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Children of intermarriages

Historically, since the Rabbinic period (post 70 CE), Jewish status was passed down by the mother. This is known as matrilineality. A child of a Jewish mother is Jewish, even if the father is not. Prior to this period, the Bible recognized patrilineal descent, whereby one’s Jewish status was determined by one’s father.

In 1983, the organized Reform Jewish Movement adopted the principal of patrilineal descent. This is a bit of a misnomer. Reform Judaism considers a child of an interfaith couple to be Jewish if one parent is Jewish and the child is raised as a Jew and receives a Jewish education and celebrates appropriate life cycle events, such as receiving a Hebrew name and becoming bar or bat mitzvah. This also assumes that the child is being raised exclusively as a Jew and not practicing another religion.

What is the Reform position on officiating at the wedding of a Jew to a person brought up in a different faith? My fiancée is not Jewish, and doesn't want to convert at this time. We want a Jewish wedding, and plan to raise our children as Jews.

One of the most important steps in planning a Jewish wedding is finding a rabbi or cantor to officiate at the ceremony. When it comes to officiation at weddings between two people who are not both brought in the Jewish tradition, you will find a variety of opinions and practices. Reform Rabbis belong to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). The CCAR allows for autonomy in such matters and each rabbi interprets Jewish tradition according to his or her own understanding. Some Reform clergy reach the decision, after much study that a greater good is served by officiating at interfaith weddings. Most clergy do so with certain standards. Often they require that the couple take an Introduction to Judaism class and commit to creating a Jewish home, and if they have children, raising them in the Jewish faith.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Mark Washofsky
Parent holding the hand of an infant

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.

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
Parent holding the hand of an infant

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
A baby

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 Leora Kaye

There are many opportunities to share in the beauty of different faith traditions that may exist within one family. There is no reason why sharing your in-laws traditions would end up being confusing to your daughter. It is, in fact, an opportunity to teach her the Jewish ideal about the love of family and how wonderful healthy relationships with family can be when honored from both sides. Writes Rabbi Don Rossoff, "Just as Christians can share in a Passover seder with the Jewish side of the family without it being their holiday, Jews can share in Christmas with the Christian side of the family without it being their holiday."

Another analogy which is often used in this scenario is to talk about it the way we explain someone else’s birthday. Just because it isn’t your birthday, there is no reason not to celebrate someone else’s special day with them - and we hope there will be chances for them to share and celebrate with us, either for a birthday, or perhaps for a Jewish holiday allowing you to teach them as well.


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