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Brit Milah and Baby Naming

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

Although there is no prohibition against baby showers, traditionally, Jews do not have them prior to the birth of a child. Some couples do not buy any baby items or set up the nursery until the child is born. There is no religious basis for this custom, which is rooted in superstition. Nonetheless, it is a prevalent custom in the Jewish community.

The custom stems from the idea that drawing attention to a happy occasion also draws the attention of evil spirits. This custom also may hearken back to a time when infant mortality was a concern. Though it is much less an issue today, and most people are not overly superstitious, many Jews still shy away from lavish showers, preferring instead to buy only what they need to prepare, or to order items ahead of time that will be delivered only after the baby is born.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Mark Washofsky

Is it the policy that men must be circumcised prior to conversion? My 8-year old son wasn't circumcised. My husband is Jewish, I'm not. I would prefer for him to make his own decision when he is older, or when it can be done with a local anesthetic.

Jewish law prescribes several rites for conversion. A male proselyte is circumcised, and both male and female proselytes immerse in a mikveh (a ritual pool) or other suitable body of water. If the male was already circumcised before his conversion, a drop of blood is taken from the spot that was once covered by his foreskin. This procedure is known as hatafat dam b'rit.

Reform rabbis generally encourage men converting to Judaism to undergo circumcision.Conversion is not simply a choice of a new belief system, but a decision to join a historical community that defines itself in ethnic and national as well as religious terms. Circumcision is the eternal sign of the covenant (b’rit) between God and the descendants of Abraham. However, circumcision does not create Jewish identity. A boy who is born Jewish is a Jew, even if his parents do not have him circumcised during infancy. While we would encourage him to become circumcised upon reach religious majority, we treat him as fully Jewish with respect to bar mitzvah and other community rites.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Don Rossoff

Can a child who was circumcised in the hospital but has not had an actual bris be considered a Jew? My husband and I are an interfaith family and we are not sure what to do with our baby.

"Bris" comes from the word covenant. At a bris, the boy is brought into the covenant between God and the Jewish people, in fulfillment of the command given by God to Abraham:

"On your part, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your children after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be sign of the covenant between Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations…" Genesis 17:9-12.

The circumcision is a sign of the covenant, a "membership badge," if you will. As a member of the covenant community, the boy is given a Hebrew name, linking him to his Jewish family and to Jewish history.

If your child has not yet been born, then I would recommend doing a bris on the eighth day. Having said that, I have learned that in intermarried situations, this can be touchy, since the whole thing is so foreign. "You are going to invite all your friends, cut off his WHAT, and then serve BAGELS??!!??" If it is not your tradition, it does seem bizarre. If this is the case, my recommendation is to focus on the religious part of the bris ceremony (circumcision and naming) and downplay the social aspect. There are some traditional mohels (ritual circumciser) who would perform this ceremony for you. If it is your husand and not you who is Jewish, they would consider the circumcision as part of a conversion of a non-Jewish boy. And, depending on your location, in many communities throughout North America there are also Reform mohels who would consider the child a Jew.

On the other hand, if the child has already been circumcised, then I believe most Reform rabbis would recommend doing a ceremony bringing the child into the covenant and giving him a Hebrew name.
By the way, when a girl is born, we do a bris as well, a ceremony in which she is brought into the covenant community and given a Hebrew name. (No, nothing is cut off ). The ceremony which I do uses the Shabbat as her sign of the covenant, so we begin the ceremony by lighting Shabbat candles.

For further information and sample ceremonies, I would recommend picking up some or all of these books:

  • The Jewish Home by Daniel Syme (UAHC) - an easily accessible guide to Jewish life cycle events, holidays, and home observances written from a Reform perspective.
  • On the Doorposts published by CCAR, a wonderful guide to home observance which includes naming ceremonies.
  • The New Jewish Baby Book: Names, Ceremonies and Customs: A Guide for Today's Families by Anita Diamant, published by Jewish Lights.
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Answer By: 
Rabbi Don Rossoff

Honestly, no. What I mean by this is that if you are going to be truly honest with yourself, then, on many levels, you cannot have both a christening and a bris/naming.

Why do I say it this way? Because as nice as it would be for intermarried parents to be able to "cover both bases," not have to make any big decisions just yet, and provide something for all of the grandparents, having a child brought into the body of the Church in Jesus as well made part of the Covenant Community of the Jewish People is not being honest to either tradition. (The word "bris" actually means "covenant.")

I cannot speak for my colleagues in the Christian clergy, but I know that most Reform Rabbis will not participate in a bris/naming if the child has been or will be christened.

As "exclusionary" as this sounds, this position is based on common sense, respect for the integrity of both Judaism and Christianity as religions with particular and distinct messages as well as what has been found through years of experience as being in the ultimate best interest of the child.
Religiously speaking, children need to know who they are. They need to have a solid, unambiguous faith identity which gives them a place in the world, a spiritual tradition through which to experience the important times of life and a community of meaning, not just to know about, but to be a part of and to feel at home in. This means that, when it comes to religion, one is better than none and better than two.

This sounds tough, especially when parents have strong feelings of connection with their own faiths and faith communities. (And then, of course, grandparents often add their own hopes and values into the mix as well.) Both "sides" have their hopes and their primal feelings, some of which they were not aware of when they got married. Neither "side" wants to ask too much sacrifice from the other; both has a sense of what they can and can't live with. Plus, if the decision as to what will be the religion of the children has been put off, it is difficult to start this most emotion charged discussion when you are still in the hospital nursery.

What about exposing children to both traditions and then letting them choose? Since interfaith marriages have been with us for some time, there have been studies done on children raised in two traditions. (In addition, I have had discussions with many people so raised.) With few exceptions, the results indicate that it is not a good idea to raise a child in two traditions; and in some cases, it is actually cruel.

Many "dual-religion" children (some, now adults) express a great deal of anger at their parents for not having made a decision and for putting them in the middle of an issue that the parents themselves could not resolve. When a person has to choose one religion over the other, it is almost never a theoretical consideration. However evenhandedly it is presented, there is the unconscious or conscious sense that one is choosing one parent over another. (One of my ten year old daughter's friends put it this way, "When I do the Jewish stuff, my Dad gets upset. And when I do the Christian stuff, Mom gets angry.")

Children need and deserve the best from their parents. This often entails making sacrifices when it is clear that the needs and desires of the parents have to become secondary to the real needs of the children. In this spirit, (and here I may differ from some of my colleagues) I have told many couples trying to decide about the religion of their children, that if the Christian parent feels stronger about their religion than does the Jewish member, then they should raise their children as positive, affirmative Christians. Why? Because it is better for the children themselves to have a solid unambiguous identity in one religion than to be given a hazy, partial, little bit of this, little bit of that sense of who they are. Our children deserve better from us.

Choosing one religion for the children does not mean being cut off from the religion of the extended family. One can celebrate holidays like Christmas and Passover WITH our extended family. It may not be OUR holiday, but we are celebrating their holiday with them just as they celebrate our holidays with us. No, it is not easy to be the "odd parent" out - the one whose children are being raised in the other religion. And yet, I have found that time, patience and knowledge are the best keys to being able to feel at home in the "home religion."

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Answer By: 
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis

We are expecting a child in a few weeks. We think it will be a girl. Is there an equivalent to the bris ceremony for boys? We want to do something to welcome her and give her a Hebrew name.

Traditionally, a brit milah is the ceremony whereby a Jewish boy is brought into the covenant. For a girl, there was a naming which took place in the synagogue, usually done by the father or grandfather coming to the synagogue and having a blessing said on behalf of the baby, who usually wasn't present. There have been attempts in various times and places to create something more ceremonious for girls, but it wasn't until the advent of the women's movement in the 1970's that there has been a general interest in such things. Today, it is quite common to have a naming ceremony for a girl, although the form it takes varies from community to community and even from family to family.

The Reform Rabbi's Manual contains a naming ceremony for girls which has all the same blessings and reading for a girl as for a boy, minus the blessing of milah itself. Some people like to have some kind of physical ritual for a girl that would in some way be analogous to the milah. One idea is to have a miniature mikveh for the girl, as her sign of entering the covenant. Others just go with a naming ceremony without any physical manifestations. Such ceremonies usually include blessings by the mother thanking God for a safe delivery, by the parents thanking God for a healthy child, and asking for help in raising the child, pledging to raise her Jewishly. Other family members may give blessings or say something, godparents may be honored with holding the baby, as in a brit milah, or may give a blessing. The child's name is announced, with some explanation of who she was named for or what the significance is of the name. The rabbi or officiant will bless the child, as in a brit milah, and then there is a party.

More simply, the child can be brought to synagogue on Shabbat and be named by the rabbi in front of the ark during services, which is a nice way of making this personal family event also a celebration for the community and a chance for the community to welcome the newest member into the Jewish community.

You can find out more about different kinds of naming ceremonies, for both boys and girls, in the following resources:

  • The Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant
     
  • Lifecycles by Rabbi Debra Orenstein
     
  • Jewish and Female by Susan Weidman Schneider
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Answer By: 
Rabbi Don Rossoff

If our baby is a little boy and we want to have him circumcised in the hospital can the ceremony of a bris still be held or would we have a baby naming?

A bris can most certainly be held in a hospital, though very few are these days. But remember that "bris" and circumcision are not synonymous. I'll explain:

"Bris" means "covenant." At a bris, the boy is brought into the covenant between God and the Jewish People, in fulfillment of the command given by God to Abraham:

"On your part, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants throughout their generations. This is My covenant which you shall keep between Me and you and your children after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised, every male throughout your generations...." - Genesis 17:9-12.

The circumcision is a sign of the covenant, a "membership badge" if you will. What we call the "bris" (Bris Milah - Covenant of Circumcision) is the religious ceremony in which the child is brought into the covenant community by means of the circumcision and the accompanying blessings, prayers which put the "medical" procedure into a religious context. Then, as a member of the covenant community, the boy is given a Hebrew name, linking him to his Jewish family and to Jewish history.

An authentic bris is done on the eighth day, as prescribed in the Torah. (One of the reasons for this which I like has to do with the child reliving the original 7 days of creation in which God was the creative force. Then, on the 8th day, human beings take initiative and "complete" God's creation.)

Doing the bris on the eighth day in the hospital involves going back into the hospital. Many people believe that hospitals and doctors are more sanitary and safer. Depending on where you live, if you have an experienced mohel (ritual circumcisor), then the likelihood is that a bris done in your home would be no less safe or sanitary than in a hospital. You may live in an area which is fortunate to have a "Reform mohel." Most of these are doctors or nurses who have been trained in the rituals of the bris.

Finally, my sense is that if a child has already been circumcised but has not had a bris, most Reform rabbis would still do a ceremony bringing the child into the covenant and giving him a Hebrew name.

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Answer By: 
Rabbi Stuart Federow

My husband and I are in the process of adopting an African American baby boy. We had him circumcised by a doctor -- as he was already 2 months old, my husband was concerned about safety. Must he really undergo a conversion ceremony to be Jewish?

Yes, he must undergo conversion to be Jewish. The reason is quite simply that the conversion ceremony is the "naturalization" ceremony that makes one a "citizen" of the People of Israel. Without it one would not be considered to be a Jew, in the same way that one who immigrates to the U.S. is not considered a citizen of the U.S., until he or she is naturalized. Similarly, you may get rights and privileges, palimony and the like, if you were not legally married to your husband, but without the legal marriage you would not be his wife.

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