest we forget about it, separated from the normal bathing process that regularly happens. This is where intent through ritualized action and a man-made or, preferably, nature-made mikvah comes together.
In Jewish tradition we mark the personal life cycles of time, in as much as we mark the communal daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, and yearly cycles of time. Because our Jewish lifestyle is based in family-community civil-ritual tradition, we identify the Jewish birth of every child within the family-nation, the coming of age ceremony for children, especially males, and the death of every Jewish adult within the community. We do this because being Jewish is as much about our ethnic communal way-of-life as it is about our civil-religious ritual practices. So much so, that to this day we carry the ancient practice of identifying Jews who are Jews by birth, as was done in ancient times. This act serves two purposes, one of determining inheritance rights of family line wealth, whatever this may be and, more importantly, to ensure that the in-service-to-G!D through observance of the obligatory family-nation mitsvot continues through the next generation in the family line. During the Roman occupation of Israel, the traditional Jewish approach to determining rights to inheritance and, by greater extension, who is legally a Jew of the family-nation of Israel fell into crisis because of the imposed Roman laws governing the distribution of family wealth. As a result, for survival of Jewish family continuity, the Rabbinic ruling governing who is considered Jewish by birth changed out of necessity from being determined based on the father’s lineage to being based on a mother’s state of Jewishness. The Jewish communities that did not align with Rabbinic Judaism to this day still base being born Jewish on the father’s parentage. Since around the mid 1970’s C.E., crisis over who is Jew by birth has arisen again, leading to the more liberal communities to make halakhic ruling acknowledging a child’s born Jewish status with at least one of either parent being Jewish. But, this issue is a contentious sore spot of discussion that is occurring within Jewish tradition, basically because it is causing children and adults born and raised in Jewish civil-ritual tradition within a community whose parents do not meet the community’s halakhah on parentage to be deemed not Jewish and needing to be put through the acceptance into the community rituals that a person not of Jewish tradition but wanting to be must go through, just to be legally Jewish per the halakhah of the community. This modern crisis is occurring from the increase of born and adopted Jews marrying non-Jews, as was in the days of Torah, but in a way that is significantly different than in ancient times. In ancient times, the Jews marrying non-Jews into the community of Israel were Jewish men marrying non-Jewish women, and did so with the non-Jewish woman understanding that she must now adopt and accept the traditional civil-religious Jewish way-of-life in place of the civil-religious tradition she grew up in. In today’s times, with either Jewish man or woman marrying outside of the Jewish community at large, the issue of Jewish born children is more complicated and divisive an issue.
The Torah passage used since the destruction of the second temple to determine the halakhah on who is born Jewish states that Israelites will not intermarry specifically with Canaanites, though we are given allowance on intermarriage with other nations (D’varim 7.3-4 “do not give-away to them (marry with them, the Canaanites), your daughter do not give to their son and their daughter do not take for your son, (they) will turn-away your son from after me (service to G-d and, by default, Israel) and (he will) serve other gods”). By Talmudic interpretation of this negative mitsvah, this equates to if the mother in the marriage isn’t Jewish then the children are not either, regardless how Jewishly they have been raised all their life. Hence, the modern struggle occurring over the acceptance of that ruling and its validity in this quickly changing modern age. There is a different way to look at this, which better aligns with Torah and its mitsvah intent. The interpretation is an obvious one, that of the Torah never being concerned of the non-Jewish woman turning away the child born between her and the Jewish father, because this child IS Jewish. The “they” in the passage above refers specifically to the Canaanite families and their ways. At the moment, no community has written a psak din on this yet that is acceptable to all the communities. But, just because you find yourself legally not accepted as Jewish by a community due to the community’s halakhah on what is a Jew by birth or by acceptance, if you are fulfilling the Torah mitsvot and living the Jewish civil-religious way-of-life faithfully, then you fit the category of a traditionally observant Jew. Only catch is, until tradition at large resolves this, you’ll have to follow the halakhah of the community you are in or wish to be a part of, even if it means they legally can’t declare you a Jew, until there is resolution on this status issue, or find a community whose halakhah already recognizes your Jewishness or, if you are unable to find a proper blend of both preferred-by-you community and halakhah acceptance of your Jewishness, you’ll have to wait patiently on the independent outskirts for awhile until a greater consensus is made on this halakhic issue while following the halakhah and minhag in the manner of the community that most suits you.
As far as Torah is concerned, born into Jewishness with its Torah mandatory family-nation mitsvot or adoption (literally, bought) into Jewishness with its Torah mandatory family-nation mitsvot (includes marriage of non-Jews) is what defines who is a Jew by family ties under the covenant (B’reishit 17.20-23 “and, for Yishmael, I (G-d) have heard you, here, I will bless him and he will bear-fruit (have children) and I will increase him very-much (in family numbers), twelve exalted-ones (tribal leaders) he will bear-forth, and I will make him into a great nation, and my covenant I will rise-near (establish) with Yitschak, whom Sarah will bear-forth for you in set-time in this next year … Avraham took Yishmael his son and all (sons) born in his house and all (sons) he money-bought, every male among men of Avraham’s house(hold) (extended family), and cut-off the flesh of their foreskins in this-same day”). By default, because women do not have penile foreskin, they are automatically Jewish by marriage (by dowry) and by birth or adoption into the family of a Jewish male, as far as Torah is concerned on this matter. Unless, the Canaanite tribe happens to still exist and one can prove marriage to and offspring from a Canaanite, then those born of patriarchal or matriarchal parental descent are Jewish. Now, with this said about Torah patriarchal decent and with the additional halakhic ruling of matriarchal decent that Torah allows an assembly of Rabbis to make (D’varim 16.18 “judges and officials make for yourselves in all your gates (communities) … they will govern the people (with) equitable justice”), any children born of a family where there is at least one parent who is Jewish, whether male or female, these children are Jewish by birth, even if not recognized by certain community movements within Klal Yisrael, and it is the responsibility of the Jewish communities to raise them Jewishly, not treat them as non-Jewish until certified by a community beit din of Rabbis. This is not a mamzer situation, births from Torah forbidden sex, and should not take on the characteristics of such. The goal of Torah is a family-nation of Jews that are behaving Jewishly by fulfilling Torah mitsvot.