Halacha Unplugged, Part 1 – The Bris: Which Parent Makes a Child Jewish?

Roman Jews

Is it the spirit of the law or the letter of the law that counts the most?

“Your kids aren’t Jewish because your wife is not Jewish,” my friend said to me over coffee recently. I laughed so hard that my coffee spilled. “What’s so funny?” she asked.

“I know that you totally did not mean for that to come across as offensive.” I said, “But that is EXACTLY the kind of thing that we are trying to teach people not to say. InterfaithFamily wants to help build welcoming and inclusive Jewish communities and saying something like what you just said, for many people, is offensive.”

There are many times in one’s life that a person might find himself doing something without asking the question, “Why am I doing this?” One of the most divisive rabbinic rulings that is adhered to by various Jewish movements is that the religion of a baby is determined by the religion of the mother, not the father. So if a person is intermarried (as over 50 percent of the American Jewish population is), and they want their child to be recognized as Jewish to people within these movements, according to halacha—traditional Jewish law—it is the religion of the mother that “matters.”  There are other views, such as the Reform movement, that recognizes a child as being Jewish if either parent is Jewish and the child is being raised Jewish (often referred to as patrilineal descent).

One of the most interesting aspects of the origin of religious descent is that originally in the Torah (the centerpiece and master story of the Jewish people), the religion of the offspring was determined by patriarchal descent, not matriarchal. There was a change around 2,000 years ago, many scholars found, that was based on the very tragic circumstances the Jewish people were facing. Jews were being wiped out by the Roman Empire in the 1st Century. The victimization and rape of Jewish women by Roman soldiers was not an uncommon occurrence.

There was no genetic testing back then, of course, and since the Jewish people were facing extinction, the rabbis rightfully decreed that the only parental origin that “mattered” for determining the religion of the baby was the religion of the mother. This law, which is still practiced by many Jewish communities today, had a very practical design.

But as Bob Dylan would say, “The times they are a-changin’.” It is true that there is still horrific “ethnic cleansing” that goes on around the world, such as in Bosnia and Darfur. But the problem that Jews were facing 2,000 years ago is, thankfully, no longer a common occurrence or threat. The law that once was helpful is no longer necessary.

When my son was born, my wife and I decided to have a bris and our search began to find a mohel that was willing to perform this ritual ceremony on a child from an interfaith marriage. At that time, f the mother was Jewish, it was much easier. Because I was the Jewish parent, many of the mohels we spoke to would only perform the ceremony if my wife and son wen to the mikveh together. “So what’s the big deal?” I ignorantly asked. “It will be fun to go to the mikveh.” Sounded simple enough from an unaware Jewish dad’s perspective. (By the way, if you are looking for clergy to help with a birth ceremony for your interfaith family, we are here to help—just visit interfaithfamily.com/findarabbi.)

My wife was not too excited about this idea. Her initial reaction was, “Who are we trying to please?” or in other words “Why?”

Our kids are brought up Jewish in a Jewish house with mezuzahs on the doors. They attend Hebrew school and we celebrate Shabbat in our own meaningful way. And to us, right now, that is enough.

If you have questions about a bris or baby naming for an interfaith family, check out our baby naming booklet that you might find helpful. And please send me your stories (josht@interfaithfamily.com), I would love to hear about your experiences as I continue this series of Halachah Unplugged.

Getting a Hebrew Name

As our booklet on baby girl naming ceremonies explains, names are the beginning of identity formation. Choosing your baby’s name helps to shape the kind of person you are hoping the baby will become. By selecting a Hebrew name, you connect your child to the generations that precede him or her, a community and a system of values. The Ashkenazi (Jews descended from Eastern Europe) have a tradition of naming a baby after a parent or grandparent who has died. This custom dates back to the 6th century B.C.E and naming children after their families’ ancestors remains the custom today.

Sephardic Jews (descendants of Spain and Portugal) often name their children after relatives that are alive. Because most American Jews are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews, parents often name their children after a family member who has died. Stories about the remembered relative bring a powerful emotional connection to the past and link to your hope for the future.

Some couples choose to have their sons circumcised in the hospital and opt for a Hebrew name ceremony later. Others choose to have a bris (brit milah: ritual circumcision) at eight days old during which the baby will be given his Hebrew name (even if the mother is not Jewish, if a couple wants to keep this ancient Jewish tradition and intends for their to child to be raised with Judaism, Reform mohelim—doctors with special training to perform a bris—will come to the home to perform the circumcision). Others choose not to circumcise and to have a naming ceremony later. For girls, parents often want to hold a ceremony to give her a Hebrew name.

Sometimes couples go back to the rabbi who married them to create a naming ceremony with them. Sometimes couples have found a synagogue and want the naming to take place in this community. However couples decide to publically “give” their child their Hebrew name, this can be a very special time for the family. For interfaith couples, it can be a time when the parents talk about the religious decisions they have made and to celebrate the arrival of their child and the sacred task of parenting.

Even though many couples have the naming ceremony when their baby is young, others hold the ceremony at the first birthday or another time. It is never too late to meet with Jewish clergy (a rabbi or cantor) to select a Hebrew name for a child.

Baby naming

Ari, right, with the Vickermans

Here are Nora Vickerman’s words which she spoke at the recent naming ceremony we had for her daughter, Chloe. What joy it was for me to have stood with this couple under the chuppah at their wedding and then to be able to bless their baby.

Chloe was born of parents who have a deep love for one another, a joy in our traditions and a commitment to Chloe, our daughter, to share and blend together as a family the beauty of both of our traditions. It is with this shared sense of commitment to all that is good and to all that is beautiful in our religions that we are here today to celebrate with our friends and with our family the first of many of our family traditions.

The naming of a Jewish child is a most profound spiritual moment. The sages said that naming a baby is a statement of her character, her specialness, and her path in life. For at the beginning of life, we give our child a name, and at the end of life, a “good name” is all we take with us. It is also the Jewish custom to name your child after a relative who has passed away. It is a great honor, keeping the name and memory of a deceased loved one forever alive, and in a metaphysical way, forms the bond between the soul of the baby and the relatives that she will be named for. My Jewish tradition calls for the naming of a baby with an English name as well as a Hebrew name, or names. Matt and I want our daughter to share in the richness of her heritage.

Chloe Rose shares a connection to her great grandfather Charles and hence her first name Chloe. Matt and I immediately knew that this would be her first name. My great grandfather came to this country from Russia. He brought with him the drive to succeed in a new land as well as a commitment to his Jewish religion and his love for tradition. He is honored in a book that described the History of the Jewish people in Beckley, West Virginia. He helped to establish the first Reform synagogue in the city. His courage, strength, and commitment to tradition and family are the traits that we wish for our Chloe. Her second English name is Rose. We also loved that name. She was given the name Rose to honor my great Aunt Roselyn, my great grandmothers’ oldest sister. She was a kind, intelligent, and beautiful lady who believed in the goodness of giving of oneself and to charity. The name Roselyn means a beautiful rose befitting our beautiful daughter.

Matt and I chose Chloe’s first Hebrew name to express our love for two family members who are no longer with us. We chose the Hebrew name Shira, when translated means song and light. How appropriate for our Chloe. She discovered the joy of song very early and has sung her sweet songs ever since the age of three months. And as you all may know Chloe is the light of our life. The S letter in Shira honors Matt’s grandfather Samuel, and the Hebrew letter Shin in Shira honors my mother’s mother Shirley, may their memories shine forever. May our beautiful daughter Chloe know that she will forever be connected in love to them as well as connected by family tradition. Chloe’s second Hebrew name is Yehudeet- a woman of great strength and fortitude (or in English, Judith). Yehudeet was given after my father’s father, Jacques. Our hope for Chloe is that as she grows she will always have the strength and conviction to do what is just and what is right throughout her life.

If you would like to connect with a rabbi or cantor to hold a naming ceremony, please fill out this short form and we will be in touch shortly.

Moms and Membership

Moms

I recently had the honor of meeting five women who are due with their first babies in the fall (one brought her four week old). While none of them grew up Jewish, they are married to Jews and they want to create a home with Judaism (traditions, holidays, values) for their growing families. They all felt that their spouses did not have the literacy or resolve to accomplish this goal alone. They are seeking fellowship among other women in the same boat, and they are eager for their own Jewish learning and for ways into Jewish communal life.

Sitting with these women reminded me of a core truth of the work we do: Intermarriage is not the end of Judaism. Intermarriage does not mean the Jew is abandoning Judaism. Partners who aren’t Jewish are often open and ready to take on aspects of Jewish living, even though the learning curve is often so darn steep.

One of the moms-to-be said that they are ready to join a synagogue but that she “heard” the membership dues were $3,000. Someone else chimed in that there must be a lower rate for a new family or first time members. The first mom seemed hesitant to call the synagogue to find out.

On the High Holidays, synagogues will be filled with non-members. This is not a great term. InterfaithFamily suggests trying to avoid “non” in any kind of description about someone. We advocate saying “not Jewish” verses “non-Jew.” The people who are not dues paying members may be friends and family of members or they may have no connection to the congregation other than they bought a ticket. How can we tell all of these people that they already “belong?”

One idea is to have members say aloud the following words and to write them on literature that is handed out and on the homepage of every synagogue website: If you are interested in learning more about this open and warm community, please call (give the name and title of the membership person with his or her direct line and email). It is helpful to have a real person to call rather than have to search a website for membership information which is anonymous. We want our words to reflect a sentiment of welcome. If I were writing something, I would say:

If you are on this website looking for information about a place to come for Shabbat, to celebrate holidays, for classes and religious school, to meet friends or to do social justice work, join us. If you want to build a relationship with clergy who care about you, join us. Joining us isn’t about writing a check. It is about showing up when you want inspiration and fellowship, support and grounding. Whether you grew up with Judaism or not, whether you want introductory classes or higher level learning, whether you can read Hebrew or have never been to a synagogue, join us. We are a diverse group and this gives us strength and purpose. All are welcome. You can help support our congregational efforts at every level and means of giving.

I know there are lots of people studying new dues structures. This is not about a dues structure–fee for service, voluntary donations, etc. This is about the feeling of what it means to be a “member.”

Each of these five women and the new faces in synagogues over the next few weeks will make great synagogue members.

Baby Blessings

My weekend was full of babies – and beautiful ways to welcome them into the world.

Saturday started off with a baby naming ceremony for my cousin’s daughter. My cousin is in an interfaith marriage, and they are raising their children Jewish. When it was time for her aliyah (the honor of being called to say the blessing over the Torah reading), the rabbi invited the whole family up, even getting a chair for the new big brother to stand on so he could see the Torah and be part of what was going on. The whole congregation seemed to share in the joy as we welcomed this family and their adorable little girl into the community.

Bracelets for Indian Baby CeremonyLater that afternoon, I attended a “baby blessing” party for a friend of mine who is due in July. Neither she nor her husband is Jewish, but they invited all of the guests to share a blessing, poem or song in honor of the parents-to-be and their baby. The husband’s family is from India so they actually incorporated part of a traditional Indian baby blessing ceremony into the afternoon. The women were invited to paint my friend’s cheeks with sandalwood and her forehead with vermilion. We placed bracelets on her arms and the baby is supposed to be able to hear the clinking sound of the bracelets in the womb. We offered words or songs of blessing for the new parents and for a safe birth.

When I was trying to figure out what words I could offer, I looked at some of InterfaithFamily’s materials, including our Brit Bat booklet. There I found a familiar prayer—the Shehekhiyanu—said whenever you experience something new or do something for the first time. This was the perfect blessing for me to say in honor of all the friends and family that were gathered for the ceremony and in honor of my friends’ first born! I was glad to be able to offer something from my Jewish tradition that could resonate with everyone there.

The day was another reminder to me of the beauty of Judaism and the ways it can help us add meaning and joy to the special moments of our life.