What if Jason Bourne was really called “Joshua Bornstein”?
I’ve haven’t yet met a Joshua Bornstein. (I haven’t yet met a Jason Bourne either….but the former is more likely to happen then the later). So any connection to a real person of that name is pure coincidence.
I like toying with the idea of becoming a Jason Bourne. A Jewish one though. The Jewish one will be non-violent and an outstanding up-keeper of the Law. But an absolute whiz on disappearing and going off-the-grid. The though of making a complete break from the past and starting again afresh with a new name, new passport, new location and new life has its appeal. You can dispose of all your errors, your overdraft, your strange relatives and weird neighbors. It even sounds like real fun at first glance (until I remember that Jason B. has no spouse, no kids, no family, no home and no real friends either).
There’s a whole sub-genre of literature which has popped up over the years on how to disappear. I’ve read a book by the former British SAS soldier, Barry Davies. It’s called ” Soldier of Fortune Guide to How to Disappear and Never Be Found”. It’s a fascinating book, and a bit worrisome. He deals with many aspects of disappearing including the WHY’s of disappearing, acquiring documents, planning the escape, cover stories before you leave, places to go and survival skills for living off-the-grid.
So what about a Jewish Jason Bourne? Is there any difference between disappearing as a Jason or as a Joshua? Does a Jew have any distinct links to his previous identity which make it more complex to disappear?
I’ll start first with the WHY. There are some good and valid reasons for a Jew to want to disappear from their past identity. One can have witnessed a major crime and be given a new identity under the US Witness Protection Program. One can be a victim of abuse and violence and need to disappear to save their life or the lives of their children. In cases such as these the Torah allows and even encourages a person to do anything to protect their life including transgressing all the Jewish Laws and Traditions (with 3 notable exceptions – Murder, Sexual crimes and Idolatry). Changing your name and identity goes without saying.
In cases when it’s not for security reasons but rather to start over again with a new life in a new location for convenience, then changing one’s identity, or more specifically one’s Jewish name and identity, is more problematic.
It’s very common to have 2 names, a Jewish name which you get at birth (or circumcision) and a secular name which you use for most of your life. For some people having a name like Mordechai or Bracha makes them less comfortable when dealing the broad world than names like Morton and Beth. I can understand that. Nevertheless when they get an Aliya to the Torah on the Sabbath or when the Rabbi fills in their marriage document (Ketuba), the Jewish name comes into play.
Lets say one decided on a new identity. Changing your secular name has very little religious ramification. But in order to make a complete break from the past you’ll need to change your Jewish name too. And if your father had an uncommon Jewish name you’ll need to change that too so that if you get an Aliya on Shabbat you won’t be identified by an old neighbor who decided to visit Malaysia on his vacation and just happened to pop into the local synagogue to say Kaddish. If you’re a Kohen or Levi you’ll have to skip that fact too when you get called up to the Torah.
BTW On the topic of deleting the fact you’re a Kohen, it reminds me of a real case. I knew a guy who’s last name was Cohen and he’d be called up first to the Torah as a Kohen. One day he discovered that his grandfather wasn’t a Kohen but had been adopted during wartime into a Kohen family. This guy was the first in 2 generations to become religious so the issue of Priestly status wasn’t discussed till then. When he discovered to his shock that he wasn’t really a Kohen, he could no longer get 1st Aliya and couldn’t do the Priestly blessing anymore. Very uncomfortable social experience…
So lets say you change your Jewish name to fit with the new identity and somehow you manage in the synagogue with the new name, nevertheless when you want to get married, you’ll have a problem. If the Rabbi writes in your marriage document your new Jewish name and that’s the name you’ve gone by for some time, it might be (and I emphasize might) “De facto” alright. The bigger problem is presenting a false Jewish name for your father. That will probably invalidate your marriage document because it isn’t his name at all.
In addition, the Jewish tradition emphasizes that one’s Jewish name is the essence of their soul. In Hebrew the word “soul” is Neshama (נשמה) and the word “name” is Shem (שם). The Hebrew letters from Shem are the 2 middle letters of Neshama, hinting that your name is your core essence. The Rabbi’s are very hesitant about changing one’s Jewish name without a very valid reason. It’s like re-engineering your spiritual DNA. Who knows what the end results will be…
So if you decide one day to do a Jason Bourne to ensure the safety and security of yourself and family, then I wish you well and much success in your new life. But if you go off-the-grid just because you want to make a fresh start in life, then when you go to pick up your new Venezuelan passport with your new name, I strongly suggest you keep up your original Jewish identity. It makes things simpler and spiritually healthier in the long run.